Tuesday, April 01, 2014

Thank You, Office of Civil Rights: Recently Released Reports Provide Much Food For Thought

On March 21, the U.S. Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights issued a series of reports, based upon its Civil Rights Data Collection that involves all American public schools. These reports, which include an impressive array of topics and indicators, mark the first comprehensive look at civil rights data in U.S. schools since 2000. Significantly, the reports document troubling inequities of opportunity—manifested in numerous ways[i]—that are associated with students’ racial backgrounds[ii]. These systematic inequities in students’ PK-12 experiences, in turn, ought to be considered against the bedrock notion of America as a Land of Opportunity for all. I encourage readers to directly review these reports, access the data, or explore the media coverage and analysis (e.g., see here and here). In this blog post, I do not attempt to recap the results. Rather, I describe several broad virtues of the reports and one key limitation. I conclude by suggesting a means of surmounting this limitation.

The Value Add:  To me, these reports are virtuous in several respects. Foremost, I believe they signal a shift toward increased attention toward student opportunity gaps, hopefully enabling their entry into discussions of achievement gaps, which have until now received the lion’s share of attention. Indeed, the reports appear to have been generated notice, if only briefly, by the media and public. They are authored by a government office and have been endorsed and discussed by top officials, including Arne Duncan and Eric Holder. To me, this is progress, representing official acknowledgement of inequities that have been known or suspected by some, but have officially tended to be ignored or underplayed. Problem identification is the first step. Apparently, policy remedies may be just behind.
As well, the faith we can place in these reports is augmented by their vast reach: whereas in nearly all quantitative educational studies of these same phenomena, investigators must attempt to infer and generalize from a smaller sample to a larger population, in this case quite nearly the entire population (American public schools, including charters and magnets) is represented. Certainly, much prior research into these topics produced findings that closely align with the findings of these reports. Hopefully, these reports function to enhance the legitimacy and salience of the prior and ongoing research, while adding unique contributions of their own.

Caveat Emptor:  Alas, one key shortcoming just cannot be ignored: within the reports, no explanations (e.g., the all-important why’s and how’s) are advanced to help a citizen/reader to better understand the findings, put them into some context, or advance in a science-guided manner toward much-needed solutions. So, for instance, the reports show that noticeably fewer experienced teachers are found in schools containing large proportions of Latino students, but do not attempt to explain what has given rise to this state of affairs.  Generally speaking, the reports make no connections to the existing research base on this topic, nor do they offer policy guidance regarding promising remedies[iii].

Now, I certainly do not blame the report authors for this shortcoming; indeed, I suspect it was an intentional and wise approach. Still, we are left with a substantial information vacuum that will need to be filled in some way.  Ideally, this vacuum will be filled, to the greatest degree possible, by individuals possessing expertise on these topics. With this in mind, I would like to suggest a solution of sorts:

Homework:  […Are you still reading?] Scholars  have been called to the carpet more than once for insufficiently facilitating research to practice links (e.g., Nicholas Kristof’s recent article). Whether these criticisms are totally fair or not, perhaps this represents a gift-wrapped opportunity at making such linkages (a chance at redemption?). Existing research is begging to be connected to these findings, in a manner that will give them more meaning—and, ultimately, policy legs. Certainly, these are contested spaces, and different folks will have different takes, but I would contend that near-consensuses could form around many of these topics. A problem, of course, is that very few people are well-versed on all of them, which suggests the necessity of a divide-and-conquer or collaborative, crowd-sourced project of sorts. So, perhaps a graduate-level class project could be tailored around researching and annotating these reports? Perhaps a team of expert scholars could collaborate to complete this project? Or, perhaps this would make for an interesting MOOC (“…The Results, Explained”)?

Anyways, please give it some thought!  This Office, it seems, has produced some great and influential work, and others should help to carry it forward. Perhaps this represents a real opportunity for democracy in action.

[i] Inequities are identified within four key dimensions:  Discipline; Early Learning; College and Career Readiness; and Teacher Equity
[ii] The report also includes analyses that are disaggregated by student disability status, language learning status, and gender.
[iii] Of course, I have my own theories and opinions: perhaps most significantly, I suspect that the nature of school funding systems and policies are crucially important considerations. Others, of course, will point to different explanations, including impacts relating to residential segregation, prejudice and stereotyping, etc.

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