A Clearer Picture of the Education Gap in America

A Clearer Picture of the Education Gap in America

Students at Chicago Math and Science Academy enjoy new school supplies donated by Morningstar.

This school year, for the first time in history, there will be more minority students than white students in K-12 schools in America. Should that really be surprising, seeing as in 2012 the U.S. Census Bureau predicted that whites will become minorities by 2043 and it is already estimated that American children under age 5 are in the minority? But American schools don’t seem to have gotten the memo. There are still significant and widespread disparities between school resources and student achievement that are largely determined by where you live and what color your skin is. The face of America is changing, but America’s schools are not.

A first-of-its-kind study released by the U.S. Department of Education Office of Civil Rights on March 21, 2014, might just be the wake-up call the American education system needs to finally address the education gap, or at least U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan hopes so.

The study, the 2011-12 Civil Rights Data Collection (CRDC), examined all 16,500 school districts in the United States and their 97,000 public schools, which educate 49 million students. The full study is available here and a summary here). The sheer volume of data is huge but is broken down into digestible pieces, such as by state and school district.

Secretary Duncan, in his speech the day the study was released, was careful to assure the audience at J.O. Wilson Elementary School in Washington, D.C., that this wasn’t just more information overload and that the statistics gathered are meant to be meaningful and useful: “We don’t gather data just for its own sake, and we’re very mindful of not creating unnecessary burdens on schools.  The real power of the Civil Rights Data Collection lies not just in the numbers themselves, but in the real-world impact they can have when coupled with courage and the will to change.”

And as the CRCD clearly shows, the need to change business as usual in American education is great. Calling it a “landmark study,” Duncan said, “For the first time, we can now identify patterns in educational inequality for certain subgroups of students . . . And for the first time, we can now identify gaping disparities in educational supports and access from state-to-state. We can identify the good, the bad, and the ugly. We must celebrate and replicate success—and challenge the disparities in opportunities with a profound sense of urgency.”

Among the statistics that herald the need for change, said Duncan, were the facts that “[t]oday, nearly 700,000 students attend a high school without a school counselor,” most of which are in low-income and heavily minority communities. He also noted the lack of college preparation for large groups of students: “Black and Hispanic students account for close to 40 percent of high school students, but they constitute just over a quarter of students taking AP courses and exams, and only 20 percent of enrollment in calculus classes.”

Below are more findings from the CRDC:

During the 2011–12 school year:

  • A quarter of the schools with the highest percentage of black and Latino students did not offer Algebra II.
  • A third of these schools did not offer chemistry.
  • Less than half of American Indian and Native-Alaskan high school students had access to the full range of math and science courses, which consists of Algebra I, Geometry, Algebra II, calculus, biology, chemistry and physics.
  • Black and Latino students accounted for 40 percent of enrollment at schools with gifted programs, but only represented 26 percent of students in such programs.
  • Black, Latino, and Native American students attended schools with higher concentrations of first-year teachers (3 to 4 percent) than white students (1 percent).
  • Black students were more than three times as likely to attend schools where fewer than 60 percent of teachers meet all state certification and licensure requirements.
  • Latino students were twice as likely to attend such schools.


So where do we go from here? Secretary Duncan highlighted some successes to date, such as higher high school graduation rates, lower dropout rates, and higher college attendance rates on average for all students. He pointed to federal government initiatives to help close the achievement gap, including more funding for the Race to the Top program, and lauded universal preschool, which many say is the indicator for future success, academic and otherwise.

But, he noted, the real work will need to be done at the district and state levels: “We have over 16,000 school districts nationwide. They should be founts of innovation. I keep asking—and I could be proven wrong—but do we have one school district out of 16,000 that systematically identifies the most successful, hardest working teachers and principals and moves them systematically to the communities and schools who need the most help? Until we do that, we’ll keep talking about the achievement gap, but as a nation, we won’t be serious about addressing it.”

He closed by saying that the U.S. Department of Education “would be looking at how states and districts plan to address some of the gaping opportunity gaps identified in the CRDC, like increasing access to rigorous coursework, and attracting and retaining effective teachers and leaders in high-poverty schools and communities.”

So will we.

Concept Schools is a 501(3)(c) charter school support network with 29 college-prep, STEM-focused schools in 7 Midwest states that specializes in serving low-income, urban communities.

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