Nation Falls Far Short on Educational Equity, Data Show

Disparities seen from pre-K to high school
By Michele McNeil & Evie Blad — March 21, 2014 9 min read
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New federal civil rights data show persistent and widespread disparities among disadvantaged students from prekindergarten through high school on key indicators—calling into question whether the national push for educational equity and college and career readiness for all students is working.

Minorities and students with limited English proficiency are more likely to be taught by inexperienced teachers, attend a high school with limited math and science offerings, and be disciplined at higher rates than their white peers, according to information from the 2011-12 school year released last week by the U.S. Department of Education.

The results of this comprehensive survey paint a dismal picture of the state of educational opportunity, even as the federal government spends $14.4 billion a year in Title I funds aimed at helping disadvantaged students, along with other federal initiatives.

Stark Findings

Among the starkest findings from the data, as gathered and analyzed by the Education Department’s office for civil rights:

• Nearly 7 percent of black students attend schools where more than 20 percent of teachers hadn’t yet met all state certification requirements. That figure was four times higher than for white students.

• While black students represented 16 percent of overall enrollment, they represented 33 percent of students suspended out of school, and 34 percent of students who were expelled.

• Of schools serving the highest percentages of black and Latino students, only 66 percent and 74 percent offer chemistry and Algebra 2, respectively.

• Black children make up 18 percent of preschool enrollment, but close to half—48 percent—of the preschool children suspended more than once.

U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan touted the power of the data at a March 21 press conference at J.O. Wilson Elementary School in Washington, which has been singled out by its district as a “rewards school” for its work in improving outcomes for low-income children.

“For the first time we can now identify patterns of inequality for certain subgroups of students,” Mr. Duncan said, noting for instance, that the data make it clear that Native Hawaiian kindergartners are far more likely to be held back than their white peers. “We can identify gaping disparities in educational support and access from state to state. We can identify the good, the bad, and the ugly.”

Inside the Data

About every two years since 1968, the U.S. Department of Education has gathered data about the nation’s schools through the Civil Rights Data Collection. The information is gathered primarily so that the department has the information it needs to enforce civil rights laws that provide for equal educational opportunities for students of different races, genders, disabilities, and English-speaking skills.

This year’s data release is the first since 2000 reflecting information from all schools and districts, including all charter schools and juvenile justice facilities.

The required survey asks schools and districts for key data in four main areas: discipline, teacher equity, early education, and college- and career-readiness. For example, schools must report how many of their students are suspended, expelled, and bullied. They must account for how much they spend on teacher salaries and nonpersonnel expenditures. And they must tally up the number of students who complete Algebra I, Advanced Placement courses, and the SAT.

This year’s release also includes a new data point schools must report: the number of preschool suspensions and expulsions.

Most of the data is broken down by race/ethnicity, sex, disability, and English-language-learner status, allowing the government and the public to examine disparities for key indicators across the pre-K-12 spectrum.

The data are available at ocrdata.ed.gov.

Source: Education Week

This is the first time since 2000 that the civil-rights data collection has included all 97,000 of the nation’s public schools and its 16,500 school districts, representing 49 million students. The data is entirely self-reported by school and district officials, and given the scope, there are bound to be inaccuracies. The 2009-10 data, for example, was riddled with incorrect information on discipline, an Education Week analysis at the time found.

Beginning with the 2015-16 school year, the office for civil rights will significantly expand its data collection to include such statistics as the number of incidents of violent and serious crimes, the number of school days missed by students who received out-of-school suspensions, and the number of allegations of harassment or bullying on the basis of sexual orientation or religion.

The data are used primarily by the federal government to help ensure all students are given equal educational opportunities.

As part of the survey, schools must report how many of their students are suspended, expelled, and bullied. They must account for how much they spend on teacher salaries and nonpersonnel expenditures. And they must tally up the number of students who complete Algebra I, Advanced Placement courses, and the SAT.

This year’s release also includes a new data point schools must report: the number of preschool suspensions and expulsions. It shows, for example, that 6 percent of school districts with preschool programs reported disciplining at least one child with an out-of-school suspension. While preschool programs also showed disparate rates of discipline for black children, Latino children fared better. Latinos represented 29 percent of students in the preschool data, but they represented 25 percent of out-of-school suspensions.

Discipline Trends

The new data also show a continuation of discipline trends that have alarmed student advocates and civil-rights advocates, who’ve said many school discipline practices are overly harsh and fall harder on students from certain groups—such as black students, boys, and students with disabilities. While black students made up 16 percent of students represented in the data, they represented 27 percent of those referred to law enforcement by schools and 31 percent of those who were subject to school-related arrests.

“It definitely doesn’t surprise me,” Ruth Jeannoel, a lead organizer for the Miami-based Power U Center for Social Change, a student-organizing group, said of the disparities. Students see vague discipline policies applied inconsistently in their districts, which lead one student to be punished more harshly than a peer after the two commit the same offense, she said.

