Skip to main content

Indian Affairs: Better Management and Accountability Needed to Improve Indian Education

GAO-13-774 Published: Sep 24, 2013. Publicly Released: Sep 24, 2013.
Jump To:
Skip to Highlights


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.


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.

Recommendations for Executive Action

Agency Affected Recommendation Status
Department of the Interior 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.
Closed – Implemented
In August 2017, Bureau of Indian Education (BIE) officials stated that they developed decision-making procedures for BIE in consultation with staff from across the bureau, which they plan to incorporate into Indian Affairs' policy manual. Final approval was pending from the Office of Regulatory Affairs and Collaborative Action and the Office of the Assistant Secretary-Indian Affairs. In March 2018, Indian Affairs completed this effort, providing the final, published decision making procedures. The procedures identify, by position, BIE leaders whose involvement in the decision-making process is necessary and define roles and responsibilities of such individuals, among other areas.
Department of the Interior 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.
Closed – Implemented
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.
Department of the Interior 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.
Closed – Implemented
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.
Department of the Interior 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.
Closed – Implemented
In August 2017, Indian Affairs officials stated that the draft strategic plan for BIE developed by the agency several years ago did not address our recommendation. Officials told us they began holding strategic planning sessions in March 2017 and would continue through late September 2017. Indian Affairs drafted several key elements of its new strategic plan for BIE, including its mission, vision, values and goals; and began developing additional elements, such as milestones, measures, and specific action plans. Officials also noted that BIE reached out to external subject matter expert organizations, such as the Council of Chief State School Officers, in developing its strategic plan. In August 2018, BIE published its strategic plan. Over the course of developing the plan, BIE reported conducting several formal consultation sessions with tribes and incorporated the feedback they received from tribes, school boards, teachers, parents and other stakeholders in the final plan. The final plan provides the agency with goals and strategies for improving its management and oversight of Indian education, and establishes detailed actions and milestones for the implementation, including communicating and partnering with other Indian Affairs offices that provide administrative support to BIE schools, such as annual school safety inspections and assistance with facility needs.
Department of the Interior 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.
Closed – Implemented
Interior agreed with this recommendation. In February 2019, BIE drafted a strategic workforce plan and reported it was gathering feedback on the plan from various internal offices and will revise the plan accordingly. BIE officials indicated they are planning to finalize and implement the plan by the end of 2019. BIE developed the draft plan to also address another workforce plan recommendation in our November 2014 report. In July 2019, BIE finalized and published its workforce plan. The plan includes human capital information to help the bureau plan for an adequate number of staff with the requisite knowledge and skills and located in the appropriate offices to effectively oversee programs that provide administrative support to BIE schools, including in areas with large numbers of schools. For example, the plan identifies the required competencies and skills for staff in offices that administratively support schools, including BIE's recently established offices of safety and acquisitions. The plan also calculates the number of FTEs and work hours in these offices to effectively carry out their work. For example, the plan identifies the number of safety personnel and work hours to annually inspect all BIE schools for safety and provide them with the technical assistance they need to address identified safety issues. Additionally, the plan redistributes agency staff with education program expertise across 3 main offices that are responsible for supporting schools that are tribally-operated, bureau-operated, or located in the Navajo Region. Also, BIE's workforce plan includes information about the challenges these and other offices face in filling vacant positions and the measures the bureau is taking or considering taking to address them.

Full Report

GAO Contacts

Office of Public Affairs


Academic achievementEducation program evaluationEducational facilitiesFederal regulationsIndian landsInternal controlsNative American educationPublic schoolsSchool management and organizationSchoolsStrategic planningStudents