Indian Affairs:

Better Management and Accountability Needed to Improve Indian Education

GAO-13-774: Published: Sep 24, 2013. Publicly Released: Sep 24, 2013.

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What GAO Found

Students in Bureau of Indian Education (BIE) schools perform consistently below Indian students in public schools on national and state assessments. For example, based on estimates from a 2011 study using national assessment data, in 4th grade, BIE students on average scored 22 points lower for reading and 14 points lower for math than Indian students attending public schools. The gap in scores is even wider when the average for BIE students is compared to the national average for non-Indian students. Additionally, the high school graduation rate for BIE students in 2011 was 61 percent, placing BIE in the bottom half among graduation rates for Indian students attending public schools in states where BIE schools are located.

BIE's administrative weaknesses have resulted in it experiencing difficulty assessing the academic progress of its students and adequate yearly progress (AYP) for its schools as required by federal law. Department of the Interior (Interior) regulations generally require BIE schools to administer the same academic assessments used by the 23 respective states where the schools are located. However, in the 2011-12 school year, at the direction of BIE officials, 21 schools did not administer their state assessment. These schools administered an alternative assessment that had not been approved for assessing AYP. BIE made this critical decision without the appropriate level of review at Interior or the Department of Education (Education) because it does not have procedures specifying who should be involved in making key decisions. Further, BIE did not provide its schools their AYP status for the 2011-12 school year prior to the start of the next school year, hindering school officials' ability to develop appropriate strategies to improve student performance. Unless BIE provides schools information that affects student instruction in a timely and consistent manner, it will be difficult for BIE to be well-positioned to improve student academic performance in the future.

Fragmented administrative services and a lack of clear roles for BIE and Indian Affairs' Office of the Deputy Assistant Secretary for Management (DAS-M)--that until July 2013 was responsible for BIE's administrative functions--contributed to delays in schools acquiring needed materials, such as textbooks. In July, Indian Affairs underwent a realignment, which assigned another office in Indian Affairs the responsibility for most of BIE's administrative functions. The realignment is intended to improve efficiency in delivering services to Indian Affairs stakeholders, including BIE schools. However, it is unclear to what extent, if at all, the changes will result in improved services for BIE schools. For example, Indian Affairs had not conducted a recent analysis before implementing the realignment to determine if it has the right people in place with the right skills doing the right jobs. Such workforce planning is critical given Indian Affairs' recent realignment and employee buy-out and early-out initiatives. Similarly, Indian Affairs has not developed a strategic plan with specific goals and measures for itself or BIE, or a strategy for communicating with stakeholders. Such a strategic workforce plan and performance measures could help improve operations and align the organization's human capital program with its current and emerging mission and programmatic goals.

Why GAO Did This Study

In 2012, the federal government provided over $850 million to 185 BIE schools that serve about 41,000 Indian students living on or near reservations. BIE is part of Indian Affairs within the Department of the Interior, and BIE's director is responsible for managing education functions at all BIE schools. BIE's mission is to provide quality education opportunities to Indian students.

GAO was asked to study the extent to which BIE is achieving its mission. GAO examined (1) how student performance at BIE schools compares to that of public school students; (2) what challenges, if any, BIE schools face assessing student performance; and (3) what management challenges, if any, affect BIE and its mission.

For this work, GAO reviewed agency documents and relevant federal laws and regulations; analyzed student assessment data from 2005-2011; and conducted site visits to BIE schools and nearby public schools in four states based on location, school and tribal size, and other factors.

What GAO Recommends

Among other things, GAO recommends that Indian Affairs develop and implement decision-making procedures and a communications protocol to ensure that BIE has effective management controls and comports with federal laws and regulations. To improve BIE's management of its schools, GAO also recommends that Indian Affairs develop a strategic plan that includes goals and measures for BIE and a revised strategic workforce plan. Interior concurred with all of our recommendations.

For more information, contact George A. Scott at (202) 512-7215 or scottg@gao.gov.

Recommendations for Executive Action

  1. Status: Open

    Comments: In late 2013, Indian Affairs indicated that it would review existing procedures and where necessary develop and implement new procedures for key decisions and document them in management directives, policies, and manuals. We will monitor these activities and close this recommendation when these actions have been completed.

    Recommendation: The Secretary of the Interior should direct the Assistant Secretary-Indian Affairs to develop and implement decision-making procedures for BIE that specify who should be involved in the decision-making process for key decisions that affect BIE and its schools to ensure that BIE has effective management controls, is accountable for the use of federal funds, and comports with federal laws and regulations. Such procedures should be clearly documented in management directives, administrative policies, or operating manuals.

    Agency Affected: Department of the Interior

  2. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: In September 2015, the Bureau of Indian Education (BIE) issued a final communication plan. The strategy identifies internal and external audiences for agency communications, including schools. It also describes several activities to communicate with these audiences, and the offices within Interior that would carry out those communication activities. Further, BIE took additional steps to improve communication in fiscal year 2015. For example, BIE hired a full-time employee dedicated to improving communication, including with schools and other stakeholders. Also, BIE updated its school directory and used various means of communication to share information with schools, including webinars, newsletters, and telephone conference calls.

    Recommendation: The Secretary of the Interior should direct the Assistant Secretary-Indian Affairs to develop a communication strategy for BIE to inform its schools and key stakeholders of critical developments that impact instruction in a timely and consistent manner to ensure that BIE school officials receive information that is important for the operation of their schools.

    Agency Affected: Department of the Interior

  3. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: In late July 2013, Interior appointed members to the BIE-Education committee. According to documents provided by Interior, the committee has held meetings on a quarterly basis.

    Recommendation: The Secretary of the Interior should direct the Assistant Secretary-Indian Affairs to appoint permanent members to the BIE-Education committee and ensure that the committee meets quarterly as required by the Memorandum of Understanding to improve collaboration between BIE and Education and address the challenges that Indian schools face in improving student performance.

    Agency Affected: Department of the Interior

  4. Status: Open

    Comments: According to Indian Affairs officials, development and implementation of a communications plan is not feasible at this time due to significant organizational changes.

    Recommendation: The Secretary of the Interior should direct the Assistant Secretary-Indian Affairs to develop a strategic plan that includes detailed goals and strategies for BIE and for those offices that support BIE's mission, including the Bureau of Indian Affairs, to help Indian Affairs effectively implement its realignment. Development of the strategic plan should incorporate feedback from BIE officials and other key stakeholders. To gather stakeholder input, we recommend that the plan include a comprehensive communications strategy to improve communication within Indian Affairs and between Indian Affairs and BIE staff.

    Agency Affected: Department of the Interior

  5. Status: Open

    Comments: To develop a strategic workforce plan, Indian Affairs awarded a contract in summer 2015, and the final plan from the contractor is expected in late summer 2016, according to Indian Affairs officials. GAO will monitor this effort to see whether it addresses this recommendation by including a focus on administrative support services for BIE schools, such as safety or facility management.

    Recommendation: The Secretary of the Interior should direct the Assistant Secretary-Indian Affairs to revise its strategic workforce plan to ensure that employees providing administrative support to BIE have the requisite knowledge and skills to help BIE achieve its mission and are placed in the appropriate offices to ensure that regions with a large number of BIE schools have sufficient support.

    Agency Affected: Department of the Interior

 

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