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New Federal Data Tool Reveals Widespread Disparities

By Nirvi Shah — June 30, 2011 3 min read
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The U.S. Department of Education says new data about thousands of schools and school districts show that students across the country don’t have equal access to a rigorous education.

Using information amassed about 72,000 schools in every district in the country with more than 3,000 students through the civil rights data collection, the department’s office of civil rights hopes to get a picture of how equitable schools are within a district and across states. (The data includes information for about half the nation’s school districts. The ones that aren’t included have fewer than 3,000 students.)

The picture isn’t pretty, said U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan.

“These data show that far too many students are still not getting access to the kinds of classes, resources and opportunities they need to be successful,” Duncan said in statement issued today to announce the availability of the data.

For example, within Boston public schools in Massachusetts, Charlestown High School, a magnet school with about 910 students, offers nine Advanced Placement courses. At Fenway High, also a magnet school but with only about 300 students, there are none. Fenway has three guidance counselors, while information about Charlestown shows it has 2.8.

Overall, the department found that 3,000 schools serving about 500,000 high school students don’t offer Algebra II classes and more than 2 million students in 7,300 schools didn’t have access to calculus courses.

At schools where the majority of students are African-American, teachers are twice as likely to have one or two years of experience compared to schools within the same district that have majority-white student body.

Other findings:

  • Less than one-fourth of school districts reported that they ran pre-K programs for children from poor families;
  • Girls are underrepresented in physics, while boys are underrepresented in Algebra II;
  • Just 2 percent of the students with disabilities were taking at least one advanced placement class; and
  • Students learning English make up 6 percent of the high school population but are 15 percent of students for whom algebra is the highest-level math course taken by the end of high school.

The data collection isn’t new, but information gathered from the 2009-10 school year is the most ambitious to date, adding about 10,000 schools over the last collection in 2006. In addition to enrollment figures and racial information about students, the office asked how many Advanced Placement courses high schools offer, how many students with disabilities are enrolled, and whether a particular school is a magnet, charter, or alternative school, or a school for special education students only. For the first time, districts were asked to report about students’ participation in algebra, college-preparatory offerings such as AP classes, and teacher experience. Collecting the data was part of a move to better enforce civil rights in schools

“Despite the best efforts of America’s educators to bring greater equity to our schools, too many children—especially low-income and minority children—are still denied the educational opportunities they need to succeed,” Assistant Secretary for Civil Rights Russlynn Ali said in a statement. “Transparency is the first step toward reform and for districts that want to do the right thing, the CRDC [Civil Rights Data Collection] is an incredible source of information that shows them where they can improve and how to get better.”

The department’s new data tool promises to be a boon to education researchers. Already, ProPublica, the independent nonprofit news service, has pulled together its own analysis of the data, published today.

More information gathered by the department may suggest even more striking disparities among schools and districts, but it won’t be available for several months. That additional information includes how many students a school doesn’t promote from one grade to the next, rates of teacher absenteeism, school funding, the use of restraints and seclusion with, and other information about student discipline.