Anecdotes Don’t Make Good Policy: What We (Don’t) Know About Meeting The Needs of Formerly Incarcerated Students

Nationally, it’s estimated that nearly 66% of students who are released from juvenile court schools never return to local high schools. Many states are struggling to find strategies to intervene so that more justice-involved youth return to school after their incarceration. As with most thorny education policy challenges, the first question that smart leaders typically ask is “who’s doing this well?” and they go from there. What should they do when the answer is “no one”?

In 2015 I was appointed to the California Statewide Transitions Work Group, convened under AB2276 to make recommendations to the state legislature for policies to improve the educational experiences of youth returning to local schools after incarceration.  The report hasn’t yet been publicly released so I’m not in a position to share much about the substance of it – but as it winds its way through the state Department of Education’s approval and revision pathway, I’ve been reflecting on the lack of reliable data and information about justice-involved youth and how that impacts our ability to make good decisions.

This Work Group brought together law enforcement agency leaders, education providers, advocates, and the courts in an effort to uncover the reasons for the dismally small rate of successful reentry. And then to propose recommendations for improving those transitions.  Frankly, I expected a lot of boasting about what each of these groups are already doing and not a lot of talk about what they should be doing.

But this room was different. And I think it’s representative of what we’re seeing in this conversation across the country: not only were people quick to confess the problems they struggle with and the ways that they feel we’re failing kids, they were eager for a platform on which to do it.

Although the report has not yet been released by the state Department of Education, the Director of Coordinated Student Support Division recently presented the findings to the State Advisory Committee on Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention.

The findings of the group were as close to unanimous as I’ve ever seen. Everyone in the room reached very quick consensus on “the problems.” It’s the solutions that are much more elusive. And it’s not just that we couldn’t reach an agreement: none of the experts in the room could point to any local body successfully implementing single coherent strategy to help youth return to school after incarceration. Individual practices, yes. Isolated success stories, of course! But a full and complete vision and practice that could be replicated as a model program? No one’s ever seen it. And I think it’s even more important to understand that no one felt confident in the breadth of their knowledge. It’s an implicit acknowledgement that we have no collective body of knowledge that is accessible to practitioners, policy makers, or advocates.

I think this is a reflection of the broader conversation: no one knows enough. This isn’t just about California or about transitions back to the community. For youth who are educated in criminal justice spaces, there is no shared data, just an orthodoxy of anecdotes. Of approximately 2600 schools, we have a handful of success stories and cautionary tales that we all tell and retell: Maya Angelou Academy, Dozier, Santa Clara, Road to Success Academies, Missouri. If you’ve spent any time talking about juvenile justice, you’ve either heard these stories or you’ve told them yourself. But no matter how many times you turn those stories over, you’ll never find The Answer.

I have absolutely no doubt that there are education programs out there that are doing right by kids. I could tell you all about the ones I’ve seen! And I’m certain there are more. But no matter how many anecdotes I collect, the absence of a robust body of information about education programs for justice-involved youth is a systemic problem. It’s a policy problem and a decision-making problem.  And it’s the worst kind to have because it limits our ability to solve every other problem.

We all know where this is going and the question lurking around the corner should be obvious: what does it mean for one of these education programs to be “successful”? We haven’t even created a shared definition of success yet. It’s lowering recidivism, it’s raising student achievement, it’s creating paths to employment, it’s a welcoming school climate, it’s deep engagement, it’s increased college enrollment, it’s improved family relationships, it’s all of these, it’s something else. What are the real indicators of consistent and meaningful impact for justice-involved kids – and which stories are just nice to hear?

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