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Opinion: Russlynn Ali: 'Stark inequity' in our schools demands attention
A survey done by the Dept. of Education showed that African-American and Latino students receive less resources in school.
March 15th, 2012
08:21 AM ET

Opinion: Russlynn Ali: 'Stark inequity' in our schools demands attention

Editor's note: Russlynn Ali is the Assistant Secretary for Civil Rights at the U.S. Department of Education.  She was a teacher, an attorney and worked at the Children's Defense Fund, and she has also taught law at the University of Southern California Law Center.  Ali was appointed to the Department of Education by President Barack Obama in 2009.

By Russlynn Ali, Special to CNN

(CNN) – If a society based on the ideal of fundamental equality is to fulfill its promise, it cannot afford to look away when confronted with stark inequity.  Last week, the Department of Education released a trove of data from Part II of the Civil Rights Data Collection (CRDC), a self-reported survey of more than 72,000 schools that serve 85 percent of the nation’s students.

The findings demand our attention.

This survey quantified how school resources are distributed in schools and districts; whether in teacher salaries, the assignment of experienced teachers, or access to college and career preparatory coursework like algebra, calculus or gifted and talented programs.  And it showed that African-American and Latino students routinely receive less.

These disparities stand out even more when contrasted with the one area where African-American and Latino students are consistently overrepresented – discipline, including the rates of suspension, expulsion, and in-school arrests.

In particular, the CRDC data show:

–Teachers in elementary schools serving the most Hispanic and African-American students are paid, on average, $2250 less per year than their colleagues in the same district teaching at schools serving the fewest Hispanic and African-American students.

–African-American students represent 16 percent of sixth through eighth graders, but 42 percent of students in those grades held back a year.

–Across all districts surveyed, African American students are over three and a half times more likely to be suspended or expelled than their white peers.  And over 70 percent of students involved in school-related arrests or referred to law enforcement are Hispanic or African-American.

These findings are troubling in isolation, and even more alarming when considered alongside the results from Part I of the CRDC.  That round of data, released last summer, showed similar disparities in areas like enrollment in pre-kindergarten and kindergarten programs and the distribution of teachers who do not meet state licensing or certification requirements.

Together, the CRDC data paint a distressing picture, of students being divided as they move through the educational system, into two distinct streams – one of which carries far too few minority students toward the kind of college and career preparation that is absolutely essential to equip them for a 21st century workforce and economy.

In the face of such widespread disparity, the urge toward immediate, dramatic action is natural, and strong.  And to ensure and promote educational equity, this Administration and Department of Education have repeatedly taken bold, proactive steps.

When the rigid dictates of No Child Left Behind prevented states from effectively targeting resources to the neediest students, and Congress refused to act, this Administration offered states relief and flexibility – in exchange for commitment to education reforms.  Through our Race to the Top initiative, the Obama Administration has awarded $5 billion to 21 states to encourage expanded access to college- and career-ready courses, and to train and support teachers to help students graduate from high school prepared for college and career.

And it was this Administration that transformed the CRDC – for decades a little-known, unwieldy set of data – into a user-friendly, expanded online public resource with additional equity indicators, searchable down to the school and district level.

Our reinvigorated Office for Civil Rights has issued additional policy guidance, provided technical assistance across the country, and launched well over 80 proactive investigations.

The current CRDC data unquestionably represent another call to action.  But we must be clear and firm in stressing that data alone cannot be a substitute for the thorough investigation necessary to establish violations of civil rights law.

The CRDC does provide vital information about issues of equity, and in order to respond effectively, we must first work with genuine urgency to gain a deeper understanding of exactly what it is the data tell us.  We must continue to work with schools and districts to help teachers and principals develop the best techniques for managing student behavior and focusing energy on student learning.

Fortunately, the CRDC can also help point to solutions, since its wealth of data can be sorted and searched in order to identify schools and districts that are defying trends in pursuit of excellence.

For instance, at Andrew Jackson in Chicago, nearly 70 percent of students are Asian/Pacific Islander, American/Indian/Alaska Native, Black or Hispanic – yet there is almost no achievement gap between groups of students in reading math.  Every African-American and Hispanic student taking Algebra I in grades 7 or 8 passed.  For students without disabilities, less than one percent of African-American and Hispanic students at Andrew Jackson received an out-of-school suspension in 2009-10.

Clearly, there are many schools and districts working hard to do the right thing.  And where the weight of evidence suggests there is cause for concern, our Office for Civil Rights (OCR) is vigilant in acting to enforce federal civil rights law.  OCR has launched 14 comprehensive compliance reviews over the last two years into discipline disparities, for example in cases where it appears that students with similar histories, committing the same offenses, are treated differently based on race.

