Ferguson: Broken trust and the urgency of equal opportunity

The recent events in Ferguson, Missouri, have been on the minds of many of us at the Department of Education. Secretary Duncan addressed the topic in a staff-wide email just before the Thanksgiving holiday. Because of the importance of the topic, we are posting his email below.

Dear Colleagues,

Like many of you, I have been troubled by the death of Michael Brown, the tragic loss to his family and his community, and what has been happening in Ferguson, Missouri, over recent months and over the past 36 hours.

We come to work at this agency each day because we believe in the world that is possible when equity and justice and peace and opportunity are a reality in the lives of our communities and our young people.  Thus, it is especially difficult to watch the scenes of violence and unrest in Ferguson.  Evident in those scenes is a broken trust that exists within communities well beyond Missouri, between people – particularly those of color – and the official institutions that are there to serve them.

I must stress that nonviolence is the most powerful strategy and the only path to a real solution.  What we are seeing in Ferguson speaks to some important and deep issues that won’t be resolved just by bringing quiet to the streets there.

For our young people to succeed, they have to be connected, to know that they have a stake, to have opportunities open to them, to trust in our legal system, and trust that the adults and society around them have their best interests at heart.  I worry when young people may have lost their trust in our system of laws and democracy, and become disconnected – from adults, from society, from school, and from the police.  I believe that this alienation, lack of trust, and disconnect is how we start to lose some of our young people, especially in communities of color.  I believe it is our job as adults to do everything we can to rebuild that trust – in Ferguson and throughout the country.

Solving those problems and setting communities on a path to trust isn’t a quick fix.  Relationships are built – or damaged – over time.  We should take away from Ferguson that we need a conversation to rebuild those relationships, throughout the country, and that need is urgent.  It needs to involve everyone – our young people, our parents, our schools, our faith communities, our government officials, and the police.  It needs to happen now.

Moving that conversation forward is part of the work that so many of us do – and in fact, for many of us, it’s the reason for it.  We are together in that effort, and it has never been more important.  Thanks for what you do every day to advance opportunity, cohesion, understanding, trust, and justice.

Finally, as you gather with your families and in your communities for Thanksgiving, let’s all be thankful for our many blessings and hopeful that we can get to a place where all of America’s children feel they have an equal opportunity to succeed in life thanks to a great education, a rewarding job, and the caring of adults around them.

Best wishes,

Arne

Ensuring Equal Access to Educational Resources for All Students

All of our students deserve equal access to educational resources like academic and extracurricular programs, strong teaching, facilities, technology, and instructional materials, no matter their race, color, or national origin.

That’s why my office, the Office for Civil Rights at the U.S. Department of Education, released new guidance this week to educators to ensure that all students have equal access to the school resources that they not only deserve, but are their right under Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.

Our most recent Civil Rights Data Collection shows that only two out of three Latino high school students and three out of five of black high school students attend schools that offer the full range of math and science courses, defined by OCR as Algebra I, geometry, Algebra II, calculus, biology, chemistry and physics. Since the start of this Administration, OCR has received more than 260 complaints related to resource equity. OCR has also initiated 33 investigations of states, school districts and schools. Here are two recent examples from our investigations to ensure that students of color could access the educational resources that are their right:

  • In a New Hampshire school district, black and Latino students were disproportionately under-enrolled in the district’s Advanced Placement courses. In an agreement with OCR, the district committed to consider increasing the numbers and types of courses offered and adding more teachers qualified to teach higher-level courses, among other remedies.
  • Earlier this year, in a California school district, OCR found that during the 2010-11 school year, black students in grades 3-6 were more than 4.5 times less likely than their white peers to be identified for the Gifted and Talented (GATE) program. To rectify this, the district agreed to revise GATE criteria and enrollment practices to eliminate barriers to equal access.

We released this guidance to give schools, school districts, and states detailed information on how OCR investigates resource disparities and to set a clear framework for educators on how to comply with the fundamental principle that all students, no matter their race, color, or national origin, deserve equal access to a high-quality education.

In remarks announcing the new guidance, Secretary Arne Duncan described numerous inequities in access to strong teaching, rigorous coursework, and quality facilities. “These facts, and this reality, compels us to act,” he said. “We cannot simply wring our hands and admire the problem.”

This guidance is just one part of President Obama’s larger commitment to equity, including the recently announced Excellent Educators for All initiative. It also builds on recommendations from the Equity and Excellence Commission’s 2012 “For Each and Every Child” report.

We released this guidance to end the tired practice of offering students of color less than we offer other students and to make sure that all of our students have access to the education they deserve.

Across the Department, my colleagues are also working to provide opportunities for students of color. The Department has recently announced grants to support underrepresented students in gifted and talented programs, to develop and evaluate new approaches that can expand college access, to help at-risk high school students prepare for college, and to boost college and career readiness for historically underserved students.

