The New Spotlight on America's Opportunity Gaps

Remarks of U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan, Release of the 2011-12 Civil Rights Data Collection, J.O. Wilson Elementary School, Washington, DC, March 21, 2014

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Thank you, Catherine [Lhamon]. I can't thank Catherine enough for the extraordinary leadership that she has shown as head of our Office for Civil Rights and for her passionate commitment to protect and ensure equal opportunity for all students.

Catherine has been a leader in this work for nearly two decades—to the point that, a few years ago, when her four-year-old daughter was in preschool and her teacher brought up the struggle for civil rights, Catherine's daughter called out, "My mom does that!"

I am delighted to be joined here today by my good friend and colleague, Attorney General Holder. In January, our Department, in partnership with the Department of Justice, released the first-ever guidance on school discipline, propelled in part by the alarming disparities in discipline first highlighted in the 2009-10 Civil Rights Data Collection.

The Attorney General and I were privileged to participate in the release of that guidance. This work with the Justice Department is so important—and I know how lucky we and our nation's children are to have Eric and his team as partners. He would much rather see our children have real educational opportunities at the front end, rather than have to lock folks up at the back end.

We are providing technical assistance, identifying districts for enforcement, and engaging educators at the state and district level about best practices in promoting healthy school climates that foster a culture of support and high expectations.

In a few minutes, the Attorney General is going to talk more about the school discipline findings of our new CRDC study—and why it is imperative that we reduce the overreliance on suspensions and expulsions in our schools. He'll talk about some of the serious civil rights concerns that the CRDC study spotlights as a starting point for further inquiry.

But I want to start by stepping back for a moment and speak to why the new CRDC is such a landmark study.

Unlike even large, nationally-representative surveys of our public schools, the 2011-12 CRDC was conducted in every public school in America. It covers all of our nation's 97,000 schools, all 16,500 school districts, all 49 million students.

Let me be crystal clear: The numbers being reported today 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.

Universal surveys of our public schools are very rare—the last universal CRDC survey was in 2000, 14 years ago, and it was largely used internally at the Department and not available publicly in a user-friendly format.

The new CRDC survey is really without precedent in the rich detail it provides on educational opportunity. Starting with the 2009-10 CRDC, our Administration transformed the Civil Rights Data Collection.

For the first time, we have collected system-wide data on school discipline, access to preschool, teacher equity, and access to college- and career-ready coursework.

For the first time, we can now identify patterns in educational inequality for certain subgroups of students.

Transparency, which for far too long has been lacking in our nation's schools, has been brought to the forefront. Brutally honest conversations can now be had—based not on guesswork or suppositions, but data and facts.

For example, we now know from the new CRDC survey that Native Hawaiian/Pacific Islander kindergarten students are nearly twice as likely to be held back a year as white kindergarten students.

We have now learned that, while students of color and students with disabilities are disproportionately suspended from school, English Language Learners are not.

And for the first time, we can now identify gaping disparities in educational supports and access from state-to-state. We can identify the good, the bad, and the ugly. We must celebrate and replicate success—and challenge the disparities in opportunities with a profound sense of urgency.

To take one example, one in five high schools nationwide lacks even a single school counselor. That's disturbing enough. But in some states, like Minnesota, more than 40 percent of high schools have no school counselor. As Minnesota's governor and state superintendent have repeatedly said, their children deserve better.

Today, nearly 700,000 students attend a high school without a school counselor. Take a minute and think about what that void can mean to students who aspire to be the first in their family to attend college, or who desperately need to talk to a counselor.

And by positive contrast, consider that in five states—Massachusetts, Maine, Montana, North Dakota, and New Hampshire—more than 95 percent of high schools provide students with access to a school counselor.

Now, identifying opportunity gaps is the necessary first step that schools and districts should take to address educational inequities. We don't gather data just for its own sake, and we're very mindful of not creating unnecessary burdens on schools.

But the real power of the Civil Rights Data Collection lies not just in the numbers themselves, but in the real-world impact they can have when coupled with courage and the will to change. And as Catherine said, these data are providing—and will continue to provide—important markers and starting points for discussion at our Department.

As a nation, we've seen big progress in some areas: the highest high school graduation rate in U.S. history, historical lows in dropout rates, and a jump in college-going, especially among kids of color.

We've also seen some major cities and states with high proportions of kids of color and of low-income families—places like Tennessee and DC—make the biggest progress on NAEP.

