Equity & Diversity What the Research Says

New National Data Show Depth of Disparities in a Chaotic Year of Schooling

By Eesha Pendharkar & Sarah D. Sparks — November 15, 2023 10 min read
Tanya Holyfield, a second grade teacher with Manchester Academic Charter School, teaches remote students from her classroom on March 4, 2021, in Pittsburgh.
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The first full school year of the pandemic caused incomparable disruptions to American schools, but just-released federal civil rights data show that deep inequities in students’ educational opportunities in 2020-21 were a difference of degree, not of kind.

While the pandemic upheaved public schools, longstanding inequities in how students were disciplined, and their access to challenging courses and technology persisted. From suspensions, expulsions, and reports of bullying and harassment to access to science, mathematics and computer science courses, Black students were often at the largest disadvantage.

"[W]e view education as the springboard that puts the American dream within reach,” said U.S. Secretary of Education Miguel Cardona in a media briefing on Wednesday. “Yet access to educational opportunities in this country remains unequal.”

That’s according to the U.S. Department of Education’s Civil Rights Data Collection, which released data about enrollment, educational opportunities, internet access, school staffing, student discipline, and restraint and seclusion practices in schools during the 2020-21 school year, when most students attended a combination of online and in-person school.

This is the first time that all of the more than 17,000 school districts responded to the data collection, Education Department officials noted. (The Civil Rights Data collection includes not only traditional school districts, but juvenile justice facilities, multi-district magnet schools, independent alternative and special education schools, and charter school networks and differs from district counts by other offices, such as the National Center for Education Statistics.)

However, only 6 percent of the more than 97,000 public schools had returned to fully in-person instruction in 2020-21; the rest had hybrid or virtual instruction. That makes it difficult to compare data from the first full pandemic school year to prior years, or to know the role school disruptions and hybrid instruction played in school disciplinary incidents and course offerings.

“It’s really our only look at these key issues that are really central to a lot of kids’ success,” said Bob Balfanz, a research professor at the Center for the Social Organization of Schools at Johns Hopkins University School of Education.

However, most categories of data show persistence of racial inequities. Black students continued to be overrepresented in school discipline, and lacked equitable access to the internet and advanced courses. Students with disabilities also faced inequities in access to courses, and were disproportionately disciplined, including in extreme interventions such as restraints and seclusion.

However, as a result of the widespread use of hybrid and remote learning, discipline incidents were significantly lower than in previous years. Student enrollment during the pandemic had also declined by 1.7 million, according to the data.

Disrupted data

The Education Department has collected civil rights data on every K-12 school in the country, including charter schools and juvenile justice facilities, every other year since 1968. The surveys include demographic and educational access and participation data for students of different genders, races, disabilities, and English-language proficiencies. The data are used to enforce federal civil rights laws, as well as to monitor and study trends in civil rights issues, such as school discipline disparities and access to coursework.

Widespread school closures during the pandemic delayed the collection originally scheduled for 2019-20 to 2020-21, and K-12 public school enrollment dropped from 50.9 million to 49.2 million from 2017-18 to 2020-21. The Office for Civil Rights also collected data for 2021-22, in part because the pool of students was so small during that unprecedented year.

The Trump administration developed the current civil rights survey, adding questions about religious harassment and sexual assault at school and reducing questions about school spending, teacher absenteeism, course access, and preschool suspensions.

In most categories of discipline, including in-and-out-of-school suspensions and expulsions, the Education Department did not ask schools to disaggregate data by whether students were learning in person or online when they were disciplined.

Daniel Losen, the senior director for education at the National Center for Youth Law, said this could hide inequities for students with disabilities who experienced hybrid and virtual learning.

“Students with disabilities are getting more than an average student when they’re in school because they have this extra support and services, extra counseling, more intensive—sometimes even one-on-one—instruction,” Losen said. “So they’re losing more when they don’t have that.”

Suspensions and expulsions

Compared to their overall enrollments, Black boys and girls, white boys, and boys of two or more races were overrepresented among K-12 students who were suspended and expelled.

Both white and Black boys were overrepresented in K-12 school discipline outcomes such as in-school and out-of-school suspensions and school-based arrests, but Black boys were nearly twice as likely as white boys to receive an out-of-school suspension or an expulsion, according to the data.

In 2020-21, approximately 786,600 students, or 2 percent of K-12 public school enrollment, received one or more in-school suspensions. About 638,700 students, or 1 percent of K-12 public school enrollment, received one or more out-of-school suspensions.

Nearly 28,300 students were expelled, less than 1 percent of K-12 public school student enrollment.

Public school students who received one or more out-of-school suspensions missed a total of more than two million school days.

While the numbers were much lower compared to 2017-18 data, racial disparities remained.

Students with disabilities were also overrepresented in discipline outcomes. Students with disabilities represented 17 percent of student enrollment but accounted for 29 percent of students who received one or more out-of-school suspensions and 21 percent who received expulsions.

