Many of us whose children attend school in a middle income or more privileged community may assume that all of the students in the nation’s 95,000 public schools have access to pretty much the same courses and school experiences as our own children do. Hence, when less advantaged students lack the skills our children have developed in school, we imagine that those children and adolescents have failed to take advantage of what was provided. However, new 2013-2014 data disaggregated by race and ethnicity—data released by the U.S. Department of Education on Tuesday—demonstrate just how mistaken are those assumptions. Here are just some of the opportunity gaps exposed in the new data.
First there are shocking disparities across America’s high schools in math and science courses offered: “High-rigor course access is not a reality across all of our nation’s schools: Nationwide, 48% of high schools offer calculus; 60% offer physics; 72% offer chemistry; and 78% offer Algebra II… 33% of high schools with high black and Latino student enrollment offer calculus, compared to 56% of high schools with low black and Latino student enrollment.” And in a society with a growing percentage of English learners, the data show that English learners make up only 5% of students in high schools that offer Algebra II and 4% of students enrolled in Algebra II.” English learners make up only 1% of students enrolled in calculus. What about high school students’ access to advanced courses? “Black and Latino students represent 38% of students in schools that offer AP courses, but 29% of students enrolled in at least one AP course.” English learners make up only 2% of students enrolled in at least one AP class.
The new report does not track class size, but it does document very unequal access to experienced teachers and to school counselors. Schools with a high percentage of black and Latino students have twice as many teachers in their very first year of teaching than the schools that serve fewer black and Latino students. “Nearly 800,000 students are enrolled in schools where more than 20% of teachers have not met all state certification or licensure requirements: 3% of black students and 2% of Latino and American Indian or Alaska Native students attend these schools, compared to 1% of white students.”
Over 1.5 million students attend a school with a sworn law enforcement officer but not a school counselor, and 21% of American high schools do not provide their students access to any counselor. Emma Brown of the Washington Post explains the significance of the lack of this support staffing: “High school counselors often have tough jobs. They keep track of their students’ progress toward graduation. They help students apply to college and navigate the financial aid process. They also help kids navigate their lives outside of school, which can be made complex by poverty, violence and family trouble. And because counselors often are one of the first positions to be cut when budgets get tight, there are almost never enough to go around. The national average is close to 500 students per school counselor; many students have no counselor at all.”
But schools are spending more on disciplinary staff. Here again is Emma Brown’s explanation: “The 2013-1014 Civil Rights Data Collection for the first time counted how many schools have a sworn law-enforcement officer: 24 percent of elementary schools and 42 percent of high schools. Among high schools with predominantly black and Hispanic populations (i.e., more than 75 percent of students were black and Latino), more than half—51 percent—had an officer.” It is, therefore, a relief to discover that, as reported by Evie Blad of Education Week, the new data document that out-of-school suspensions are down by 20 percent. But the Department of Education’s report traces what continue to be very disturbing trends in the unequal application of punitive discipline: “Black children represent 19% of preschool enrollment, but 47% of preschool children receiving one or more out-or-school suspensions; in comparison, white children represent 41% of preschool enrollment but 28% of preschool children receiving one or more out-of-school suspension.” “Nationwide, 2.8 million K-12 students received one-or-more out of school suspension: These include approximately 1.1 million black students; 600,000 Latino students; 660,000 students served by IDEA; and 210,000 English learners… While 6% of all K-12 students received one or more out-of-school suspensions, the percentage is 18% for black boys; 10% for black girls; 5% for white boys; and 2% for white girls.”
School opportunity gaps are the differences from place to place in resources and conditions that society provides for children in school. Most public policy today remains focused on demanding that teachers work harder to raise teat scores, but there has been insufficient effort by federal and state governments to close the kind of opportunity gaps documented in the data released this week. And lots of important things are not even covered in this report. What about unequal class sizes? What about disparate access to enriching and challenging electives in the humanities? What about inequality in access to art classes and the chance to play in a school band or orchestra? What about inequitable access to challenging co-curricular activities—the chance to write for a high school newspaper—to be part of a debate team—to be a long distance runner or a pole vaulter?