An advocacy campaign is underway to close the 80 state-run youth prisons across the country and move young people into smaller local facilities. The Youth First Initiative has amassed a data set to – quite literally – put these 54,000 young people on the map. As a person who cares deeply about rethinking our criminal justice system, I support this work. But as an education policy leader, I’m at a loss. There is no data available that enable me to take an informed position about whether changing the way we house these young people will have a positive impact on the way that we educate them.
I can confidently tell you what my instinct says: facilities housing hundreds of kids in highly-restrictive spaces that are hundreds of miles away from their families is bad for academic outcomes. And you might take my word for it. But you shouldn’t because I don’t have any data to back that up. It’s within our capacity to base our decisions on more information – we simply don’t do it.
Consider two facilities: one is small and local, it operates out of a converted home and holds no more than 10 young people – all of who live within a 15-mile radius. Those kids all go to school together every day in a one-room-schoolhouse style classroom with a single teacher for all subjects every day. The other facility is large: it houses 100 kids and it’s about 30 miles from any major town. These young people live in small dorms but they eat their meals with the whole group and all of them attend an on-site school. They’re assigned to content classes based on their credit needs and academic level. Large student populations mean that schools can afford specialized programs connected to specific student needs. Of course, these are idealized extremes (and I don’t want to accidentally make the argument that inhumane facilities should continue to operate because there are economies of scale that make it possible to have a chemistry class). But if we can distill the question down to these two possibilities, which one is objectively better – in terms of academic achievement – for students?
My hypothesis is that it’s a wash, that academic outcomes in any of these spaces are far more dependent on the adults in the building and the work they do each day than on any structural factors. I think that good systems matter, but only insofar as there are people prepared, trained, and supported to make use of them. But my unconfirmed hypothesis shouldn’t guide policy making. We need solid evidence and we don’t have it. We can do better.
It’s not simply a matter of aggregating or analyzing a data set. Right now, there is no standardized data collection or reporting mechanism that tracks the academic progress of students in secure settings. None. They are typically exempt from state and federal statutes because they serve students on timelines that don’t conform to a conventional academic calendar. This is sometimes explicit in the law or it is a de facto result of the application of rules around what it takes for an individual student to be a statistically valid data point. Either way, most of these schools report out empty data sets, if they report at all.
The missing piece here isn’t a regulatory scheme and it isn’t a desire to know this information – we have both of those. It’s that we have no valid and reliable assessment tool designed to measure the things we care about for students in these schools. Even the best existing tools assume enrollment from September to June and only begin to provide meaningful information after three or four months. For young people who may arrive and leave at any point during the year and who are in their classes anywhere from a few weeks to several years, they’re useless.
In most of the country, the solution to this disconnect has been to exempt these schools from accountability expectations, and now we are suffering from the natural consequence of that decision. We need to develop better tools that measure the things that are meaningful for these students on a schedule that makes sense. And then we need to use them.
Once we have that information, we can begin to think deeply about what systems work best for these students and allow that to inform our policies. This isn’t an argument against closing youth prisons; it’s a plea for enough information for me to explain why we should and what should take their place.