Advocates for changes to school discipline practices point to new, first-of-its-kind school discipline guidance released by the U.S. departments of Education and Justice in January. That guidance urges districts to rethink “zero tolerance” policies that lead to classroom removal for non-violent offenses. And it spells out districts’ obligations under civil rights laws to review and track the impact of disciplinary policies to ensure that they aren’t unfairly affecting certain student populations.

Higher rates of discipline for students in various racial and ethnic groups cannot be entirely explained away by assuming they had higher rates of misbehavior, U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder and Education Secretary Arne Duncan said when they released the discipline guidance in Baltimore.

Qasima Wideman, 18, a senior in North Carolina’s 150,000-student Wake County school district, said students are pushing for restorative practices, like peer mediation, “instead of suspension and punitive discipline policies that don’t address the actual issue that causes students to misbehave in the first place—if they are misbehaving.”

The new data also shows that students with disabilities were disproportionately subjected to physical restraint. These students represented 12 percent of the public school population and 75 percent of those who were physically restrained.

High-Level Attention

Equity has gotten renewed attention from the U.S. Education Department, which is working on a 50-state strategy for improving the equitable distribution of teachers and pushing a new Race to the Top contest aimed at closing achievement gaps. And, the Obama administration has mounted a major push to expand early education—which many states are already doing—to boost kindergarten readiness for the most disadvantaged children.

Full-day preschool is a relative rarity among districts, according to the new data. While 60 percent of districts offered some kind of preschool, more than half of those—57 percent—provided just a half day.

The racial and gender disparities in discipline that the ocr data show start early for older children, however.

More than 140,000 kindergarten students nationwide were held back a year in 2011–12, representing about 4 percent of all kindergarten students in public schools. Native Hawaiian, other Pacific Islander, American Indian, and Native Alaskan students were held back at nearly twice the rate of white children. Five percent of black students and 4 percent of Hispanic students were retained.

“The report shines a new light on something that research and experience have long told us—that students of color get less than their fair share of access to the in-school factors that matter for achievement. Students of color get less access to high-level courses,” said Daria Hall, the director of K-12 policy development for the Education Trust in Washington, which advocates on behalf of disadvantaged youth.

Access to Qualified Teachers

Confirming a host of other studies, the federal data show a troubling pattern of students of color having more underqualified teachers, novice teachers, or teachers with lower salaries than their peers.

Black students appeared to be the hardest hit by such inequities. Nearly 7 percent of black students attend schools where more than 20 percent of teachers hadn’t yet met all state certification requirements. That figure was about four times higher than for white students (1.5 percent) and more than twice as high as Latino students (3 percent).

Research has also shown that novice teachers, particularly those in their first year, are less effective on average than experienced teachers. Yet black, Latino, American Indian, and Native Alaskan students were more likely to be in schools with such teachers than their white peers.

And at the high school level, nearly a quarter of districts with at least two high schools had a $5,000 gap in teacher salaries between schools with the highest and lowest concentrations of black and Latino students. (About half of districts had a gap of $500 or less.) Advocacy groups have long fretted that federal Title I dollars earmarked for disadvantaged students merely fill in such gaps, but lawmakers have not addressed the matter.

Focus on STEM

Even as schools and policymakers try to encourage more students to engage in the STEM subjects—science, technology, engineering, and mathematics—minorities seem to be losing out on the opportunity.

A quarter of high schools with the highest percentages of black and Latino students did not offer Algebra 2. One third of these schools did not offer chemistry.

“It’s clear that there are big gaps and that we need to do more to focus on high-need populations,” said James Brown, the executive director of the STEM Education Coalition, a Washington-based advocacy group. “But we’re starting to get better and better data on where those gaps are and are figuring out where to really focus energy for college success.”

Better accountability systems that incorporate science achievement into school ratings could help, Mr. Brown said. “When talking to groups that deal closely with minority populations, this is a big concern, because accountability systems are what drive student achievement and rigor in most high-need populations.”

Opportunity gaps were also evident in gifted-and-talented education. Black and Latino students only represented 26 percent of students enrolled in those programs, yet made up 40 percent of overall enrollment in schools offering them. Further, while black and Latino students made up 37 percent of high school students, they accounted for 27 percent of students taking at least one AP course.

One area where students of color were over-represented was retention rates. Black students and English-learners were held back a grade in high school at twice the rate of the overall student population, the data show.

Coverage of school climate and student behavior and engagement is supported in part by grants from the Atlantic Philanthropies, the NoVo Foundation, the Raikes Foundation, and the California Endowment. Education Week retains sole editorial control over the content of this coverage.
A version of this article appeared in the March 26, 2014 edition of Education Week as U.S. Comes Up Short on Education Equity, Federal Data Indicate


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