School Climate & Safety

Education Department Pushes Shakeup for Civil Rights Data

Ed. Dept. seeks to add, scale back sensitive topics
By Andrew Ujifusa — October 01, 2019 6 min read
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Proposals from the U.S. Department of Education to change its massive, biennial collection of data from school districts could significantly alter what and how much information is available about topics that have long been of interest to educators, advocates, and researchers, from discipline data involving the youngest learners to teacher pay and sexual misconduct.

If the proposal released last month is finalized after a 60-day comment period, the department’s office for civil rights would begin collecting new information about documented incidents of sexual violence committed by and against school staff, as well as new data about harassment and bullying in schools based on perceived religious affiliation.

But other data that had previously been collected would no longer be required by the department’s office for civil rights. For example, the proposal would end breaking down preschool student enrollment by race. Such a move could make it much more difficult to calculate inequalities in areas such as discipline and access, a policy area that has proven controversial in the Obama and Trump administrations.

Data Collection Proposal

Proposed changes to the U.S. Department of Education’s biennial Civil Rights Data Collection would include:

Preschool Suspensions by Race
No longer breaking down preschool enrollment by race, although total preschool suspensions would still be part of the data collection.

Sexual Violence and Educators
More data collection on allegations of sexual assault or rape or attempted rape by educators that are followed by reassignments, or retirements, or resignations prior to final termination or discipline.

Teacher Experience and Absenteeism
No longer collecting data on the number of full-time, first-year teachers, or full-time, second-year teachers. The civil rights office also would no longer track the number of teachers who were absent 10 or more days in a school year.

Credit Recovery and AP Courses
A halt to collecting data on how many students took one or more Advanced Placement exams for one or more AP courses and the disaggregation of these data by race, sex, and other factors. The office would also stop tracking how many students are in credit-recovery programs.

School Finance
No longer collecting several data on the number of full-time equivalent personnel (K-12) funded with state and local funds, and salary expenditures for teachers (preschool-12) funded with federal, state, and local funds.

Religious Harassment of Students
A new requirement for data collection on religious harassment and bullying in schools that would be disaggregated by 14 religion categories identified in the 2015 Federal Bureau of Investigation manual for hate-crimes investigations.

Source: U.S. Department of Education

In addition, the Education Department’s office for civil rights proposes to no longer track the number of first-year teachers, the number of students in credit recovery, and a host of school-level funding data.

The plan for the Civil Rights Data Collection aims to reduce the burden on the school districts that have to gather and report these data to the federal government. The proposal states that it would require 22 percent fewer responses from school districts for the 2019-20 collection. Meanwhile at the individual school level, elementary schools would see 2.6 percent fewer questions, and secondary schools would see 4.9 percent fewer questions.

But advocates who work on education civil rights argue that it would short-circuit important work and mirrors other moves by U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos that they have claimed leave many students, such as students of color and transgender students, more vulnerable to ill-treatment and discrimination. Collecting and reporting these data, they say, makes a material difference.

“For us, the primary consideration is the burden to children. That should be the same consideration that the Department of Education has,” said Liz King, the director of education policy for The Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights. “These data are not just used by researchers because they’re interesting and fun.”

Comprehensive Look

The appetite for all the current civil rights data isn’t universal, however. For example, there’s a concern that the nature and increased demands of data collection in recent years has warped how school districts think about key issues and has been misused by partisans, even as much of the publicized data doesn’t necessarily help classroom practices or students.

“A lot of this federal data is not actually useful other than for providing a blank check for advocacy groups to push a specific agenda,” said Max Eden, a senior fellow at the conservative Manhattan Institute.

The data, collected every two years, is the nation’s largest and most comprehensive source of information on everything from student absenteeism to discipline and is used by advocates, practitioners, reporters, and researchers.

Changes to what education civil rights data the federal government collects are routine. For example, the Obama administration required school districts to provide new information about bullying on the basis of perceived sexual orientation in the 2015-16 data collection.

“It is important for [the Education Department] to deregulate where possible so that limited education funds may be directed to more effectively advance the education of students and [districts] may experience less burden and improve the quality of the data submitted,” a supporting document for the proposal from the department states.

Giving local schools more flexibility in various ways has been a top priority for U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos. The proposals also align with President Donald Trump’s push for regulatory reform across government, specifically to cut back on regulations and their impact.

Democrats have routinely attacked DeVos for her approach to civil rights, arguing that her approach to investigations and enforcement ignores systemic issues and leaves children of color and LGBT students more vulnerable to discrimination.

“It’s notable that the particular data points that the department is proposing to strike are ones that have been most used by equity advocates,” said Ary Amerikaner, a vice president for P-12 policy, research, and practice at the Education Trust, a civil rights advocacy group, who previously worked at the Obama Education Department.

The secretary, however, has countered that her office’s strategy of approaching complaints on a case-by-case basis is more efficient than the Obama administration’s approach. At the same time, she has repeatedly pledged to protect students’ rights.

Some of the proposals might raise complicated questions for schools. For example, schools can’t ask students about their religion or their sexual orientation, even though some are bullied on that basis. The proposal does say the harassment and bullying can be on the basis of “perceived religion” as reported by the school, regardless of whether a student is actually a member of that religion.

And while teachers’ sexual assault and harassment of students often makes headlines, it can be a difficult thing to measure. Such conduct is often brushed aside or not reported at all. Some behavior such as “grooming” (working to win a child’s trust with the intent of sexual abuse) that can lead to sexual assault wouldn’t be documented in the new data. And some students, such as white children from affluent families, are more likely to report incidents than their peers.

Many students “may be afraid they will get in trouble, or they’ve already seen how [other reports of sexual assault] have been dealt with so they think it won’t do any good to report,” said Charol Shakeshaft, a professor of educational leadership at Virginia Commonwealth University who’s studied the issue.

Indeed, an ongoing question for the OCR data collection in general is just how good the underlying data is. The CRDC data collection has produced errors and bizarre results, such as the unaccounted-for fluctuation in the number of districts reporting in recent years that they are under desegregation orders. Eden said that “deep dives” into the data have “tended to debunk the top-line narratives” initially reported about the data.

Data Quality

Last month, the Education Department announced that in order to improve the quality of civil rights data, the National Center for Education Statistics would partner with the office for civil rights. The aim is to change the procedures schools use to submit data to the department. Amerikaner stressed that the response to bad data should not be to stop collecting but “to improve the quality of the data.”

In addition to the quality of the data, a shrinking federal data collection on these issues will make getting good, comparable information about things like the costs of transportation, daily attendance, and suspension much harder, said Rebecca Sibilia, the founder of EdBuild, a nonprofit group that analyzes school funding and school district boundaries.

“The data can always be better, and the data can always be cleaner. Without some level of standardization, you’re never ever going to be able to actually analyze interstate data,” Sibilia said.

Staff Writer Evie Blad contributed to this article.
A version of this article appeared in the October 02, 2019 edition of Education Week as Civil Rights Data Report May Shift

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