This variety of approaches is necessary – there is no one way to protect and promote educational equity that will be appropriate in every circumstance.  In many instances, CRDC can serve as a powerful spotlight – one that can highlight best practices, pinpoint areas for teacher and principal training, or illuminate potential trouble spots.  But CRDC’s most useful function may ultimately be in its potential to serve as a mirror.  If this data accomplishes nothing else, it can and should prompt schools, districts and communities across this country to engage in the kind of honest, sometimes uncomfortable self-reflection that is at the heart of any sincere effort to improve.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Russlynn Ali.

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Filed under: Black in America • Discrimination • Education • Race • Social justice • What we think
soundoff (35 Responses)
  1. chrisnot

    Seems like everyone out there makes education a terribly difficult thing. Actually its really easy. If parents read to their babies on a regular basis, if parents read to their toddlers on a regular basis.., and, if they keep doing this through their childs 4th or 5th year.., and, if they have a lot of books in the house, this child is going to be inquisitive and seeking more. If not, well, we see what those results are. The quality of the school plays a part, but , by no means, the greater part. The parents play the greater part. Scarey, huh?

    March 19, 2012 at 9:00 pm | Report abuse |
  2. Honest131

    I read the whole article. Then I read it again. Then I laughed. You can not talk about race and education without involving socio-economic norming. Virtually every stat she quoted falles away the first time you filter by economics. Taxes for education are largely a regional issue. Subsequently a poor environment has less to pay for equipment and teachers. This as a generality, means less quality in the ways and means of the childs eduaction. Add in the other well known factors of economic stress, i.e. alcoholism, drug abuse, domestic violence, absent parenting, etc that affect all races with these issues and guess what? Its not really a race thing. Its a economics issue. Its a jobs issue. Now, can you say that there is a disproportionate number of non-caucasians it a lower socio-economic environment? Yes, that would be true. Decades of discrimination led to that. So hit it where it counts. Its about the jobs and economy. The rest will fix itself. Remember no one set of statistics is ever really the truth. Oh, and if this wasn't a problem, she wouldn't have a job. So, follow the money!

    March 19, 2012 at 4:11 pm | Report abuse |
  3. srtbhryhy

    WHAT IS IT with this country and being completely obsessed with race?? So stupid

    March 19, 2012 at 12:55 pm | Report abuse |
  4. irma o"neil robinson

    The Schools in Houston, Texas and East Texas Don't have books for the students to take home to study with. They say they just don;t have them. That's like trying to build a house with out a hammer and nails. So before we got the computer, she would have her worksheet , but no point of reference to go by to do do her homework!!

    March 15, 2012 at 11:18 pm | Report abuse |
  5. twang

    Its real simple. If you have a job and live in a nice area you pay high taxes. High taxes pay for a good school. If your a low life gangster or a crack ho liveing on welfare, paying zero taxes and living in a slum,you are not gonna have a nice school.

    March 15, 2012 at 8:26 pm | Report abuse |
  6. post-a-note

    Sorry but I am sick and tired of people barking about the lack of equal funding. I was a teacher for 20 years. It wasn't always about the funding. I worked in an inner city school and if I had a dollar for every time I was told that white people shouldn't be teaching black kids, I could have retired years ago. We had funding but it wasn't properly used. The administration was too busy finding ways to pocket the money. I had parents who truly wanted their children to get a good education but there were those who couldn't care less. Unless the parents and the administration get a clue then education will continue to rot.

    March 15, 2012 at 8:19 pm | Report abuse |
  7. Concerned

    They spend & spend, but it is not inequity that holds kids back. The public school gets 3 times the funding of a private school nearby. The public school has the latest gizmos & newly expanded building with the latest technology. The private school is old & worn, but the emphasis is a solid education, not teaching just what is on the state tests. There is after school tutoring available in every class once a week on a schedule throughout the year. Parents are involved & the student is always responsible for their own actions. Violence is not tolerated. Drugs are not tolerated.
    The public school must keep the students who prevent other students from learning with outbursts & violence. Drugs are often dealt out of the bathrooms. Learning is ridiculed. It is extremely difficult to get any teacher to agree to tutoring. Parents are often hostile & teachers can be hostile too.
    I have experience with both schools & I realize that chucking money at it is not the answer because if that were true the public school would be doing better with triple the funding & all new schools, a new aquatics center, a new sports complex with an indoor sports center under construction. I have watched them pour money into the public school for 18 years. Their website brags that they have no dropouts but the state data on the same site says white students have 1.5% dropouts & blacks have a 0.5% dropout rate. The state average is 4.4%
    What is even more troubling is the local community college booklet lists remedial classes for fully half of the offered courses & it takes graduates of high school up to 5 YEARS to complete a 2 year associates degree with 1/3 dropping out & never completing a degree. It looks like these kids need to be taught material they were supposed to have learned to graduate from high school. Something is seriously wrong there.

