On Friday the Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights released the latest data on minority students in our nation’s public schools. More than a decade into the 21st century and six decades after Brown v. Board we find black students underrepresented in calculus and chemistry, and overrepresented in out-of-school suspensions and expulsions. They face harsher discipline, less access to college-prep courses, and are more often taught by lower-paid and less experienced teachers.
The data collected from every public school in the U.S. exposed massive disparities in the public school experiences of black and Latino students and white students. Then, like clockwork, the incredulity began. Racial inequalities and unjust practices in plain sight for years were presented as a wake-up call to address educational inequities. The shock and awe of suspending black preschoolers galvanized attention for an entire day. But read the fine print. It’s not just that black youngsters under five are more likely to face suspension – they’re also more likely to be suspended repeatedly! And it’s not just the Sesame Street demographic. Black students of all ages are expelled at a rate three times higher than white children.
For those who are indeed learning this information for the first time, shattering the ignorance is an important step. So with an outstretched hand, “Welcome to the movement.” For those currently working in education advocacy though, shattering the silence is a greater step. It’s a necessary step toward eliminating racial bias in public schools. So with a questioning glaze, “Where have you been?” and “How long will it last?”
It is stupefying to me that so many people who seem to genuinely care about children in public schools and work tirelessly to improve their educational outcomes manage to skirt responsibility for helping to eliminate racial disparities in education. When racial inequities are evident in all other areas of black life – housing, jobs, pay, health services, transportation, access to food, even life expectancy – you will need to explain to me like I’m five how you hold the belief that schools are an oasis of colorblindness.
Entering into discussions and talking honestly about race and racial inequality in education is like touching the third rail of a subway track – you're bound to get zapped, if you survive the contact. So what emerges is flashes of outrage at the idea that black preschoolers are suspended, followed by reverting to a business-as-usual approach. If we don’t talk about it, it’s not there. Until you force it in front of my face. Again and again. People of color who have spoken out about this for many years, have experienced this with our own children, can’t help but watch this unfold, aghast and amazed.
Awareness is necessary. And once you’re blessed with awareness, you have choice. There’s no more room to claim innocence. There’s no grounds for making TFA and alternative certification a piñata without confronting the fact that whoever is standing in front of the classroom, black students are shut out of rigorous curriculum that’s a gateway to college. There’s no longer justification for a White House initiative focused solely on keeping young men of color from “slipping through the cracks” when black girls are suspended at higher rates than boys. There’s no defense for not making equity the focus of all education and policy discussions.
These recent findings come from the Education Department’s most comprehensive civil rights data release since 2000 – and the data has been trending this way for some time. It’s way past time for soul-searching and shedding light on the problem. The report should disturb the conscience. It should leave us utterly disgusted. It should cause us to act. Check this space after the next data dump for a progress report.