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Study: Minority, Low-Income Students Lack Adequate Access to Educational Opportunities

Low-income, African-American and Hispanic students continue to face significant disparities in access to quality educational opportunities and resources at the K-12 level – including access to services critical for college success, new data from the U.S. Department of Education show.

The study sample of 7,000 school districts and more than 72,000 schools in the Civil Rights Data Collection says many students have uneven or poor access to rigorous courses at many schools.

“Despite the best efforts of America’s educators to bring greater equity to our schools, too many children — especially low-income and minority children — are still denied the educational opportunities they need to succeed,” Russlynn Ali, U.S. assistant secretary of education for civil rights, says in a news statement.

Daria Hall, K-12 policy director for The Education Trust, says the data are important even if they are not surprising. “It provides more actionable information on the ground,” she says. “It’s a tool to empower parents and advocates and a strong vehicle to force conversations.”

“The evidence is clear. The single greatest predictor of college success is success in rigorous high school courses,” Hall says. She contends that the issue is not only access but success. “Just putting kids in courses with the right title isn’t enough. There must be highly trained teachers and school plans to promote success.”

The data examine the extent of high-level, college- and career-ready math and science courses at schools as well as the number of school counselors, the number of first- and second-year teachers in schools, availability of pre-kindergarten programs, and the extent of written policies prohibiting harassment and bullying. Among the findings: Schools serving mostly African-American students are twice as likely to have teachers with less experience — just one or two years in the profession — compared with schools in the same district that primarily serve White students.

While limited English proficient children are only 6 percent of high school students, they represent 15 percent of those for whom Algebra 1 is the highest-level math course taken in high school. In addition, 3,000 schools serving nearly 500,000 students offer no classes in Algebra 2, a key component of the SAT and other indicators of college readiness.

Only 22 percent of local districts reported offering pre-kindergarten or other early learning programs for low-income children.

Only 2 percent of students with disabilities are taking at least one Advanced Placement course. With education funding potentially in jeopardy in budget-reduction discussions in Washington, D.C., one leading Democrat said the new study provides a sober reminder of the important federal role in ensuring equal educational opportunity for all students.

“This new information reiterates that the federal government’s role in ensuring equal education for all students is just as critical as ever,” Rep. George Miller, D-Calif., ranking Democrat on the House Education and the Workforce Committee, says in a news release. He added that the report signaled a need for “serious, comprehensive” reform efforts in the federal Elementary and Secondary Education Act — the renewal of which is bogged down in Congress.

“Many schools aren’t educationally where they need to be, which ultimately means many students won’t graduate ready to succeed in a career or in higher education,” he says.

Elsewhere, the study noted that more than 2 million students in 7,300 schools had no access at all to calculus classes, a staple of many high-achieving high schools.

The report also found some gender differences, with girls underrepresented in physics and boys underrepresented in Algebra 2.

“This information is not really new to me. But I think it’s important to recognize the problems and the magnitude of the problems,” says Antonio Flores, president of the Hispanic Association of Colleges and Universities. “At a time when policymakers are engaged in a budget cutting frenzy, I think it’s critical to recognize the need to stop de-investing in education.”

Flores adds that adequate education funding is critical. “Money does matter, especially in lower-income communities that lack the facilities and staffing to offer the rigorous courses needed for colleges and beyond.”

While the government has conducted this data collection for several years, the new report reflects broader changes in its collection. The sample included school districts of all sizes as well as state-operated juvenile justice facilities.

A second phase of data later this year will include information on course completion rates, retention information by grade and teacher absenteeism, among other topics.

The Department of Education is offering most of the major findings online in a format that allows web users to examine findings by individual school and district, Ali noted.

For example, a check of the system finds that in Brookline, Mass., an affluent suburb of Boston, 19 percent of all students took at least one AP class in 2009. In Detroit, however, the rate that same year was only 3 percent.

“Transparency is the first step toward reform and for districts that want to do the right thing,” Ali says. The surveys provide detailed information back to schools to show “where they can improve and how to get better.”

To learn more about the Civil Rights Data Collection project, visit

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