    March 15, 2012 at 5:49 pm | Report abuse |
  8. Shullfinn

    If the schools, with the highest amount of African-Americans, isn’t being properly funded, then that’s a problem.

    However, the biggest problem is usually the childrens parents. African-American parents must step-up and motivate their children to do well in school. Sadly, many do not. The schools cannot do it alone.

    March 15, 2012 at 5:13 pm | Report abuse |
    • Jose

      You got that right. Many parents are too lazy to help their kids.

      I learned more from my parents than I ever did at school. They made us study and do our homework.

      March 15, 2012 at 5:22 pm | Report abuse |
    • John Schwendler

      It's not just one ethnic group. It's all ethnic groups. Please. Wake up.

      March 15, 2012 at 7:32 pm | Report abuse |
  9. Chuck

    If the facts are true about the math scores, why isn't the department of education studying this school? Maybe that's where the magic education pill is hidden. Does anyone remember a normal distribution? Once people were convinced that educational level made a difference in pay , everyone wanted to get the most pay. So we should all be able to be doctors or engineers. If we can't pass it's not our fault it's the system.

    March 15, 2012 at 3:49 pm | Report abuse |
    • Wondering

      The only magic educational pill is hard work!!! They don't tell you this but Andrew Jackson is a magnet/charter school. The problem is that magnet/charter schools only take a small portion of students and they only take the cream of the crop in lower performing schools. They tell you they have a lottery system, but the application process is screened. They also do not have to follow the rules of normal public schools. If a student doesn't follow the rules, the student is removed from the school and put back in public school. A public school "MUST" educate everyone. We are not allowed to remove students. If one is expelled, the school district MUST provide alternate services to that student. Also, charter/magnet schools have a very small amount of students in the school; therefore the teacher/student ratio is where it should be. If public schools could operate like magnet/charter schools, then you would see the same results in minority scores and discipline across the country. The fact of the matter is public schools in these under performing schools are left with all of the students whose parents don't care about their education. Of course there are exceptions to this, but for the majority that’s the way it is. Until parents start taking their child’s education seriously, there is nothing anyone can do. We cannot make students do anything. We can encourage, demand, talk to the parents until we are blue in the face, if the parents don’t make their children do homework, go to bed at a proper time, and study, there is not much more a teacher can do other than the best he/she can be with what they have.
      There's your study……….

      March 16, 2012 at 2:01 pm | Report abuse |
  10. Stephen

    You can go back thirty years and look at the reports that were being done by the newly founded Department of Education and they identified the very same problems we have in this report today. It is the Department of educations job to keep these kinds of disparities from happening and in thirty years they have little or no improvement. Instead they have focused on teacher benefits and in taking the responsiblility for curriculms away from local school boards. The DOE has failed miserably in its responsibility to ensure that every child in america has the same opportunity for a good basic education. They need to stay out of the classroom and instead focus on conditions and infrastructure to ensure that our kids have the modern facilites and equipment that they need. The DOE has spent Billions of dollars on trying to change the way history is written and political correctness and school lunch programs but they have spent very little on testing and qualifing teachers to actually be knowledgeable about the subjects that they are responsible for teaching to our kids. If the DOE is shirking their basic job of making sure that our kids are all receiving the quality of education they need to go on to our universities and work places then we need to have an investigation and a reassessment of the DOE and its failed policies.

    March 15, 2012 at 3:34 pm | Report abuse |
  11. Tim

    Guess the data says poor people make poor choices.

    March 15, 2012 at 3:16 pm | Report abuse |
  12. mp

    Isn't locally controlled education mutually exclusive with equality of education as long as locality is not equal, in terms of culture and resources? How can you have both at the same time? I think we have to agree as a nation which is more important first.

    March 15, 2012 at 2:58 pm | Report abuse |
  13. mike

    Really? Read this sentence again: Every African-American and Hispanic student taking Algebra I in grades 7 or 8 passed. Really? wow, must be some grade shinannagins going in that school. ALL schools have their problem students in every subject, regardless of race. And math is one of the harder ones. So for EVERY student to pass, i'd say their cooking the grades.