In public preschools, Black and white children, and children of two or more races were disproportionately suspended and expelled, with Black children receiving out-of-school suspensions at a rate nearly twice their enrollment. Although Black children accounted for 17 percent of preschool enrollment, they represented 31 percent of children who received one or more out-of-school suspensions and 25 percent of those expelled.

Bullying and harassment

Students reported more than 42,500 allegations of harassment and bullying on the basis of race, sex, disability status, national origin, or religion in 2020-21. Forty percent of all bullying and harassment cases were on the basis of sex, and 19 percent specifically concerning sexual orientation. Almost 30 percent of the allegations of bullying or harassment were based on race.

Black students represent 15 percent of all students, but 37 percent of those bullied or harassed about race.

White students were overrepresented in reports of bullying on the basis of sex and disability status, making up 68 percent of reports of sex-based discrimination, and 70 percent of disability-based discrimination.

Bullying based on religion accounted for 3 percent of the allegations.

Law enforcement and schools

During the hybrid school year, there were 61,900 referrals to law enforcement, and almost 9,000 arrests nationwide, meaning that 14 percent of referrals led to school-based arrests.

School-based arrests declined significantly compared to previous data, from the 2017-18 school year, though OCR cautioned against direct comparison over time.

Students with disabilities and Black students were overrepresented in school-based arrests, making up 22 percent of arrests each.

Seven million students attended a school with a school law enforcement officer or security guard, but without a school counselor. Native Hawaiian and Pacific Islander students and Native American students were 1.4 times more likely than white students to attend a school with a police officer or security guard but no school counselor.

Black students and students of two or more races were 1.2 times more likely to attend these schools compared to white students, the data show.

“When our children are dealing with mental health needs and the Surgeon General is calling a youth mental health crisis in this country,” Cardona said.

“It’s unacceptable that students are in schools without counselors and there are sworn law enforcement officers there.”

Sexual violence

Nationwide, schools reported 350 incidents of rape or attempted rape in 2020-21, a little more than a third of the incidents reported in 2017-18, and below 2015-16 levels.

Schools also reported 2,700 incidents of other sexual assaults, such as groping or child molestation, less than a fifth the incidents in 2017-18 and less than a third the sexual assaults in 2015-16. However, the new survey questions on sexual assault, including assault of or by school staff, were optional for the 2020-21 data, and response rates for optional questions are “typically very low,” according to the Education Department. The optional sexual assault questions will be required as of the 2022-23 data collection.

Gaps in access to high-level courses

The data collection show students of color, English learners, and those with disabilities had less access to courses to prepare them for science, technology, engineering, and math fields.

Schools where 3 in 4 students are students of color were at least 10 percentage points less likely to offer advanced math (meaning noncalculus courses beyond Algebra 2) and computer science and nearly 20 percentage points less likely to offer calculus.

Longitudinal studies of student achievement after high school, Balfanz said, “is just showing more than ever that … decent grades and advanced courses is the strongest predictor of earning a four-year degree. Things like advanced math and science courses and dual enrollment are all in that category of challenging courses.”

“So the fact that so many schools that didn’t have access pre-pandemic got less access during the height of the pandemic, is worrying on both accounts,” Balfanz said.

While several states have pushed initiatives for early algebra in the last decade, fewer than 4 in 10 of the 31,100 public middle schools in the study universe offered algebra in 2020-21.

Likewise, students with disabilities, who make up 17 percent of public high school students, and English learners, who account for about 7 percent of students, are significantly underrepresented in dual-credit programs.

Secretary Cardona noted that as a first-generation college student, taking a college-level course as a high school junior “really helped me build that confidence that I needed in myself that I have what it takes to succeed in college. We need to offer those opportunities for all students.”

Last year, the Biden administration launched initiatives to increase dual-credit and apprenticeship programs. Recent reports suggest programs that allow students to earn college credit in high school have expanded significantly in the last decade, with more than 4 in 5 public high schools now offering dual credit. Yet only 1 in 5 school districts provide equitable access to students of color and other underrepresented groups.

And Balfanz noted that students who don’t have access to core courses in math and science won’t be prepared to move onto a college track.

“To really succeed in an undergraduate engineering program, you really have to have calculus going into it,” Balfanz said. “If you don’t have calculus going into your engineering program, you start at the bottom of your class, because almost all your peers will have had calculus.”

Technology infrastructure

With nearly all schools relying on at least some remote instruction during the pandemic, the data show more than 9 in 10 schools had high-speed internet access and Wi-Fi in 2020-21. Internet access was roughly the same for schools serving low and high populations of students of color.

But just looking at the infrastructure doesn’t show inequities in how students were able to use technology during virtual and hybrid instruction in the pandemic, Balfanz said.

“We know the pandemic hit hardest in lower-income areas, which often overlap with a higher percentage of students of color in those schools,” Balfanz said.

“We know that in those areas, more high school kids were doing caregiving roles, letting their younger siblings have the limited Zoom access or working to support the family,” Balfanz said. “There was more pull on their time, therefore less time to do your online classes.”

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