The country's teachers, school leaders, families and students deserve big credit here. But we know that despite that progress, enormous opportunity gaps remain.

That's one reason I'm excited about our Race to the Top-Equity and Opportunity program, proposed in the President's FY 2015 budget. It will help build on the data included in this report and spur action to take on some of the systemic problems driving the opportunity and achievement gaps highlighted here.

As folks here understand, our deep concern for equity and closing opportunity gaps drives everything we do at the Department.

From access to high-quality preschool, to turning around low-performing schools, to ensuring access to college and career-ready coursework, our work is motivated by the belief that all students, regardless of race, gender, income, disability, and English Learner status, need and deserve a world-class education.

Unfortunately, the overarching conclusion of the CRDC is that the everyday educational experience for far too many students of color, students with disabilities, and English Learners falls short of meeting the American promise that if you work hard and study hard, you will have a fair shot to succeed.

The CRDC shows we have come a long way yet still have a long way to go to before our education system truly provides equal opportunities.

Let me summarize some of the opportunity gaps documented in the CRDC.

They range from limited student access to experienced teachers, to gaps in pay for teachers, to unequal student access to public preschool and college- and career-ready opportunities in high school.

We provide snapshots of the findings of the CRDC on our website and in handouts here today. Many of the findings are troubling. Some may seem surprising. A few are encouraging.

But starting with preschool, the clear, overall pattern is that we see big opportunity gaps starting at the very beginning of our children's formal education.

Nationwide, 60 percent of school districts have public preschool programs, but 40 percent—almost 7,000 districts—don't. We have a big distance to travel before all children have universal access to high-quality preschool in America, as they do in many high-performing nations.

Nearly 10,000 school districts today have a public, district-based preschool program but more than half of those districts—57 percent—offer only part-day programs. And barely half of school districts that have public preschool programs make them available to all children within the district.

For our students to remain competitive in a knowledge-based, global economy, we must do much, much more to level the playing field and enable every child to begin school at the same starting line. We must, once and for all, get our schools out of the "catch-up" business: It is not fair to children, it is not fair to teachers, and frankly, we don't do it very well.

That's exactly what educators and school leaders here at J.O. Wilson Elementary are working toward. They run a high-quality preschool program, which the Attorney General and I were privileged to see earlier today. And they have been recognized by the district as a Reward School—which shows they have some of the highest levels of student performance and growth in the district.

The Attorney General will talk more about this in a moment, but I want to underscore our shared concern about a new and especially disturbing CRDC finding about preschool: Racial disparities in exclusionary discipline actually begin with our four-year olds. Black pre-K students are only 18 percent of our public preschool population but represent more than 40 percent of four-year olds who are suspended.

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. 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!

Unfortunately, once children move on to kindergarten, we see big differences at the state level in kindergarten retention that have more to do with state policies than the educational capabilities of five-year olds.

In Maryland, only two percent of kindergartners are retained. But in contrast, in Mississippi and Michigan, eight percent and seven percent of kindergartners, respectively, are retained. A kindergartner is over three times more likely to have to repeat kindergarten in Mississippi and Michigan than in Kansas, Nevada, or Maryland.

Tragically, the same unacceptable opportunity gaps persist throughout middle school and high school. We have to do better by our students by making sure they are ready to move to the next level at points of transition.

In high school, for example, English Learners make up five percent of high school enrollment but 11 percent of high school students held back a year.

Too often, students with disabilities also aren't getting the support they need. Students with disabilities, served by IDEA, are more than twice as likely to be suspended out-of-school as students without disabilities.

Just as important, students of color, students with disabilities, and English learners don't get the same opportunity as their white and Asian-American peers to take the math and science courses that figure so importantly today in preparing for careers and college.

More than 80 percent of Asian-American students and more than 70 percent of white students attend high schools where the full range of math and science courses are offered—Algebra I, Geometry, Algebra II, Calculus, Biology, Chemistry, and Physics.

But less than half of American Indian and Native-Alaskan students have access to the full range of math and science courses in high school. And access to these science and math courses is insufficient for black students (57 percent have access), students with disabilities served by IDEA (63 percent), and English Learners (65 percent).

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. 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.

There is some good news here. The proportion of students from racial and ethnic groups enrolled in Algebra II matches almost exactly the proportion of students enrolled in high school by race and ethnicity. So there is nothing that is preordained or permanent about opportunity gaps in Algebra II.

