The U.S. Department of Education will take the unprecedented step of collecting a massive trove of school civil rights data for two consecutive years, citing concerns about equity exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic.
The agency will inform school superintendents Friday that it will conduct its civil rights data collection survey in the 2021-22 school year. It typically issues the survey every other year, but the collection that was originally scheduled for 2019-20 had been delayed a year because of mass school closures in the early months of the public health crisis.
The civil rights data collection covers learning conditions for nearly every public K-12 student in the country, documenting issues like access to advanced coursework, rates of discipline, and the presence of support staff in their schools. It has been key in helping educators, researchers, and policymakers detect disparities for students in certain groups based on race, ethnicity, poverty, gender, or disability status.
“This data is enormously important for understanding where we are on advancing equity at a time when the nation’s educational landscape has been affected by COVID-19,” acting Assistant Secretary for Civil Rights Suzanne Goldberg told Education Week.
School and district leaders will submit data for the 2020-21 school year in early 2022. In a letter to school leaders Friday, Goldberg did not specify a collection date for the 2021-22 collection, and she did not say if both surveys will use the same questions. Any changes would be subject to a public comment period.
The 2020-21 survey was developed by the Trump administration, and civil rights leaders and some congressional Democrats have pressured the Education Department to restore some elements that were included in previous versions. Among its changes, the Trump Education Department changed the civil rights data collection survey to add optional questions about religious bullying and new data points about sexual assault or attempted sexual assault by school staff. It also eliminated or reduced parts of the survey that dealt with school-level spending, data about preschool suspension broken down by different student subgroups, and disaggregated information on advanced coursework and teacher absenteeism.
The Biden administration, which has signaled a more aggressive approach to education civil rights enforcement, may also choose to add items on the 2021-22 survey that correspond with its priorities, which include racial equity in school discipline and LGBTQ rights.
Pandemic makes collecting consistent data difficult
For years, many school leaders have called collecting the data a cumbersome task, especially when federal officials introduce new questions that may be difficult for schools to consistently interpret.
The COVID-19 pandemic has made it even more challenging to collect and present reliable data. In April, the Biden administration released a guide that instructed school leaders how to answer survey questions if their students had been in remote learning, rather than in-person instruction. For example, the guidance told administrators that it would count as a suspension if students were temporarily blocked from their virtual classrooms for disciplinary reasons and transferred to a different and supervised virtual setting.
Goldberg acknowledged those challenges and promised assistance for school leaders as they head into another uncertain school year.
“We’ve always provided robust support and we are committed to doing even more because we want this process to be not only as streamlined as possible, but also as useful as possible,” she said.
It’s worth confronting those challenges to record school conditions as educators spend a surge of federal relief money and tackle concerns about student equity that may reverberate into future school years, Goldberg said.
“The significant changes in our educational landscape, along with the substantially increased resources available to schools to meet the needs of your students, educators, and staff, make this year’s data collection all the more important,” she wrote in her letter to superintendents.