Mar 14, 2012

The "Education Opportunity Gap" (Or, We're Nearing The Truth)

Nithya Joseph was program analyst and manager in Washington, DC government before joining StudentsFirst over a year ago. In her current role at StudentsFirst, she is a senior policy analyst and writer.

Halli Bayer is a former middle school English teacher who now serves as as Policy Analyst for StudentsFirst.

Education is a civil rights issue. Every American child deserves the right to a quality education. The bad news is a new study shines a disturbing light on the racial disparities that exist today regarding children’s education opportunities. The good news is there are things we can do to address the injustice.

The Office for Civil Rights (OCR) of the U.S. Department of Education released new data that bring a renewed focus on glaring racial inequalities we know exist for minority students. The study is based on a wide range of demographic and academic factors self-reported by schools, covering approximately 85% of our country’s students.

Unsurprisingly, the study shows stark contrasts between the education experiences of students of different races.
  • Access to High-Level Classes: There is significant racial disparity in access to high-level math and science courses such as physics, Algebra II, and calculus. For example, 82% of the schools with small numbers of Latino and African-American students offer Algebra II, compared with only 65% of the schools serving high numbers of African-American and Latino students.

  • Student discipline: African-American and Latino students are over-represented in every type of discipline measure, including suspensions, expulsions, arrests, and referrals to law enforcement.

  • Grade repetition: While African Americans represent 16% of the 6th through 8th graders in the sample, they represent 42% of the students who repeated one of those grades.

  • Teacher Equity: The study shows that schools serving the most African-American and Latino students are nearly twice as likely to employ first and second year teachers and their teachers are paid $2,251 less per year on average than their colleagues in the same district at schools serving the fewest Latino and African-American students.
These findings, while not unexpected, serve as a sober reminder that this country is not fulfilling the promise of the American Dream to our youth. There is no silver bullet to address these issues, but there are policies that we know can address and mitigate these inequalities, particularly with regard to teacher quality.

Numerous studies show that the first few years of a teacher’s career are the only years where teacher experience significantly affects student achievement levels. And yet, nationwide, teachers with only one to two years of experience are twice as likely to serve in schools with higher populations of African Americans and Latino students. Moreover, as a result of the lock-step teacher salary scales, these teachers are paid significantly less than teachers in schools with lower enrollments of African American and Latino students.

This begs the question - given the achievement gaps that persist in this country, why are we not making every effort to attract the most effective teachers to our schools with are most underserved populations?

We need to break away from lock-step salary schedules and staffing policies that are based on seniority and implement policies that are in the best interest of the students. We know that rewarding effective teachers who are willing to teach in struggling schools with higher pay and ending seniority-based layoffs will help address the racial inequities that currently exist. This is where we have the tools to change the status quo.

It is tragic fact that over forty years after the Civil Right Movement, we are literally able to predict a child’s chances of facing certain disciplinary actions at school, retention rates, and access to various high level courses, by the color of his or her skin. While we cannot draw conclusions about the root causes for these trends based off this data alone, we must continue to rely on findings like these to serve as hard evidence for demanding a public education system that serves all students- regardless of who they are and where they come from- with the same and consistent access to opportunity, rigor of instruction, respect and high expectation.

Find the full study here

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