What Civil Rights Data Says About Classroom Inequity


Jamie Fasteau

Last month marked the 62nd anniversary of the Supreme Court’s historic ruling in Brown v. Board of Education, the landmark case determining that in education, “separate facilities are inherently unequal.” But more than half a century later, we’re seeing startling evidence of persistent inequity in schools.

The U.S. Department of Education’s Office of Civil Rights (OCR) released data from every school district in the country from 2013-2014. Why are these numbers important? For starters, they give us the most comparable information on how we’re doing as a nation to ensure all students are treated fairly and equitably in the classroom. This survey, known as Civil Rights Data Collection (CRDC), measures a range of important school dynamics, including discipline practices, teacher quality, coursework, bullying, and funding by race, language status, national origin, gender, or disability status.

How we use CRDC data

While the Elementary and Secondary Education Act of 1965 (currently referred to as ESSA or the Every Student Succeeds Act) gets most of the K-12 attention, CRDC has been in use for nearly as long—in fact, the government has been collecting education and civil rights data since 1968. OCR has used this information to highlight issues of equity and keep an important check on equity across states, districts, and schools. Additionally, the data is a key resource used in other offices at the Department of Education, other federal agencies, by policy makers and researchers.

The survey was significantly updated in 2009 under the Obama Administration to reflect current concerns of inequity in education and the ability to access quality data. Now CRDC includes data from all districts as opposed to including data from a sample of districts. These changes in CRDC have played a critical role in changes that are elevating and shifting conversations and policies in education.

How this data informs education conversations

  • The most recent numbers illuminate disturbing trends that show African American students are disproportionally disciplined at alarming rates. While we still have a long way to go, conversations around ending suspensions in favor of restorative justice programs have begun.
  • CRDC data also equip us with a far better understanding around how dollars are allocated and spent on the district level, especially for teacher salaries—solutions around best models for teacher pay may still be a matter of debate, but the need to address the inequity begins with what the CRDC data tell us.
  • Questions of who gets prepared to go to and succeed in college are no longer tied to solely to effort. These numbers allow us to see who has access to a college prep curriculum and who doesn’t. It's easy to hide behind bias, perception and opinions—it’s much harder to hide behind facts.

Five key insights

  • Out-of-school suspensions decreased by almost 20 percent since 2011-2012. This critical improvement could not have happened so quickly without CRDC surfacing the frequency of use of that discipline practice and the advocacy to create change. However, despite these improvements, students of color, English Learners, and students with disabilities are more often disciplined than their peers. In fact, black students are four times as likely to be suspended than white students and students with disabilities are twice as likely to be suspended than students without disabilities.
  • For the first time, CRDC measured chronic absenteeism, which is very highly correlated with dropping out. The survey found that an astonishing 13 percent of all students were chronically absent in 2013-2014. Twenty percent of English Learners are chronically absent. Teacher absenteeism also affects students: Black students represent 15 percent of all students, but they represented 21 percent of students attending schools where more than half of teachers were absent for more than 10 days.

  • Access to advanced coursework continues to be a challenge for many students, in particular for black and Latino students. Half of all high schools do not offer calculus and roughly four out of five offer Algebra II. However, only 33 percent of high schools with high enrollment of black and Latino students offer calculus and 71 percent offer Algebra II.
  • Many students continue to lack access to experienced teachers and counselors. Ten percent of teachers in schools with high black and Latino student enrollment are in their first year of teaching, versus 5 percent in schools with low black and Latino enrollment. 800,000 students are enrolled in schools where more than 20 percent of teachers have not met all state certification or licensure requirements.
  • About 21 percent of high school students do not have access to any school counselor. In fact, 1.6 million students attend a school with a sworn law enforcement officer but not a school counselor.

These are more than just numbers; they are students

While the numbers here are stark and in some cases shocking, it is critical to remember that they are not just numbers–they are real students in actual schools, right now. And they are facing disparities and discrimination that diminish their education and disadvantage their future success. Students cannot afford to face more hurdles in their education based on race, disability status, national origin, language status, or gender.

Secretary of Education John King urges districts, schools, and communities to "see this data not just as numbers, but as an opportunity to take action on behalf of students who deserve an equal shot at a good education. ESSA provides new opportunities to address student needs in fresh ways. Any discipline practices that have a negative and disproportionate impact on any specific population of students must be investigated and addressed. Any unequal access to resources, including quality teachers, funding and coursework must be addressed. Any student not attending school on a regular basis must be reached."

There is and likely will always be a lot of debate in education. One element that can’t be up for debate or inaction is addressing inequality.

As Martin Luther King, Jr. said, the arc of the moral universe does bend towards justice. But it is also long and a child’s tenure in school is not. We can all work together to ensure that data, and civil rights data in particular, helps it bend a little faster.

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