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Would a New Race to the Top for Equity Fix Big Opportunity Gaps?

By Michele McNeil — March 21, 2014 2 min read
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President Barack Obama and U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan have proposed a new Race to the Top for equity. And perhaps this is why:

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 Friday 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.

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 preschool children suspended more than once.


Duncan touted the power of the data at a Friday 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,” Duncan said, noting for instance, that the data make it clear that Native Hawaiian kindergartens 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.”

Duncan flagged statistics in the data he found startling, such as the fact that students with disabilities are more than twice as likely to be suspended out of school than students that aren’t in special education. And he noted that one in five high school students don’t have access to a school counselor. (Interestingly, the Obama administration sought to zero-out the Elementary and Secondary School Counseling program in its most recent budget request.) He also singled out broad racial disparities in AP course taking and calculus.

And Duncan said he was “stunned that we were suspending and expelling four year olds.” He said in many places the “school-to-prison pipeline is real” and it starts earlier than he had imagined. “Obviously this preschool suspension is mind boggling and we need to find a way to remedy that tomorrow,” he said.

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