    March 15, 2012 at 1:57 pm | Report abuse |
  14. Bit Torrent

    Pointing at $ as being the problem is simplistic and naive.
    How does giving more $ solve the disciplinary problems mentioned? It won't and it can't. Unless the student is motiviated to learn, either by their role models or self-motivated, you can throw all the $ you want at this problem and it won't change anything. When it comes down to it, in general, when a student fails, you'll find the problem is not with the school, it's with the student and/or guardians of that student.

    March 15, 2012 at 1:32 pm | Report abuse |
    • AM

      As a Teacher, I can wholeheartedly agree to what Bit is saying.

      March 15, 2012 at 2:17 pm | Report abuse |
      • falfurious

        The article also fails to address the disparity in pay issue. Most teachers with seniority ie higher pay, will opt to transfer out of the troubled schools ASAP. Money does NOT help the issue. Most students with lower academic standing come from homes that will have more TV's and extraneous electronic gadgetry than will have books. Encouraging a youngster to read (anything!) will only improve the comprehension skills needed for everything else.

        March 15, 2012 at 3:05 pm | Report abuse |
    • Mike K.

      The primary reason teachers at minority/low income schools are paid less is because of unions. In the union system, teachers with the most seniority choose which schools within the district they will work at. Since pay in the union system is based on seniority, this skews the pay scale. Most senior educators will choose middle class students over low income students because they are perceived as less of a problem. True, there are some teachers who will go where they think they'll do the most good, unfortunately, they are the exception, not the rule.

      March 15, 2012 at 3:07 pm | Report abuse |
    • Alex

      100% agree.

      March 15, 2012 at 4:31 pm | Report abuse |
    • ted

      well, pointing to money is a simplistic gesture but it's simplicity does not discard it as an explanation. Districts that have a population with a higher income will produce more funds at a fixed rate than those with lower incomes. This would suggest that the available resources allocated toward education would be greater in high income districts and lower in low income districts. Further research would suggest that people at low income levels have more children than those at high income levels. This could account for the difference in parental involvement. If you have more children and less income to support them, then the fixed amount of individual involvement in their education will be allocated to a larger interval. Thus sacrificing the amount of attention given specifically to the educational progress of a child. For example, kids that have to look after younger siblings or help with domestic priorities will have less time available for homework or studying. These statistics are not surprising but merely a reflection of our society. Its better than it ever was but very far from perfect. A magnitude of variables can be contributed to these current conditions but a single reason behind these results remains absent.

      March 17, 2012 at 5:32 am | Report abuse |
  15. Lucy's Mom

    There is not enough money in the world that we can throw at the education system to overcome the cultural differences of Latinos and African American families vs. causian and Asian familiies. California is a perfect example. Once a beacon for a first-class education, CA has been overrun with illegal aliens and their children. I regularly encounter Latino children 4, 5 and 6 years old with NO COMPREHENSION OF THE ENGLISH LANGUAGE! How in the world do you expect these children to succeed in school when they can't understand English? We spend scarce resources on ESL classes but the drop out rate is still 42% in the LA Unified School District. We actually hurt those students that want to learn by diverting our resources to them. My school district is predominantly Asian, and one of the top elementary schools in the state. Again, it's a cultural difference and no amount of taxpayer $ is going to change that!

    March 15, 2012 at 1:28 pm | Report abuse |
  16. Steve

    Statistics are wonderful aren't they? But if you really want to see the issues at hand, maybe seeing things first hand can help. Why are a disproportionate number of blacks and hispanics held back? Could it also be attributed to the fact that many of these children come from homes where the parents aren't educated or don't stress education? If the parents aren't pushing their children, no amount of resources in school will help. As for the arrests, this is a time honored argument that continues to fall flat. Why are there more hispanic and blacks being arrested? Maybe it is again due to the areas that they live. Inner cities are more prone to gangs, and gangs are more commonly composed of minorities. I highly doubt that if two students are walking down the hallway, one being white and the other black, that someone in an authoritative role targets the black child and disregards any wrong doing by the white student. Printing statistics such as these would be akin to printing statistics that show more people drown near oceans than cornfields. The numbers aren't lying, but the questions are definitely skewed.

    March 15, 2012 at 1:09 pm | Report abuse |
    • Reprobate

      I am confused by this piece as I was by the piece posted last week. I tried my hardest to find statistics which conclude without certainty that white students commited the exact same infractions as other students and weren't punished the same. Without this conclusive data, this is all worthless. I want to see this data for myself. I want to know if a black student was given detention for the same incident commited by a white student, what is the background info? Was the black kid given multiple warnings? Was he already disruptive? How offenses were tallied or commited? Why is this data left out? I would like to echo others in saying this all starts at home. It's not the government's responsibility to go into a person's home and force them to be good parents. Is it? How can we lay this at the feet of the Dept of Education? How much is it costing us taxpayers to gather and organize this data? What good is it if these kids are not given the proper attention at home?

