Monday, July 25, 2011

Shedding light on education and civil rights

By Tina Dove
National Director, The Opportunity to Learn Campaign

In a recent House of Representatives debate, a heated discussion arose about light bulbs and energy-efficiency standards. As an environmentally conscious American, I’m quite concerned about energy efficiency. As an educator, I’m extremely interested in light bulbs, specifically the ones inside of our children that come to life when they learn something new.

As a high school social studies teacher, I saw those light bulbs come to life when my students had the famous “aha!” moments we teachers know all too well.  I worked hard to make those bulbs light up because my students deserved that kind of inspirational learning moment.  It’s this energy that fuels lifelong learning and future academic success.

Sadly, for many of our nation’s students, this light bulb moment hasn’t happened because the conditions that enable such an experience don’t exist for far too many of our neediest and underserved children. For them, the lamp shows up for school, but too many obstacles exist to get the light bulbs working. 

The U.S. Department of Education’s Office of Civil Rights (OCR) recently released extraordinary data that provides in stark detail the level of inequity that exists in schools serving our poorest students, our students of color, and our students with special needs.  

In short, these students are being denied an equitable opportunity to learn; a chance to have that light bulb moment that so many of their peers across town or in the suburbs enjoy in their everyday school experiences.

The numbers don’t lie.  Of the 7,000 schools sampled: 

  • Only 22 percent of local education agencies (school districts) reported that they operated pre-K programs targeting children from low-income families.  This runs counter to the research that speaks to the overwhelming benefits associated with access to high-quality early childhood education for all children, particularly those from poor families.
  • Schools serving mostly African-American students are twice as likely to have teachers with only one or two years of experience than are schools within the same district that serve mostly White students.  This when the research is abundantly clear about the impact highly prepared and effective teachers have on student success.

  • 3,000 schools serving nearly 500,000 high school students offer no Algebra II classes — a course that is a basic requirement for acceptance into two- and four-year colleges and universities — essentially robbing them of access to college-preparatory curriculum.

  • Only 2 percent of the students with disabilities are taking at least one Advanced Placement class, thus contradicting the notion that all students deserve rich and rigorous academic curriculum.

  • English language learners make up 6 percent of the high school population (in grades 9-12), but are 15 percent of the students for whom Algebra is the highest-level math course taken by the final year of their high school career.  Meanwhile, girls are underrepresented in physics, while boys are underrepresented in Algebra II.  

Data like this underscore our need to question the equity of not providing access for all children to the kinds of resources that are proven to help students become successful in school, their careers and in life.

So instead of having raucous debates about whether Americans should be able to purchase incandescent light bulbs instead of compact florescent ones, Congress (and other policy makers) needs to be coming up with equitable solutions that flip the switch on the most important lights we have and keep them shining brightly — those found inside all of our children.

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