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Department of Education finds pattern of inequality by race in public schools

March 21, 2014 at 6:20 PM EST
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JUDY WOODRUFF: A new report spells out the scope of a problem with access, opportunity and discipline in public schools in the United States.

For the first time in almost 15 years, the Department of Education has published data on this subject from all 97,000 public schools across the country. And the findings highlight big patterns of disparity by race.

Hari Sreenivasan in our New York studio has the story.

HARI SREENIVASAN: The findings cover a wide spectrum of issues: African-American and Latino students who aren’t even offered some essential courses in math and science, too many kids taught by inexperienced teachers, and a high percentage of suspensions among students of color.

Catherine Lhamon is assistant secretary in the Office for Civil Rights at the Department of Education, who worked on this survey. She joins me now.

So this was the first year you began tracking preschool suspensions. And a fact that grabbed a lot of headlines today was that African-American children comprise 18 percent of all those enrolled, but account for nearly half of all suspensions.

And, you know, frankly, I didn’t even know that you could get suspended in preschool. How does someone get suspended? And then really what does this mean for them down the line?

CATHERINE LHAMON, Assistant Secretary, Office for Civil Rights, Department of Education: You know, Hari, we feel the same level of shock that you describe.

I do not understand how it can possible that we see thousands of children who are suspended at years 3 and 4 years old from preschool. I can’t conceive of a situation that would actually justify a preschool suspension.

I am offended, as the chief civil rights enforcer at the Department of Education, and I am offended as a mom of two little girls. I just think that that information is shocking. And it’s something that we categorically need to end for all of our children in all of our schools.

HARI SREENIVASAN: So, does this contribute to the school-to-prison pipeline?

CATHERINE LHAMON: It absolutely does.

And the preschool suspensions also send an unmistakable message that the children who are suspended are not welcome in school, are not kids that we want to see in school, and that our schools aren’t prepared for them. So we’re teaching them an appalling lesson at the very beginning of their educational experience about their worth in life and their school’s preparedness for them.

HARI SREENIVASAN: Besides punishment, the data reveals a pattern of students of color and how they have less experienced teachers. African-American, Latino and Native American students attend schools with higher concentrations of first-year teachers than white students do.

Why is this?

CATHERINE LHAMON: Well, the data doesn’t tell us why.

The data that we released today tells us a picture of inequity and inequity in our schools across the country. And then the task for each of next is to try to figure out the whys. That’s something that my staff and my office and I do on a daily basis.

But the good news about this data is that it’s also something that all of us can access. We have made this data. In the Obama administration, we have made this data publicly available, very accessible. Any mom, any student, any researcher, any educator, any teacher, any community member anywhere in the country can take a look at the data, can try to figure out what it means, and what needs to be changed or not changed in their schools, and how to act on it.

So I hope all of us are taking this data as a call of action, so that we can see greater equity in the conditions in all our schools.

HARI SREENIVASAN: It also points to the fact that these inequities continue over the years.

Let’s turn to the question of kids not even being offered the classes they may need to go on in college and life. The report found, while more than 80 percent of Asian-American and more than 70 percent of white students had access to full range of math and science courses in high schools, only 67 percent of Latinos were at a school that offered a range of advanced classes, 57 percent for African-American students, and fewer than half of American Indian and native Alaskan high school students.

So, what are the consequences of students coming out of these schools without access to same basic science or math education?

CATHERINE LHAMON: The consequences are devastating for us as a country, in addition to the devastating consequences for each of the kids who are in these schools.

We are not preparing our youth to be able to be productive, full members of our society. And we’re not preparing our youth, all of our youth on an equal basis for college and career readiness. We are seeing discrepancies that are shocking about the full access to college and career-ready course work in schools that we need to see for all our kids.

But we also are seeing just shocking discrepancies in the offerings of these schools — of these courses across the board. We have learned in this data that only half of our high schools in the nation offer calculus. Fifty percent of our high schools offer calculus to anyone.

And when we talk about the offerings, we’re not even saying, you know, is there enough for everybody who wants to take it and is it well-taught and is it well-supported? It’s, does anybody in that high school — and these high schools often have thousands of kids in them — does anybody in these schools have access to calculus? That’s — that’s amazing.

HARI SREENIVASAN: So, this might be a bigger-picture question, but there’s been a push for national equity in education for a long time. We had a Supreme Court decision in the ’50s, the Civil Rights Act in the ’60s. Why are we still having these outcomes?

CATHERINE LHAMON: Very, very frustrating. And it’s hard to know all of the reasons why we see discrimination in its various forms.

What we know from this data is not that discrimination exists. What we know from the data is that disparities exist. And then we need to look underneath that to try to get at those whys. And that’s what we do in the Office for Civil Rights with the data. When we take a look at these discrepancies, then we go in and we investigate to see if there’s more that needs to be done and if there’s changes that need to be made.

And the kinds of things that we see when we do those investigations are, for example, that school administrators think there are particular kids in their school who can’t succeed, and so then they don’t offer courses to those kids and we don’t have those offerings in the schools.

We see that and then we get it changed. So we enter into agreements and we change those practice for those kids. But it’s a bit of a Whac-A-Mole problem, where we find out about it in one place, and we correct the problem in one place, and then have got to go find it in another.

And it’s time for us as a nation to enter into a different conversation and to commit ourselves to the educational opportunity that all of our kids are entitled to and that our laws promise to all of our kids.

HARI SREENIVASAN: All right, Catherine Lhamon, assistant secretary in the Office for Civil Rights at the Department of Education, thanks so much.

CATHERINE LHAMON: Thank you.

PBS NewsHour education coverage is part of American Graduate: Let’s Make it Happen, a public media initiative made possible by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.