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DISTRESSING DATA: U.S. Department of Education’s Civil Rights Data Collection Reveals Educational Disparities Beginning as Early as Preschool

“The fact that the school-to-prison pipeline appears to start as early as four years old— before kindergarten— should horrify us. We must do better—now!” – U.S. Sec. of Education Arne Duncan

During a March 21 event at J.O. Wilson Elementary School in Washington, DC, U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan and U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder released new data from the U.S. Department of Education’s Civil Rights Data Collection (CRDC) revealing wide disparities in the educational experiences of Asian American and white students compared to other students of color. Specifically, the CRDC finds gaps in access to college-prep courses and significant differences in high school retention, school suspensions and expulsion rates, and teacher salaries. For the first time, the CRDC includes data on preschool suspensions and expulsions and reports disturbing racial disparities among four-year-old children.

According to the CRDC, only 50 percent of U.S. high schools offer calculus and only 63 percent offer physics; between 10–25 percent of high schools do not offer more than one of the core courses in the typical sequence of high school math and science education, including Algebra I and II, geometry, biology, and chemistry.

“In many cases, lack of access to these classes means students cannot even take the required classes they need to apply to four-year colleges,” Duncan said. “This dummying down of expectations is devastating to families, communities, and ultimately to our nation. We can’t continue to relegate terrific talent and potential to the sidelines.”

Although the lack of access to high-level math and science courses affects many high school students nationwide, the CRDC data shows that this lack of access disproportionately impacts students of color. For example, 25 percent of high schools with the highest percentages of black and Latino students do not offer Algebra II and approximately 33 percent do not offer chemistry. Fewer than half of American Indian and Native Alaskan high school students have access to the full range of math and science courses, compared to 81 percent of Asian American and 71 percent of white high school students. Black students (57 percent), Latino students (67 percent), students with disabilities (63 percent), and English language learners (ELLs) (65 percent) also have diminished access to the full range of courses.

The CRDC data also reveals wide gaps in course availability by state. In Montana, Arkansas, and Wyoming, for example, more than 95 percent of all high schools offer Algebra II, compared to only 56 percent of high schools in Georgia and Alaska and 62 percent of high schools in California.

The CRDC data also demonstrates higher rates of retention in high school for black students, ELLs, and students with disabilities than their white peers. For example, 12 percent of black students are held back in the ninth grade—double the rate of all other students (6 percent) and much higher than Asian (2 percent) and white (4 percent) students. And while students with disabilities and ELLs make up 12 percent and 5 percent, respectively, of high school students, they account for 19 percent and 11 percent of all students held back or retained a year.

As part of its data on school discipline, the CRDC finds disproportionately high suspension and expulsion rates for students of color that begins as early as preschool. As shown in the graph below, black children represent 18 percent of preschool enrollment, but they account for 42 percent of preschool students who are suspended once and 48 percent of preschool students who receive more than one out-of-school suspension. By comparison, white students represent 43 percent of preschool enrollment, but only 26 percent of preschool children who receive more than one out-of-school suspension.


“I simply cannot understand how our public preschool programs could suspend nearly 5,000 young children in a single year—and suspend over 2,500 children more than once,” Duncan said. “The fact that the school-to-prison pipeline appears to start as early as four years old—before kindergarten—should horrify us. We must do better—now!”

Holder focused his remarks on the importance of effective school discipline policies that foster safe, inclusive, and positive learning environments while keeping students in school. He referenced the Obama administration’s new recommendations on classroom discipline that are designed to end disparities in how students of different races are punished for violating school rules and the president’s My Brother’s Keeper initiative, which helps boys and young men of color stay in school and find good jobs.

“A routine school discipline infraction should land a student in a principal’s office, not in a police precinct,” Holder said.

In addition to the findings above, the CRDC also identifies limited preschool access in much of the country, a dearth of college counselors—one in five high schools nationwide lacks a school counselor—and teacher salary disparities between schools with the highest and lowest black and Latino student enrollments.

“[The CRDC] paints a stark portrait of inequity in opportunity in America that is educationally unsound, morally bankrupt, and economically self-destructive to our nation’s best interest—this must compel us to act,” Duncan said.

Two specific actions that Duncan mentioned were (1) President Obama’s Preschool for All proposal, which would help states provide universal access to high-quality preschool to all four-year-old children from low- and moderate-income families, and (2) the new $300 million Race to the Top–Equity and Opportunity fund that Obama included in his Fiscal Year 2015 budget proposal to complement ED’s existing efforts to ensure equal opportunities for all students by “supporting and spotlighting state and district efforts to aggressively tackle achievement and opportunity gaps.”

Since 1968, the CRDC has collected data on key education and civil rights issues in the nation’s public schools to focus the U.S. Department of Education’s equity efforts and monitor the effectiveness of its programs. The data released last week comes from the CRDC’s 2011–12 collection, which includes data on every public school in the nation for the first time since 2000. In total, the collection includes information on approximately 16,500 school districts, 97,000 schools, and 49 million students.

“Let me be crystal clear,” Duncan said. “[These] numbers … are not projections. They are not estimates of educational opportunities in our nation’s public schools. They present the first, detailed nationwide picture of the opportunity gap in America’s schools.”

As part of the data release, ED’s Office for Civil Rights created new snapshots with detailed findings from the CRDC in four areas: early childhood education; school discipline, restraint, and seclusion; college and career readiness; and teacher and counselor equity. The snapshots are available at

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