Achievement Gap Widens, Education Dept. Says

New findings show that several factors have widened the achievement gap for students of color in the United States.

“Our work is all geared toward ensuring that the achievement gap closes, but without more information about where it exists, where opportunity is provided, how resources are being distributed, getting to our common goal is all the more difficult,” said Russlynn Ali, assistant secretary for Civil Rights during a recent press conference in Founders Library on Howard University’s campus.

U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan and Ali announced new findings from a data collection tool created to help analyze the achievement gap in the U.S. education system.

That tool, the Transformed Civil Rights Data Collection, consists of self-reported information covering college and career readiness, discipline, school finances and student retention.

The data, compiled during the 2009-10 school year, is the largest and most detailed  study of its kind – with a sample representing 85 percent of American students. Statistics were broken down by race and ethnicity, gender, disability and native language. It also focused on resource equity, access to and success in higher-level courses, retention rates, discipline and more.

Part of the Department of Education’s research revealed disparities in disciplinary practices in the U.S. Education system. Findings show that African-American students, especially African-American boys, are more likely to be suspended or expelled from school than their counterparts. Although black students made up 18 percent of the students used in the sample, they accounted for 35 percent of students who have been suspended once, and 39 percent of the students expelled from school.

“I have fought for such analysis for years given my personal and professional observation of the over-discipline of African-American boys,” said U.S. Rep. Danny K. Davis, D-Ill.

Davis said the findings reveal that an opportunity gap still exists in American society.

“The opportunity gap and school-to-prison pipeline are very real for students of color, students with disabilities and students who are learning English-especially for the first time,” Duncan said.

Findings also show that while 55 percent of predominately white schools offer Calculus, 29 percent of high-minority schools offer the subject. Students who speak English as a second language constitute 6 percent of the high school students in the sample and make up 12 percent of the students who are retained.

Discrepancies not only appear in the quality of education provided to students, but also in teachers’ salaries. Teachers in high-minority schools tend to be younger and less experienced. They are also paid less.

In Philadelphia, teachers may be paid up to $14,000 less than one of their older counterparts. In New York, the discrepancy is $8,000.

Duncan stressed that this data is not being used to accuse administrators and school boards of discrimination and that the data collected needs to be studied further. Instead, he cites a lack of transparency, saying that officials and educators “would be shocked” to learn about the data.

“I don’t think these are bad people,” Duncan said. “They just didn’t know how to handle a child that was struggling.”

Ali added, “This is a call to action for all of us to study what’s happening – not enough to signal a violation of the Civil Rights Act.”

While any complaints of civil rights violations will be investigated, the data collection is to be used to improve struggling schools. Ali pointed out that the data examines schools that are “defying the odds” so that other schools can use their tactics to challenge the status quo.

The data can be found online at ocrdata.ed.gov, and Duncan encourages people to check the site for updates.

“No other issue holds greater promise for opportunities,” he said.