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Achievement Gaps in America’s Schools Why Education is a Civil Rights Issue

Earlier this week, U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan spoke at the Education Writers Association’s 67th Annual Conference in Nashville, Tennessee, where he asserted that despite the 60-year-old ruling of Brown v. Board of Education, there still exists a deep sense of inequality in America’s school system – specifically when it comes to preparing our minority and low in-come students for rigorous, high-level STEM and Advanced Placement (AP)* courses.
In Secretary Duncan’s view, the achievement gap in STEM education is proof positive that “education is the civil rights issue of our generation,” and he advocated that the U.S. government is striving to pursue equity through all of their education programs and initiatives. To drive home his point, Duncan listed four core reasons as to why education is still an “urgent civil rights issue,” – and while all of his points have value and merit, one struck NMSI as particularly important and relevant to our cause. In short, he said that “in a knowledge-based, globally competitive economy, access to STEM courses and AP classes is also a civil rights issue.”
Duncan cited the most recent Civil Rights Data Collection survey, which shows that even though minority students comprise nearly 40 percent of high school students, only 1/4 of all students taking AP courses and exams are minorities. Furthermore, minority students constitute only 20 percent of those who enroll in calculus classes.
Student access to advanced STEM and AP coursework also is troubling. According to Duncan, a new analysis shows that American Indian and Native Alaskan students “are much less likely than students in other ethnic groups to attend high schools that even offer AP classes, calculus, or physics.” Access for African American students is also lopsided – only 2/3 of these students attend high schools that offer calculus courses, compared to 81 percent of white students and 87 percent of Asian-American students.
“The bottom line,” said Duncan, “is that 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 importantly in preparing for careers and college.”
According to Duncan, a large part of the problem is that America has historically dumb-downed our academic standards and expectations, while at the same time relegating “talent and potential to the sidelines,” resulting in the achievement gaps that we are now trying to close. The good news is that we are making progress.
Duncan noted that since the Brown ruling, there has been a “paradox of progress” in America’s school system. On one hand, our students have made tremendous academic strides. In 1950, less than 1/4 of African American students completed high school, compared to nearly 70 percent in 2012. Over the same span of time, the percentage of African American students who earned a Bachelor’s degree or higher rose from 3 percent to 7 percent. However, the paradox of our progress is that even as our students are doing better, they are still falling short on a global level of academic excellence.
“We have achievement gaps and opportunity gaps,” said Duncan. “But more importantly, we have a courage gap and an action gap,” which is why he urged that our schools need to be held accountable for educational inequality and that America should be more serious and purposeful about school and education.
NMSI’s College Readiness and Laying the Foundation programs are helping to close these achievement gaps by increasing the quality of education for all of the students in our 560 schools, and our results have proven the fruits of our labors. That is why we are expanding to reach new schools for the first time in Louisiana and Arizona. We are giving more teachers the resources and support that they so desperately need to help their students succeed, and we help raise the levels of rigor and expectations in the classroom.
Investing in our schools, students and teachers is the only way we’re going to close these achievement gaps and become one of the top nations in education. It’s going to take work, but it’s a mission NMSI is pursuing ever day, and it’s a goal we will continue to fight for until each and every student is able to achieve academic success.