Persistent Racial Gaps Shown in Education Data

Joe Robertson, Kansas City Star, March 16, 2012

They knew when they opened a new portal to civil rights education data that they were opening a volatile box.

The U.S. Department of Education’s statistics on school experiences divided by race and ethnic groups expose communities anew to hard-to-explain disparities.

The Star examined much of the data for Kansas City area districts on both sides of the state line and found gaps as large as or larger than trends seen across the nation.

With few exceptions, black and Hispanic students in area schools are far less likely than white students to be enrolled in gifted programs or accelerated into early algebra classes.

Furthermore, black and Hispanic students are more likely to be held back a grade, and black students in particular are far more likely to be sent to in-school or out-of-school suspension.

“We are not alleging overt discrimination…,” U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan said to reporters earlier this month, trying not to be accusatory while acknowledging that, “for far too many students … inequity remains the reality.”

The data portal, which collected information from more than 72,000 schools in 7,000 school districts covering about 85 percent of the nation’s students, needs to be used thoughtfully and carefully, said John Rury, a University of Kansas professor with the Kansas City Area Education Research Consortium.

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In Kansas, in the area’s five largest districts, black and Hispanic students made up 28.4 percent of the total enrollment, but represented just 7.2 percent of the students in gifted programs and 10.3 percent of the students in early algebra.

However, they made up 64 percent of the students who were held back to repeat a grade, 50.5 percent of the students sent to in-school suspension and 63.4 percent of the students sent to out-of-school suspension.

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Civil rights leaders who sampled some of the Star’s data appealed for unified efforts to improve the education experience of minority children.

On the Kansas side, numbers generated for the four largest Johnson County school districts clearly are troubling, said James Connelly, president of the Johnson County chapter of the NAACP.

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“Some people are going to want to say that black students can’t learn as well as white students, but that’s not what the numbers say to me,” Connelly said.

“I don’t think (the under-representation) is intentional by the schools,” he said. “It comes out of the norms of the community and the values (held by) the students.”

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“Schools should also give more attention to cultural gaps, said Gwen Grant, president of the Urban League of Greater Kansas City.

“There is a disconnect between teachers, who are majority white, who are not trained to work effectively with the cultural backgrounds of these students,” Grant said.

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Some people put the onus on families and cultures that they suspect too often lack a zeal for pushing their children into a competitive academic environment, Rury said.

Others see persistent tracking by white institutions that, knowingly or unknowingly, expose low expectations for too many minority students.

A combination of all these things, Rury said, established “a historical pattern … tipped against poor and minority students.”

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