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Data from the U.S. Department of Education’s Civil Rights Data Collection (CRDC) cast new light on the shameful fact that students of color get less than their fair share of the in-school resources that matter for achievement. They also make clear just how important it is that we ask the right questions as we work to understand — and act on — patterns of inequity in our schools.

According to the new CRDC numbers:

  • Black, Latino, and Native high school students are less likely than their white peers to have access to a full range of courses in math and science, including Advanced Placement courses.
  • Black students, and black boys in particular, are far more likely to experience exclusionary discipline practices, such as out-of-school suspension or expulsion.
  • Black, Latino, and Native students are more likely to attend schools where large proportions of teachers are brand new or uncertified.

These data add to a large and growing body of evidence that American schools shortchange kids of color when it comes to teacher quality, access to rigorous courses, and fair, effective discipline, among other key resources.

While it might not seem like there’s a silver lining here, data like those in the CRDC point toward solutions to what otherwise feels like an unsolvable problem. “Closing the achievement gap” can feel overwhelming — something you can’t wrap your arms around. In contrast, changing master schedules to get more students of color into rigorous courses is within reach. Same with giving teachers in hard-to-staff schools the support they need so they won’t bolt at the first opportunity, leaving yet another vacancy to fill. Or revising discipline codes to ensure that out-of-school placements are used only as a last resort.

To be clear, these things aren’t easy. But we know from schools and districts across the country that they’re doable. And we know that doing them can lead to increased achievement and narrowed gaps.

We also know from leading schools and districts that smart action starts with good information. And that’s where educators and advocates have to be careful as they work to make sense of the new CRDC data. The summary analyses produced by U.S. Department of Education analysts sweep up data from many different districts and states, and thus can overstate some problems while understating others.

When it comes to course availability, for example, the summary analyses suggest that 1 in 5 high schools nationwide don’t offer algebra II, with far worse numbers in some states. Take Georgia, for example, where just over half of high schools are said to offer this critical course. Turns out that the content of algebra II is actually required of all students for graduation, but it’s often woven into math courses with different names (like math 1, 2, 3, and 4).

Or take equitable access to strong teachers. The department’s data suggest that in schools with the highest enrollments of black and Latino students, 6 percent of teachers are in their first year. Even though that number may be higher than in other schools, it doesn’t seem much cause for concern. But it is important to understand that this number is based on schools that have the highest enrollment for these groups in their district, whether that district’s a predominantly white one in Iowa or New Hampshire, or an almost all black and brown one, like Baltimore or Los Angeles. Other data sources often suggest more worrisome concentrations of novice teachers in schools serving large numbers of low-income students and students of color.

These aren’t just nit-picky analytic details. The ways in which data are analyzed and displayed turn out to be critically  important decisions that could lead educators and advocates to spend precious time and energy trying to fix a problem that doesn’t exist — or to assume that very real problems aren’t so bad after all.

So kudos to the Department of Education for collecting these data and using them to put equitable access to key opportunities to learn where it belongs — at the forefront of the national conversation. But to the policymakers, educators, and advocates who are thinking about the implication of these data: Do your own digging and interpret the summary analyses with caution. Before you craft policies and practices around the numbers, you need to make sure they’re telling the full story.

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