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What federal civil rights data says about Philadelphia

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This guest blog post comes from Harold Jordan, Notebook board chair and staff member at ACLU of Pennsylvania.


The U.S. Department of Education (DOE) recently released comprehensive data about the educational opportunity offered to the nation’s public school students. Known as the Civil Rights Data Collection, this dataset draws from a national survey of 72,000 schools serving 85 percent of the nation’s public school students during the 2009-2010 school year. The data include a profile of the School District of Philadelphia, which paints a disturbing picture, especially in the areas of discipline and the equitable assignment of experienced teachers.

Notably, the CRDC provides a new way of looking at student success that does not reduce evaluations of how schools are performing to test scores or Adequate Yearly Progress. It offers a snapshot of what DOE calls "the opportunity gap," a measure of whether schools are preparing students for success.

Although DOE has collected civil rights data on public schools off and on since 1968, this latest survey includes information never collected before on college and career readiness (participation in Algebra and college-preparatory offerings), discipline (expulsions under zero-tolerance policies, the use of restraints and seclusion), and resource equity.

Perhaps the most significant national finding is that Black students are far more likely to be suspended or expelled from school than peers of other races. In addition, Black and Latino students are more likely to be concentrated in schools with a high proportion of teachers with little experience and where a rigorous curriculum is not offered.

The Philadelphia story

What does this data say about the equality of opportunity provided to Philadelphia's public school students?

Discipline and Punishment

  • Black students make up about 63 percent of the District, but receive 77 percent of out-of-school suspensions.

  • A Black student is 2.4 times as likely as a White student to receive an out-of- school suspension; 3.71 times as likely to be arrested, and 3.95 times as likely to be referred to law enforcement.

  • Expulsions, the removal of students for more than 10 consecutive days by order of the School Reform Commission, are almost exclusively a Black affair. Black students receive 86 percent of expulsions under zero-tolerance policies.

  • Latino students do not fare much better. They are 1.63 times as likely as Whites to receive out of school suspensions, 2.55 times as likely to be arrested, and 2.59 times as likely to be referred to law enforcement.

  • About 13 out of every 100 Black students, 9 out of every 100 Latino students, 5 out every 100 White students, and 2 out of every 100 Asian and Pacific Island students receive an out-of-school suspension.

  • Discipline of students with disabilities: Although Black males make up 32 percent of the District’s students, they make up 58 percent of the students with disabilities receiving out-of-school suspensions.

Teacher Equity

Who teaches the children who go to these schools, and what are their levels of teaching experience? Philadelphia also stands out here compared to other large school districts. The DOE measures teacher equity by examining the proportion of teachers with no more than two years of experience and the average pay of teachers in schools with high and low minority enrollment.

  • In the average Philadelphia public school, 20 percent of teachers are in their first or second year of teaching.

  • In schools with the highest Black and Latino enrollment, 25 percent are novice teachers, while only 13 percent are novice teachers in schools with the lowest Black/Latino enrollment.

  • Teachers in schools with the highest Black and Latino enrollment were paid an average of $14,699 less than teachers in schools with the lowest Black and Latino enrollment. This gap is the greatest of the top 20 largest school districts in the country. By comparison, the gap is $8,222 in New York City and $950 in Los Angeles, the nation’s two largest districts. The average gap nationally is $2,251.

Local community campaigns have taken on these issues during the past decade. Last week Philadelphia City Council held public hearings on the impact of the District’s “zero-tolerance” practices. In 2010, ACTION United released a report detailing disparities in the assignment of experienced teachers to schools serving low-income communities.

In releasing the data, Education Secretary Arne Duncan stated: "The undeniable truth is that the everyday educational experience for many students of color violates the principle of equity at the heart of the American promise. It is our collective duty to change that.”

We should heed his words.

Author's note: The DOE uses a broader definition of "expulsion" than is employed in Pennsylvania law. In this article, I count expulsions that meet the Pennsylvania standard. In addition to students formally expelled by the SRC, many more were transferred to disciplinary schools for periods greater than 10 days.

This post was also published on Speaking Freely, the blog for ACLU of Pennsylvania.

Harold Jordan is on the staff of the American Civil Liberties Union of Pennsylvania (ACLU-PA), where he edited the ACLU-PA’s Know Your Rights, A Handbook for Public School Students in Pennsylvania.

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