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Arne Duncan Spotlights Inequities in Rigorous Coursework

By Alyson Klein

Nashville

Sixty years after the passage of Brown v. Board, there's still a wide gulf in educational opportunities for low-income and minority students and their more advantaged peers, including when it comes to access to rigorous coursework aimed at preparing students for college and the workforce, U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan told the audience at the Education Writers Association annual seminar here today.

For instance, a new analysis by the Department of Education's office for civil rights, showed that just 68 percent of African-American students attend high schools that offer calculus. That's compared to 81 percent of white high school students, and 87 percent of Asian American students. What's more,  American Indian and Native American students are much less likely than any other ethnic group to attend high schools that offer Advanced Placement classes, calculus, or physics.

"This dummying down of expectations is devastating to families, communities, and ultimately to our nation," Duncan said. "We can't continue to relegate talent and potential to the sidelines."

This isn't the first time that federal civil rights data has peeled back disparities in advanced course taking. Data released earlier this year from the department's office of civil rights, for example, showed that a quarter of high schools with the highest percentages of black and Latino students did not offer Algebra 2. A third of these schools did not provide chemistry classes. And it showed that there are also disparities when it comes to AP course taking: While black and Latino students made up 37 percent of high school students, they accounted for just 27 percent of students taking at least one AP course. The data cover all 97,000 of the nation's public schools and its 16,500 school districts, but it is self-reported, so there could be errors.

Educational equity has been a major theme for the Obama administration's second term. In his speech, Duncan also made a sales pitch for a new program he hopes will be at the center of that agenda: A $300 million iteration of the administration's signature Race to the Top franchise, aimed at helping school districts and states close gaps between poor and minority students and their more advantaged peers.

The program "would provide new money to states and districts to use data to identify and correct these disparities. And it would drive resources--such as more AP classes, or behavioral supports that improve school climate--to the schools, teachers, and students that need them the most," Duncan said. "I would add that no one has been hurt more in recent years by low standards and a lack of accountability for student learning than our most disadvantaged students."

But the initiative faces an uphill climb on Capitol Hill, where money is tight and lawmakers are weary of the administration's strategy of using competitive grants to further its education redesign plans. Members on both sides of the congressional aisle don't like competitions that create winners and losers, especially if those losers are their constituents.

Duncan also couched another of the administration's favorite policy prescriptions--$75 billion in matching grants to help states dramatically expand prekindergarten offerings--in civil rights terms.

"Because we haven't provided access to high-quality early learning to all families, millions of children enter kindergarten already behind their peers at the starting line of school. That is profoundly unfair," he said.

The preschool proposal is also likely doomed in Congress, where lawmakers, particularly Republicans, aren't on board with the idea of a gigantic new federal program.

And the secretary hit on some of his favorite themes, including the need to use rigorous teacher-evaluation systems to identify the best educators, and ensure that states set standards that get students ready for higher education and the workforce.

Notably, however, Duncan didn't mention the Common Core State Standards initiative by name--the administration has taken a lot of heat for its role as common-core cheerleader, including at EWA, which was attended by more than 200 education reporters from all over the country. During a panel earlier in the conference on common core, for example, Terry Holliday, Kentucky's state chief, said the standards ran into trouble only when President Barack Obama and Duncan "started taking credit for them."

Instead of talking up the common core, Duncan touted the power that higher standards have had in Tennessee, which hosted the EWA conference. He noted that the state beefed up its standards in 2010, and put in place a new teacher-evaluation system. And then last year, the state was the only one in the county that "reported a striking jump in math and reading achievement in both 4th grade and 8th grade on the 2013 NAEP."

(It's notable, however, that District of Columbia, which technically isn't a state, produced similar results. And Tennessee also hasn't seen a comparable spike yet when it comes to other indicators, such as the ACT and postsecondary attainment, the state's commissioner of education, Kevin Huffman, told reporters earlier in conference.)

What's more, the state's education improvement agenda has run into trouble lately: Tennessee recently voted to delay adoption of new PARCC tests aligned to the common-core standards, and consider seeking a new vendor for its tests, to Huffman's chagrin.

Still, Duncan held the Volunteer State up as example of what's possible when states focus on educational inequality.

"Tennessee's example, and the history of Brown, gives me optimism, to paraphrase Dr. [Martin Luther] King, that the moral arc of our schools is long, but it bends toward justice--and justice means true equity and opportunity for all," Duncan said.

Just before his EWA appearance, Duncan spoke on a panel organized separately at a Nashville middle school exploring the impact of the original edition of Race to the Top, which gave $4 billion in grants to 11 states and the District of Columbia.  The $500 million grant to improve education in Tennessee wasn't a gift, Duncan said, it was an investment, and one that appears to be paying off. In particular, Duncan singled out the Volunteer State's willingness to couple rigorous teacher evaluation with equally robust professional development, and its goal of catapulting the bottom 5 percent of schools in the state to the top 25 percent.

"If this state can do it ... you will do something that no other state has ever done in the history of our nation. The importance of that and the implications of that are extraordinarily profound," Duncan said.   

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