However, the problem is that once high school students move beyond Algebra II to higher-level math and science courses, big gaps in access re-open. 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.

Education, of course, has always been first and foremost a state and local responsibility in America. That's how it should be.

I hope reporters, parents, and educators will dive into this data to see where their states and local communities are performing well in providing educational opportunities and where they are not.

To give you some sense of the tremendous and troubling variation in access among states, in five states—New Hampshire, Maine, Massachusetts, Indiana, and Pennsylvania—more than 70 percent of high schools offer Calculus. But in four other states—Alaska, Minnesota, North Dakota, and Oklahoma—35 percent or less of high schools, half that rate, offer Calculus. How are those disparities in opportunity in our children's, or in our nation's, best interest?

In Physics, the state-by-state disparities are also huge. In four states, including Arkansas, more than 85 percent of high schools offer Physics. But in seven states, including California and Oklahoma, fewer than half of high schools offer Physics.

Finally, the CRDC data show we are still falling short in providing all students with equitable access to experienced teachers.

Some of the most striking disparities in teacher equity are in the salaries paid within the same district to teachers in schools with high concentrations of black and Latino students, compared to salaries paid to teachers in schools with low concentrations of black and Latino students.

Nearly one in four school districts with at least two high schools reports an average teacher salary gap of more than $5,000 between high schools with the highest and the lowest black and Latino enrollment.

Again, those kinds of teacher salary gaps reflect decisions made by state and local leaders. In fact, in 14 states—including states as diverse as Massachusetts, Rhode Island, South Carolina, and Texas—the teacher salary gap between high-minority and low-minority schools is less than $500.

As I mentioned earlier, we have over 16,000 school districts nationwide. They should be founts of innovation. I keep asking—and I could be proven wrong—but do we have one school district out of 16,000 that systematically identifies the most successful, hardest working teachers and principals and moves them systematically to the communities and schools who need the most help?

Until we do that, we'll keep talking about the achievement gap, but as a nation, we won't be serious about addressing it.

To sum up, the Civil Rights Data Collection 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.

The CRDC makes crystal clear the urgent need for some key steps that we can take now to narrow opportunity gaps.

As President Obama has said, and as rigorous research has repeatedly demonstrated, the best educational investment we can make as nation, the biggest bang for the educational buck, is high-quality preschool.

Nobel prize-winning economist James Heckman found a return of seven dollars to every one dollar of public investment in high-quality preschool programs. Children who have the opportunity to attend a high-quality preschool need fewer special services as they move through school. They get better jobs. They're in better health. They commit less crime.

Expanding access to preschool is also very much a bipartisan cause in the real world, outside of Washington's dysfunction. In fact, I'm pleased to report that more Republican governors than Democratic ones expanded funding for their state preschool programs last year, making critical additional investments in tough economic times.

Last year, President Obama made his ground-breaking Preschool for All proposal, which would support states to provide universal access to high-quality preschool to all four-year olds from low- and moderate-income families.

His proposal has been incorporated in the bipartisan Strong Start for America's Child Act. And in national polling, both Democratic and Republican voters favor acting now to adopt legislation along the lines of the Strong Start Act. We just need Congress to catch up with the rest of the country—and act on it.

The CRDC highlights both the shortfall of access to public preschool programs and that districts with preschool programs are following the same model of extending eligibility to all low-income families as the President's plan.

In fact, 80 percent of districts with preschool programs today make them available to all children, or specifically target children from low-income families.

The truth is that nearly every element of the federal education budget—from preschool funds to Pell grants to Title I to special education dollars—aim to increase equity in educational opportunity.

And that's the precise goal of the President's fiscal 2015 budget proposal for a new, $300 million Race to the Top—Equity and Opportunity fund.

This fund would complement our existing efforts by supporting and spotlighting state and district efforts to aggressively tackle achievement and opportunity gaps, and it would also help states get more from their current dollars.

And we would be looking at how states and districts plan to address some of the gaping opportunity gaps identified in the CRDC, like increasing access to rigorous coursework, and attracting and retaining effective teachers and leaders in high-poverty schools and communities.

And now I'd like to turn this over to my friend, Attorney General Holder, to talk about some of the civil rights issues and school discipline challenges highlighted in the CRDC.

He and the Department of Justice have been fantastic partners in this work.

And they have shown tremendous leadership, and a tireless commitment, to ensuring equal opportunity for all our students.