Student Well-Being

Disparities Continue to Plague U.S. Schools, Federal Data Show

By Evie Blad — June 07, 2016 9 min read
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New federal data show a continuing deep gulf between the educational experiences of traditionally disadvantaged student groups and their peers on a broad range of indicators, findings that follow years of efforts by government and advocacy groups to level the playing field in U.S. public schools.

Black and Latino students are still more likely to be suspended, more likely to attend schools with high concentrations of inexperienced teachers, and less likely to have access to rigorous and advanced coursework than their white peers, according to the data released today by the U.S. Department of Education’s office for civil rights.

“Our systemic failure to educate some groups of children as well as others tears at the moral fabric of the nation,” U.S. Secretary of Education John B. King Jr. said in a call with reporters. The data, which highlights disparities for students of color, students with disabilities, and English-language learners, shows that “we still fall far short” of the ideal of educational equity, he said.

The data also shows some bright spots, including a nearly 20 percent drop in out-of-school suspensions nationwide.

See Also

Civil Rights Data Collection: Inside the Information

The newest Civil Rights Data Collection—data on more than 50 million students collected from more than 99 percent of public schools and districts in the country during the 2013-14 school year—also includes, for the first time, information about education in correctional facilities, the presence of law-enforcement officers in schools, and national data on chronic absenteeism.

The Obama administration, known for a more aggressive approach to educational civil rights issues, has increased the data collection done by previous Education Departments, surveying nearly every school in the country every two years, rather than collecting a representative sample.

The Education Department released an analysis of key data points alongside the data Tuesday. Among its starkest findings:

• Black K-12 students are nearly four times more likely to receive an out-of-school suspension than white students, and students with disabilities are more than twice as likely to be suspended as their peers.

• Black students are more than twice as likely to be referred to law enforcement or arrested at school than their white peers.

• High schools with higher levels of black and Latino enrollment are less likely to offer calculus, physics, chemistry, and Algebra II.

New Federal Education Law

King pointed to the nation’s new education law, the Every Student Succeeds Act, as a possible remedy for some disparities in student access and treatment.

The law, which replaced the No Child Left Behind Act, may open the door for school districts and states to flag—and intervene in—individual schools with high rates of chronic absenteeism, low teacher engagement, or an unsupportive school climate. Under ESSA, states must create accountability systems that go beyond test scores and graduation rates and include at least one factor that gets at school quality or student supports.

King cited the civil rights data in support of the Education Department’s work to create regulations under ESSA. The Department has proposed requiring that districts’ per-pupil spending of state and local dollars in schools with large shares of low-income students be at least equal to the average per-pupil spending figure in wealthier schools. King said this requirement would ensure more and better opportunities for disadvantaged students. But critics say the plan is clear federal overreach, and could ultimately backfire.

“Some have suggested the Department of Education is pushing too hard or asking too much of states as they implement the law,” King said. “But, to be clear, we will not compromise away the civil right of all students to an excellent education.”

A New Look at Absenteeism

In the first-ever analysis of attendance in nearly every public school nationwide, more than 6.5 million students—13 percent of all students—missed 15 days or more of school in 2013-14. Another—and likely overlapping—6.5 million students attended a school where more than half of their teachers missed 10 days or more of school for reasons unrelated to school activities and professional development.

To put that in perspective, imagine if the 34 largest school districts in the country in 2013—including New York City and Los Angeles, Jefferson County, Ky., and the entire state of Hawaii—simply shut down for three weeks of the school year.

“When lots of kids are chronically absent, not just one or two, it puts the teacher in a no-win situation” of either starting every class with significant review or leaving students to catch up on their own, said Robert Balfanz, the director of the Everyone Graduates Center at Johns Hopkins University. In prior research, Balfanz has found chronic absenteeism is one of the strongest predictors that a student will eventually drop out of school.

For black, Latino, American Indian, and multiracial high school students, roughly 20 percent or more are chronically missing from class, civil rights data show. For Alaskan Native, Native Hawaiian, and Pacific Islander high school students, 25 percent or more missed at least 15 days of school.

In high school, 18 percent of all students and 20 percent of English-language learners are chronically absent.

King said the prevalence of chronic absenteeism, particularly for students of color, was “distressing.”

“I view this as an urgent call for action,” King said. “Even the best teacher can’t be successful with students who are not in class, so we have a lot of work to do with that.”

Classroom Experience

Even before ESSA’s passage in December, states had begun putting greater focus on access to advanced coursework. But the civil rights data show that there is still considerable work to do when it comes to ensuring that students of color are given a chance to enroll in those courses.

