A Lesson in Disparities

A new report shows just how unequal the American education system is.

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A new report says a third of high schools with the highest percentage of black and Latino students don't offer chemistry.

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The core promise of public education is that every student will have access to the best learning tools we can provide. But a new report from the U.S. Department of Education shows that we’re falling well short of giving all students equal access to a high-quality education.

Striking disparities exist between white students and black and Latino students when it comes to the availability of necessary classes, the experience level of teachers and the frequency with which students are disciplined. These disparities won’t come as a shock to anyone who’s involved in public education, but they should serve as a warning that we need to redouble our efforts to raise the quality of education for our most vulnerable students.

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Perhaps the most alarming finding in the report is that too many black and Latino students don’t even have access to the classes necessary to prepare them for college or the workforce. The Department found that “a quarter of high schools with the highest percentage of black and Latino students do not offer Algebra II; a third of these schools do not offer chemistry.”

We’re not talking about theoretical physics here. Colleges view chemistry and Algebra II as vital indicators of students’ ability and aptitude. And these two courses are essential to preparing more students for a future in the STEM fields (science, technology, engineering, and math) that offer high-paying jobs and add to our nation’s economic potential. We have to do better at ensuring minority students have access to these opportunities.

The ability to take higher-level classes – including Advanced Placement classes – also breaks down along racial lines. As Education Secretary Arne Duncan noted in a speech on Friday, “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.” Students can’t succeed at higher-level coursework if we don’t even give them the chance.

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The Education Department report also revealed disparities in access to experienced teachers. Black, Latino and Native American students are more likely to attend schools with a higher concentration of new and uncertified teachers.

This is in large part because of America’s backwards system of teacher placement. Teachers with the most experience and seniority are often assigned to (or choose) the highest-performing schools in the best neighborhoods. Experienced teachers also – and with good reason – gravitate toward suburban schools that pay better than urban school districts. The result is that schools with the highest need often have access only to teachers with the most limited experience.

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But we should be careful not to paint with too broad a brush. Many new teachers are exceptional. Their passion for teaching makes up for the pitfalls that come with the first few years in any new profession. And organizations like Teach for America have shown remarkable success drawing graduates of America’s elite colleges to teach in the nation’s most disadvantaged neighborhoods.

But experience also counts. Policymakers should be rethinking how to bring some of the best, most seasoned educators into the classrooms where they are most needed.

Finally, disparities in the number of out-of-school suspensions meted out to black students versus white students – starting as early as preschool – suggest that some schools may be too quick to take children out of the classroom. Students with disabilities are also twice as likely as students without disabilities to face out-of-school suspension.

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A host of issues outside the classroom may contribute to students acting out in school. But we must keep in mind one central fact: Children learn more in school than out of school. A disruptive student shouldn’t be allowed to keep his or her classmates from learning, but educators need to develop better ways to keep students in school – and learning – even when they do misbehave.

We’ve known about disparities in American education for decades, and for decades we’ve sought to correct them. But they still persist. The Education Department’s report will be most valuable if it catalyzes policymakers, superintendents, principals, teachers, parents, and everyone else in the education community to think creatively about how we can finally make changes that ensure students have access to a great education no matter where they go to school.