The first steps a preschool student takes into a classroom can be the beginning of a fulfilling educational career. A recent report surveying 97,000 schools by the Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights shows this is not the case for all students due to racial and economic discrimination.
The report found that black preschool students receive three times as many suspensions as white students. Black students make up only 18 percent of children in preschool programs but make up about half of the preschoolers suspended more than once, according to the report. Latino students, while representing about 33 percent of all preschoolers, make up 25 percent of preschoolers suspended.
While the data did not give reasons why students were suspended nor explanations for the apparent disparities, it also found racial minorities are more likely than white students to have limited access to challenging math and science courses. The report also showed science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) courses at underresourced public schools are more likely to be taught by less experienced teachers who are paid less. A 2012 report by Level the Playing Field Institute (LPFI) showed just over half of African-American and Latino second graders in California reached STEM proficiency rates, compared to 78 percent of white and 86 percent of Asian students.
The theft of equal educational opportunity at an early age through high school only snowballs into higher education, creating gross achievement gaps. According to the LPFI report, 4,505 African-American students were enrolled in STEM majors across the UC and CSU systems in 2011, making about 3 percent of the total student population — Latinos accounted for 18 percent, while American Indian/Alaskan Native students made up .5 percent. Only about 72 African-American students were enrolled in computer science across the UC system in 2011.
While the statistics show this problem peaks at colleges and universities, the underrepresentation of students of color in STEM majors can hardly be addressed at the higher education level. By the time students are in high school, many lack the foundation to consider the STEM path, let alone complete it if admitted to a university. By eighth grade, African-American and Latino students are less likely to enroll in Algebra I and less likely to reach proficiency in other STEM courses than their peers.
President Obama’s prioritization of low-income schools in his recent budget proposal directly addresses racial and economic inequalities and discrimination that remain embedded in our nation’s education system. One proposal specifically addresses inequalities in accessibility to high quality education, specifically STEM classes for schools in low-income neighborhoods.
The proposal is the latest phase of President Obama’s competitive grant program, Race to the Top, which was created in 2009 as a part of the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act. The proposal will award $300 million in grants to schools offering the best plan to better prepare students for college and careers. Race to the Top will invest in teachers and use data-driven research to improve low-performing schools.
While opportunities in the STEM fields continue to grow, low-income students are often left without a chance to compete for some of the highest paying jobs. Race to the Top will do more than just provide guidelines, but will promote necessary modifications to a dysfunctional education system. The grant will not only focus on promoting data-driven decisions and increasing equal access to more advanced math and science classes, but also support schools financially so they can implement their plans.
At the same time, the communities President Obama wants to target are more than numbers to count toward a statistic. We should be paying attention to the particular conditions surrounding students in each community and at each school, in order to generate more data. This type of data could be used to inform decisions and encourage thoughtful solutions to the inequalities continuing in many low-income schools across the country.