For instance, 33 percent of high schools with high black and Latino enrollment offer calculus, compared to 56 percent of high schools with low black and Latino enrollment. And 48 percent of high schools with high black and Latino enrollment offer physics, compared to 67 percent of high schools with low black and Latino enrollment.

The gaps were smaller—but still significant—for other courses. Sixty-five percent of high schools with high black and Latino enrollment offer chemistry, compared to 78 percent of high schools with low enrollment among those groups. And 71 percent of high schools with high black and Latino enrollment offer Algebra II, compared to 84 percent of the high schools that don’t enroll many of those students.

Those findings “suggest we have a long way to go to provide opportunities for students based on race,” said Michael Cohen, the president of Achieve, a Washington-based group that helps states bolster academic standards.

The unequal access for minority students extends to gifted education classes. Black and Latino students represent about 42 percent of student enrollment in schools offering such classes—but they make up only 28 percent of students enrolled in gifted courses, a disparity that remains largely unchanged since the last federal data release.

Access to trained and experienced teachers is also unequal.

Dozens of studies show that teachers with more experience tend, on average, to be more effective than novices.

Yet in 2013-14, black students were more than twice as likely to attend a school where more than 20 percent of teachers were brand new, compared to their white peers. In all, 11 percent of black students attended such schools and 9 percent of Latino students did, compared to 5 percent of white students.

In 2013-14, 3 percent of black students and 2 percent of Latino students attended schools where more than 20 percent of teachers hadn’t met all certification requirements.

Student Discipline Gaps

The Obama administration has pushed schools to rework discipline policies and practices with a specific focus on school suspensions.

The new civil rights data show a nearly 20 percent drop in the number of K-12 students who received at least one out-of-school suspension, but disparities persist. The Education Department’s data analyses did not indicate if any student groups had more significant declines in suspension rates than others.

While 6 percent of all K-12 students were suspended in 2013-14, the suspension rate was 18 percent for black boys, 10 percent for black girls, 5 percent for white boys, and 2 percent for white girls.

In 2013-14, black children made up 19 percent of preschool enrollment, but 47 percent of suspended children, according to data summaries released by the department. By comparison, white children made up 41 percent of enrollment but 28 percent of children suspended.

Assistant Secretary for Civil Rights Catherine Lhamon called the overall drop in the suspension rate “breathtaking and a tremendous testament to our educators’ commitment to making sure that students are in school and can learn.”

She noted that the data was collected in the middle of the same school year when the administration made two key pushes to tackle uneven school discipline rates: releasing guidance on discipline and civil rights laws, and releasing the first national information on suspensions of prekindergarten students, which served as a wake-up call for some policymakers.

Discrepancies in discipline rates continued in other areas, as well. Black students were about twice as likely to be expelled as white students in 2013-14, the data show.

“A large part of this is that implicit racial bias is still a real issue that impacts the ways in which black students in particular are dealt with when it comes to school discipline,” said Thomas Mariadason, a staff attorney for the Advancement Project, a civil rights organization.

The problem may also be an imbalance between student discipline and support, federal officials said. They noted that Asian, black, and Latino students are more likely than their white peers to be among the 1.6 million students nationwide who attend a school that has a law-enforcement officer but no school counselor.

Students With Disabilities

As in the 2011-12 report, this year’s data collection finds that students with disabilities represent the 67 percent of students who are restrained or secluded at school, though they make up only about 12 percent of the student population.

In comparison, students with disabilities represented 58 percent of students who were secluded during the 2011-12 school year, and 75 percent of those who were restrained that year.

The increase has come even as more states have chosen to adopt policies saying that restraint or seclusion must be used only to protect the student or school staff from imminent harm. Several bills have been introduced in Congress that would limit restraint or seclusion, and though those bills did not pass, elements of those bills’ language have been adopted by many states.

The apparent lack of change in the restraint and seclusion numbers was not surprising to Denise Marshall, the executive director of the Council of Parent Attorneys and Advocates.

“There’s going to need to be further mandates or guidance or something with some teeth in it that’s going to spur change,” she said.

Along with increased data collection, the Education Department has also sought to make civil rights data more accessible to the public. It announced plans Tuesday to make the raw data available online for use by the public, researchers, advocacy organizations, and parent groups and to partner with the school-rating site Great Schools to include civil rights information in its school profiles.

The Education Department also plans to release analyses highlighting specific elements of the data throughout the summer and fall.

Associate Editor Stephen Sawchuk, and Assistant Editors Alyson Klein, Christina A. Samuels, Sarah D. Sparks, and Andrew Ujifusa, contributed to this report.


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