To view OCR’s fact sheet on resource equity in English, click here, and to view it in Spanish, click here. To view the press release, click here.

Catherine E. Lhamon is Assistant Secretary for Civil Rights at the U.S. Department of Education.

Real Equality in Education Remains Elusive

This op-ed originally appeared in the National Journal.

This year the nation will commemorate two historic actions taken to protect equal rightsthe 60th anniversary of Brown v. Board of Education — the landmark U.S. Supreme Court case that abolished state-sponsored segregation in public education — and the Civil Rights Act, which prohibits discrimination based on race, color, religion, sex, or national origin.

We are left with an important question: Has the promise of Brown and the Civil Rights Act been fulfilled?

Most people agree that despite progress made, educational equity and opportunity remains out of reach for many students from diverse language and cultural backgrounds. For example, of all students enrolled in low-performing schools, 42 percent are black and 33 percent are Latino. Furthermore, these students are much more likely to be taught by teachers with less experience than those leading classrooms in more affluent, mostly white school districts.

There is some good news. Communities that recognize the value of language and cultural diversity have contributed to the proliferation of dual-language programs in schools across the country. California, Illinois, and New York all offer students what’s known as the Seal of Bi-literacy, a distinction that appears on the diplomas and transcripts of students who have become proficient in two or more languages by high school graduation.Legislation that would create a similar student recognition is either pending or under consideration in 10 other states.

Boosting the number of students able to speak, read, and write in more than one language—what President Obama and Education Secretary Arne Duncan sometimes refer to as “bi-literacy skills”—has become essential to America’s future economic prosperity and national security.

We also have more work to do. According to the Education Department’s latest Civil Rights Data Collection, information compiled from all 97,000 of the nation’s public schools, black students (57 percent), Latino students (67 percent), and English learners (65 percent) have less access than their white, English-speaking peers (71 percent) to the kinds of rigorous math and science courses needed for college and many careers.

The CRDC also provides other evidence of unequal opportunity. Students in the process of learning English represent 5 percent of the nation’s high school students but only 2 percent of those enrolled in advanced-placement courses. Among students already proficient in English, about 7 percent participate in gifted and talented programs at their schools. That figure is three and a half times larger than the paltry 2 percent of students in the process of learning English who participate in similar programs.

In a country where the share of students who come from households where languages other than English are spoken at home is expanding, one has to wonder how much untapped potential is being squandered. How many exceptional minds are insufficiently challenged each day?

A number of recent incidents have also served to remind us that we have much more to do to ensure supportive, inclusionary, and egalitarian environments for all our children. Recently a school principal in Texas made headlines when she described the act of speaking Spanish as “disruptive” and prohibited it at school. Although the principal’s contract was not renewed and the ban on speaking Spanish lifted, this incident had a chilling effect on students and the community. It opened old wounds left from a time when this kind of language oppression was common.

Sadly, in the past year alone Education Department staff has heard similar stories during visits to schools in California, Colorado, Illinois, and Nevada. Students, parents, and even Hispanic teachers have reported being prohibited from speaking Spanish in all settings, including parent-teacher conferences. The agency’s Office for Civil Rights has also investigated several complaints alleging that school districts discriminate on the basis of national origin by prohibiting, and sometimes punishing, students for speaking in their native language. In 2013, the division received almost 80 official complaints containing allegations of discrimination on the basis of national origin involving services for English-learner students and/or communication with parents of limited English proficiency.

In many of these cases, districts have not been able to show valid educational justifications for these actions. Ironically, the reason given by many school administrators and districts for prohibiting Spanish is what I see as the misguided notion that this promotes more rapid learning of the English language.

As a former bilingual-education teacher, principal, and district superintendent, I have a hard time conceptualizing any valid educational justification for barring languages other than English from schools, making it more difficult for parents and teachers to communicate or sending the message to students that speaking a second language is a bad thing. Instead, it seems clear that these sorts of actions leave students and parents feeling excluded. Devaluing other languages and cultures is not only harmful to student identity and self-confidence, but can also be disruptive to the learning process.

In this country, we have a civic duty and moral obligation to be vigilant and courageous in taking appropriate action when we witness cases of mistreatment and exclusion of any student. We must embrace the richness and diversity that is our cultural and linguistic heritage. And, as we collectively face increasing global economic and political interdependency, equipping more students with the skills to read, speak, and write in multiple languages represents not only an advantage but an essential part of our country’s security.

Only when schools consistently do both will we realize the promise of Brown and the broader civil-rights movement.

Libia S. Gil is the assistant deputy secretary in the Education Department’s Office of English Language Acquisition.

