Real Equality in Education Remains Elusive

Most black and Latino students continue to attend schools that provide little access to advanced and rigorous courses.

Libia S. Gil the assistant deputy secretary in the U.S. Department of Education's Office of English Language Acquisition.
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Libia S. Gil
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Libia S. Gil
June 5, 2014, 7:52 a.m.

This year the na­tion will com­mem­or­ate two his­tor­ic ac­tions taken to pro­tect equal rights: the 60th an­niversary of Brown v. Board of Edu­ca­tion — the land­mark U.S. Su­preme Court case that ab­ol­ished state-sponsored se­greg­a­tion in pub­lic edu­ca­tion — and the Civil Rights Act, which pro­hib­its dis­crim­in­a­tion based on race, col­or, re­li­gion, sex, or na­tion­al ori­gin.

We are left with an im­port­ant ques­tion: Has the prom­ise of Brown and the Civil Rights Act been ful­filled?

Most people agree that des­pite pro­gress made, edu­ca­tion­al equity and op­por­tun­ity re­mains out of reach for many stu­dents from di­verse lan­guage and cul­tur­al back­grounds. For ex­ample, of all stu­dents en­rolled in low-per­form­ing schools, 42 per­cent are black and 33 per­cent are Latino. Fur­ther­more, these stu­dents are much more likely to be taught by teach­ers with less ex­per­i­ence than those lead­ing classrooms in more af­flu­ent, mostly white school dis­tricts.

There is some good news. Com­munit­ies that re­cog­nize the value of lan­guage and cul­tur­al di­versity have con­trib­uted to the pro­lif­er­a­tion of dual-lan­guage pro­grams in schools across the coun­try. Cali­for­nia, Illinois, and New York all of­fer stu­dents what’s known as the Seal of Bi-lit­er­acy, a dis­tinc­tion that ap­pears on the dip­lo­mas and tran­scripts of stu­dents who have be­come pro­fi­cient in two or more lan­guages by high school gradu­ation. Le­gis­la­tion that would cre­ate a sim­il­ar stu­dent re­cog­ni­tion is either pending or un­der con­sid­er­a­tion in 10 oth­er states.

Boost­ing the num­ber of stu­dents able to speak, read, and write in more than one lan­guage — what Pres­id­ent Obama and Edu­ca­tion Sec­ret­ary Arne Duncan some­times refer to as “bi-lit­er­acy skills” — has be­come es­sen­tial to Amer­ica’s fu­ture eco­nom­ic prosper­ity and na­tion­al se­cur­ity.

We also have more work to do. Ac­cord­ing to the Edu­ca­tion De­part­ment’s latest Civil Rights Data Col­lec­tion, in­form­a­tion com­piled from all 97,000 of the na­tion’s pub­lic schools, black stu­dents (57 per­cent), Latino stu­dents (67 per­cent), and Eng­lish learners (65 per­cent) have less ac­cess than their white, Eng­lish-speak­ing peers (71 per­cent) to the kinds of rig­or­ous math and sci­ence courses needed for col­lege and many ca­reers.

The CRDC also provides oth­er evid­ence of un­equal op­por­tun­ity. Stu­dents in the pro­cess of learn­ing Eng­lish rep­res­ent 5 per­cent of the na­tion’s high school stu­dents but only 2 per­cent of those en­rolled in ad­vanced-place­ment courses. Among stu­dents already pro­fi­cient in Eng­lish, about 7 per­cent par­ti­cip­ate in gif­ted and tal­en­ted pro­grams at their schools. That fig­ure is three and a half times lar­ger than the paltry 2 per­cent of stu­dents in the pro­cess of learn­ing Eng­lish who par­ti­cip­ate in sim­il­ar pro­grams.

In a coun­try where the share of stu­dents who come from house­holds where lan­guages oth­er than Eng­lish are spoken at home is ex­pand­ing, one has to won­der how much un­tapped po­ten­tial is be­ing squandered. How many ex­cep­tion­al minds are in­suf­fi­ciently chal­lenged each day?

