One of the assignments for this class is to look at an editorial from the New York Times. For this assignment, I chose to read “Another Sign of Retreat on Civil Rights,” which discusses changes to discrimination policies in public schools. In looking for this article, I found that editorials are short and usually don’t have much to respond to – I was interested in an editorial about the New York City subway, but my comments would not have been thorough.
According to the editorial, several civil rights organizations and some members of Congress are worried by happenings at the Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights. This office plays a crucial role in:
- Protecting rights for transgender students
- Protecting victims of sexual assault
- Forcing school districts to use fair disciplinary policies that do not disproportionately affect minority students
Candice Jackson, the assistant secretary for civil rights, backed away from a policy that requires investigators to look for systemic problems when civil rights complaints emerge. The editorial claims that this will discourage staff from starting new cases at all. Investigators currently have years’ worth of data to determine if discrimination, harassment, and/or other problems raised in a complaint indicate a systemic problem. This data was used in 2014 to show that minority students were subjected to excessive disciplinary procedures in every grade in public schools. For example, minority four-year-olds are four times as likely as their white peers to be suspended.
By cutting back on this data-collecting policy, the Department of Education is preparing to abandon its role in prohibiting discrimination. According to the editorial, three groups have been visibly worried. The United States Commission on Civil Rights, a nongovernmental agency, called for an investigation into the administration’s retreat from its anti-discrimination policy. Senate Democrats have demanded that the department furnish information about how investigations are being handled and why the policy was changed. A bipartisan group of House members asked the department to maintain Obama-era guidance for combating sexual violence in schools.
A troubling country-wide phenomenon is the gap in educational attainment between black or Hispanic students and their white counterparts. In this interactive post from the New York Times Upshot, every school district is analyzed for educational attainment. The article was published in April 2016, so it would be interesting to see how or if the data has changed. In Los Angeles, white students are 1 grade level ahead of their black peers. In New York City, this number is 2.3 grade levels; in Washington, D.C. the number is a whopping 4.9 grade levels. My hometown, the first in the country to voluntarily desegregate schools, has a disparity of .5 grade levels.
The difference in educational performance could be due to many factors, including teacher and student expectancy, a lack of economic access, and failing public infrastructure. Teacher and student expectancy is my personal favorite out of the reasons, purely because it is an interesting phenomenon. Teachers expect their minority students to not do as well as their white students, and the minority students pick up on this. This unconscious effect leads teachers to be more harsh when grading work from minority students. Other terms for this are biological determinism and a self-fulfilling prophecy. Links to studies that back this up are here and here. Another Times article in the Upshot echoes my sentiments about teacher expectation. It discusses a small trial program in Broward County, Florida where screening tests for gifted students were changed and more black and Hispanic students were found to be gifted. Sadly, that program was cut in 2010 due to budget cuts.
By backing away from discrimination prohibitions, the Department of Education is opening the gates for further discrimination against minority students. Doing so will only further harm minority students. Then again, with a voucher system, teacher salary cuts, and widespread budget cuts, one may think that Betsy DeVos, who is now in charge of the Department of Education, is actively trying to hurt both teachers and students.