Equity and Excellence Commission Delivers Report to Secretary Duncan

The need to improve the country’s education system is urgent, according to the Co-Chairs of the Equity and Excellence Commission who formally presented their report to Secretary of Education Arne Duncan on Tuesday. The Commission’s report, “For Each and Every Child,” highlights the need to eliminate “education disparities affecting millions of underserved and disadvantaged students.”

The 27-member Commission includes scholars, teachers’ union leaders, state and local education officials, and education reformers and advocates, and was charged to provide advice to the Secretary “on the disparities in meaningful educational opportunities that give rise to the achievement gap, with a focus on systems of finance,” as well as ways that the federal government can address such disparities.

While the commission was autonomous and its recommendations do not necessarily represent the views of the Department of Education, Secretary Duncan said, “The Commission has sounded a powerful and important alarm about the distance we still have to go to improve education for every American child.”

Read the Commission’s report.

Title VI: In Pursuit of Equity in Education

Last Monday, we had the opportunity to spend the morning with an impressive group of high school students from New York and Washington, DC. These students came together to learn more about Title VI of the Civil Rights Act and the Obama Administration’s commitment to racial equity in education.

Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 embodies the noblest belief of the Civil Rights movement: that all Americans have an equal right under the law to the educational opportunities necessary to achieve the American Dream. “The only way to achieve equity in society is to achieve equity in the classroom,” said Secretary of Education Arne Duncan in 2010.  The struggle for opportunity in the classroom and beyond achieved a major victory 48 years ago this month when Congress passed the Civil Rights Act, and though we’ve made remarkable progress in providing equal educational opportunities to all of our nation’s children since then, we have not yet realized the full aspirations or spirit of the law.

Secretary Duncan speaks at the Title VI Event

Last week students joined Secretary Duncan and Assistant Secretary Ali to learn more about Title VI of the Civil Rights Act and the Obama Administration’s commitment to racial equity in education. Official Department of Education photo by Leslie Williams.

We know from the Department of Education’s Civil Rights Data Collection that troubling disparities persist in our nation’s elementary, middle and high schools. For example, minority students experience disproportionate rates of discipline; teachers in schools with the highest African American and Latino enrollments often have less teaching experience and receive lower pay; and few of America’s high-minority schools offer advanced science or mathematics courses that will prepare them to compete in a 21st century global economy.

The Office for Civil Rights at the Department of Education responds whenever it has cause to believe that these disparities are the result of Title VI violations. In fact, over the past three years the Obama Administration has launched more than 55 systemic and proactive investigations in response to Title VI-related complaints of discriminatory discipline, racial harassment, and barriers to education for English learners. The Office for Civil Rights has also issued policy guidance to school districts and colleges that voluntarily choose to promote diversity in their student bodies. All of these have been steps in the right direction. However, for each complaint received by the Department, there are others that are left unreported, hampering our students from being able to reach their fullest potential.

The Obama Administration has been relentless in its efforts to root out and address educational inequities across the country, and also to invest and encourage reform in what have historically been some of the nation’s lowest achieving schools, transforming them into safe and successful environments where all students can thrive.  President Obama’s Race to the Top competition has spurred comprehensive and unprecedented state-level reforms of policies and practices affecting our schools and early learning programs, and this Administration’s School Improvement Grants are helping to turn around the lowest performing schools through critical investments and intervention strategies. In higher education, President Obama is focused on boosting access, affordability and attainment, in part by expanding Pell Grants to open the doors of college to millions of additional students.

These major policy initiatives are at the heart of President Obama’s vision for building a more prosperous and successful nation for everyone, and for creating an American economy built to last. The President shares deeply the vision of those who made Title VI a reality, and he knows that we must provide the resources and spur the reform to make sure that America remains a nation where every child has the opportunity to succeed.

The students who joined our Administration last week are proof that the President’s vision is grounded in the possible.  They are leaders in their classrooms and in their communities.  Their questions were insightful and their desire to be change agents was evident.

During our celebration of Title VI, students shared their own touching personal experiences with civil rights.  Their stories remind us vividly that young people played a significant role in the passage of the Civil Rights Act; it was students who stood up 50 some years ago and said “no more.”  Alongside Secretary Duncan, we shared with students the value of young people continuing to work for equality not only in the education system, but also in the world around them.

Youth involvement played a significant role in the passage of every major civil rights milestone in our nation’s history, and the voices of America’s young people and their families continue to play an essential role in sustaining those noble principles behind America’s civil rights laws.  We’re moved by the stories shared by the students who joined us last week, and by their determination and vision to help build an America where everyone gets a fair shot, everyone does their fair share, and everyone plays by the same rules.

To learn more about the Administration’s commitment to Title VI, check out the Title VI: Enforcement Highlights report released earlier this week in commemoration of the 48th anniversary of Title VI.

Roberto Rodriguez is the Special Assistant to the President for Education at the White House Domestic Policy Council. Russlynn Ali is the Assistant Secretary for Civil Rights at the U.S. Department of Education.