A num­ber of re­cent in­cid­ents have also served to re­mind us that we have much more to do to en­sure sup­port­ive, in­clu­sion­ary, and egal­it­ari­an en­vir­on­ments for all our chil­dren. Re­cently a school prin­cip­al in Texas made head­lines when she de­scribed the act of speak­ing Span­ish as “dis­rupt­ive” and pro­hib­ited it at school. Al­though the prin­cip­al’s con­tract was not re­newed and the ban on speak­ing Span­ish lif­ted, this in­cid­ent had a chilling ef­fect on stu­dents and the com­munity. It opened old wounds left from a time when this kind of lan­guage op­pres­sion was com­mon.

Sadly, in the past year alone Edu­ca­tion De­part­ment staff has heard sim­il­ar stor­ies dur­ing vis­its to schools in Cali­for­nia, Col­or­ado, Illinois, and Nevada. Stu­dents, par­ents, and even His­pan­ic teach­ers have re­por­ted be­ing pro­hib­ited from speak­ing Span­ish in all set­tings, in­clud­ing par­ent-teach­er con­fer­ences. The agency’s Of­fice for Civil Rights has also in­vest­ig­ated sev­er­al com­plaints al­leging that school dis­tricts dis­crim­in­ate on the basis of na­tion­al ori­gin by pro­hib­it­ing, and some­times pun­ish­ing, stu­dents for speak­ing in their nat­ive lan­guage. In 2013, the di­vi­sion re­ceived al­most 80 of­fi­cial com­plaints con­tain­ing al­leg­a­tions of dis­crim­in­a­tion on the basis of na­tion­al ori­gin in­volving ser­vices for Eng­lish-learner stu­dents and/or com­mu­nic­a­tion with par­ents of lim­ited Eng­lish pro­fi­ciency.

In many of these cases, dis­tricts have not been able to show val­id edu­ca­tion­al jus­ti­fic­a­tions for these ac­tions. Iron­ic­ally, the reas­on giv­en by many school ad­min­is­trat­ors and dis­tricts for pro­hib­it­ing Span­ish is what I see as the mis­guided no­tion that this pro­motes more rap­id learn­ing of the Eng­lish lan­guage.

As a former bi­lin­gual-edu­ca­tion teach­er, prin­cip­al, and dis­trict su­per­in­tend­ent, I have a hard time con­cep­tu­al­iz­ing any val­id edu­ca­tion­al jus­ti­fic­a­tion for bar­ring lan­guages oth­er than Eng­lish from schools, mak­ing it more dif­fi­cult for par­ents and teach­ers to com­mu­nic­ate or send­ing the mes­sage to stu­dents that speak­ing a second lan­guage is a bad thing. In­stead, it seems clear that these sorts of ac­tions leave stu­dents and par­ents feel­ing ex­cluded. De­valu­ing oth­er lan­guages and cul­tures is not only harm­ful to stu­dent iden­tity and self-con­fid­ence, but can also be dis­rupt­ive to the learn­ing pro­cess.

In this coun­try, we have a civic duty and mor­al ob­lig­a­tion to be vi­gil­ant and cour­ageous in tak­ing ap­pro­pri­ate ac­tion when we wit­ness cases of mis­treat­ment and ex­clu­sion of any stu­dent. We must em­brace the rich­ness and di­versity that is our cul­tur­al and lin­guist­ic her­it­age. And, as we col­lect­ively face in­creas­ing glob­al eco­nom­ic and polit­ic­al in­ter­de­pend­ency, equip­ping more stu­dents with the skills to read, speak, and write in mul­tiple lan­guages rep­res­ents not only an ad­vant­age but an es­sen­tial part of our coun­try’s se­cur­ity.

Only when schools con­sist­ently do both will we real­ize the prom­ise of Brown and the broad­er civil-rights move­ment.

Li­bia S. Gil is the as­sist­ant deputy sec­ret­ary in the Edu­ca­tion De­part­ment’s Of­fice of Eng­lish Lan­guage Ac­quis­i­tion.

HAVE AN OPIN­ION ON POLICY AND CHAN­GING DEMO­GRAPH­ICS? The Next Amer­ica wel­comes op-ed pieces that ex­plore the polit­ic­al, eco­nom­ic and so­cial im­pacts of the pro­found ra­cial and cul­tur­al changes fa­cing our na­tion, par­tic­u­larly rel­ev­ant to edu­ca­tion, eco­nomy, the work­force and health. Email Jan­ell Ross at jross@na­tion­al­journ­al.com. Please fol­low us on Twit­ter and Face­book.

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