Equity & Diversity

Panel Wants Higher Profile For Federal Civil Rights Data

By Debra Viadero — June 11, 2003 3 min read
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The U.S. Department of Education is sitting on a trove of national data tracking potential disparities in the ways schools serve minority students, female student athletes, students with disabilities, and those with weak English skills.

The problem, says a national panel of researchers, is that too few people know it’s there.

Read the report, “Measuring Access to Learning Opportunities,” from the National Academies Press.

In a report released last month by the National Research Council, panelists urged federal education officials to do more to mine their supply of civil rights data, improve upon it, and make its existence known to a wider audience.

The focus of the panel’s 18 months of scrutiny is the Elementary and Secondary School Civil Rights Compliance Report, a program begun in 1968 to provide data that department officials can draw on in enforcing federal civil rights laws. Known more informally as the “E&S Survey,” the questionnaire is given every two years to more than one third of U.S. schools—and occasionally to every public elementary and secondary school in the country.

The study is important, according to the panel, because it gathers reliable, up-to-date national data that other studies don’t. It’s the only source of national information, for example, on disparities in schools’ disciplinary practices or on the effects of high- stakes testing. And unlike other national survey programs, which make participation voluntary for schools, this one requires schools to comply.

From Underused to Useful

Even the Education Department, which called for the study, admits the resulting information is underused. The department itself publishes no reports on the findings and neither do many independent researchers, partly because it’s difficult to get the data.

The research council is an arm of the National Academy of Sciences, an independent, congressionally-chartered group in Washington that provides scientific advice to the federal government. The panel studying the E&S Survey included some prominent researchers who have plumbed the data themselves, as well as state and local education officials and representatives of student-advocacy groups.

Last summer, the Education Department put the data online for the first time. But the panel says more needs to be done to take full advantage of what the survey has to offer.

The committee recommends, for example: giving the program its own line in the department’s budget so it could be funded more consistently; better coordinating the study with other surveys the department undertakes, to cut down on redundancy; revising and expanding some of the survey questions to elicit more useful information, such as on teacher quality and students’ assignments to classes; providing training and research grants for potential users of the data; and publicizing survey findings in reports to Congress and in publications.

Making those kinds of changes, the report says, could expand the role the report plays in government policy and shed useful light on policy initiatives being undertaken in other department offices.

“The E&S Survey historically has focused on the enforcement of civil rights issues and complaints,” the report says. “However, it has considerable potential to be used as a complement to the ‘No Child Left Behind’ Act of 2001 by providing information on educational policies and practices that affect students’ access to ... essential learning opportunities.”

Department officials have not said whether they intend to follow the committee’s advice.

“We have sufficient data for enforcement,” said Carlin Hertz, a spokesman for the department’s office for civil rights. “However, we will take their comments into advisement.”

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