      March 15, 2012 at 1:20 pm | Report abuse |
  17. tom

    couldn't agree more with the author
    for every city, take the total amount of taxes and divide it by the number of students and they all get that amount "given to them" in the form of resources for their education.
    then, when the African-American and Latino, and anyone else that is invariably compared to white students don't succeed, they're finally won't be anyone to blame, and blame and blame and blame until we all wanna puke.
    how does this explain why some racial minorities, like Asians, do better as a group than whites?
    its a shame that so many in our country insist that the lowest common denominator is the best approach to everything, including those who purport themselves to be on the side of education.

    March 15, 2012 at 1:03 pm | Report abuse |
  18. Sam

    CNN posted another story not far back about why parental love is the most critical ingredient in determining a child's relative "success" in their endeavors...so there's that. I can't remember the last/first time a teacher gave me a good grade for being white, nor was anyone ever expelled or suspended becaue they weren't. If I received a good grade on an exam it was because, well, I answered most questions correctly. Similarly, those who answered questions incorrectly on exams received correspondingly lower grades, regardless of their skin color. Do poorly on enough examinations and...you're held backa grade. Also, in my school whites, blacks and hispanics alike were given disciplinary action for offenses they committed. The proportion of "what race is in the blue room" was thus determined by those who were there, and not the color of their skin. In other words: this author seeks to implicate race as an issue – implying racisism – rather than individual performance and choice.

    March 15, 2012 at 12:53 pm | Report abuse |
  19. Thinkforyouself!!!

    So what she is saying is that some parents can take of their kids. You know guide them, challenge them and even put their needs befor their own. But some parents can't be bothered with their kids. So the rest must suffer, for these few who can't take the time to be parnets. Can't be bothered by responsibilty to family and community, and it is all the white peoples fault. It's funny though. I make less than the nonwhite families in my neighborhood(I assume becuse I can't afford a new car and they seem to have a new one every other week), yet my girls are on the honor roll, have no discipline probles, and generally good kids. I like to think it is cause I have an active interest in their lives, but who knows. Maybe I just got lucky. On the other hand I see the other kids skipping school, running around late at night on a school night and being a nuisance. Bottom line is, take of your kids and they will succeed and be offered special programs and advanced studies, don't and they will be expelled and arrested. Quit with this,"Oh my skin is colored and the world isn't being given to me because of that," mentality and maybe your kids will do better.

    March 15, 2012 at 12:04 pm | Report abuse |
    • hereiam

      Well said! I agree with you 100%!

      March 15, 2012 at 12:43 pm | Report abuse |
    • sadie456

      I completely agree about the crucial value of good parenting. But the issue surely is: where effective parenting is absent, should the affected children simply be ignored? Surely a decent society would want to have some role in trying to support such children.

      March 15, 2012 at 3:23 pm | Report abuse |
      • Wondering

        Absoulutely, but we can't make students do anything and trust me when I say, if you don't make them, they won't do it! Teachers support those kids everyday! Problem is that the parents don't support the educational system, the teachers or their own children!

        March 16, 2012 at 2:11 pm | Report abuse |
    • Alice

      Amen, but then it's always easier to blame whites than putting forth effort and actually being accountable.

      March 15, 2012 at 3:35 pm | Report abuse |
      • Carlos

        I am a firm beliver that in today's society, racism is no longer based on the color of one's skin but rather the behavior associated with the color of one's skin. When you stand in the hallways between classes,the ones causing the most problems and acting the loudest are from the minorty kids. They have very few role models when it comes to behavior. They would rather model to the gangsters and thugs they see on TV rather than a decent hard working individual from their own race. When I ask them who their role models are, it is rare when someone mentions their own parents.

        March 15, 2012 at 9:36 pm | Report abuse |
  20. Prettygal

    I agree. We live in a upper middle class area, and we are paying 10000 per year in taxes. We choose to send our child to a CATHOLIC school-even though we are not catholic. The education is better.

    March 15, 2012 at 7:24 pm | Report abuse |
  21. tratt

    There is discrimination. But, that is not the reason for the incredible achevement gap. Pursuing anti-discrimination acts is an honorable path. Just as chasing dust-bunnies in a dirt floor cabin is. Honorable, but not only ineffective in dealong with the big picture, but almost an effort to hide from it, as well.

    March 18, 2012 at 9:09 pm | Report abuse |