Education, Headlines, North America

For Minorities in U.S. Public Schools, Risk of a Dismal Future

NEW YORK, Jun 6 2012 (IPS) - As the United States struggles to level the racial disparities in its education system, the birth rate of minorities has been rising steadily. Experts say this confluence of statistics should compel Americans to seriously address the flaws and failures of the country’s public education system.

Public education statistics underscore an already alarming achievement gap that could widen depending on how successfully the United States addresses a host of issues, among them equal access to quality education.

Although high school dropout rates for all students between 1990 and 2010 have decreased overall, the 2010 dropout rate of African-Americans and Hispanics was nevertheless at least 50 percent higher than that of white students, according to “The Condition of Education 2012“, published by the National Centre for Education Statistics.

“Black students went from (a dropout rate of) 13 percent in 1990 to 8 percent in 2010, Hispanics went from 32 percent in 1990 to 15 percent in 2010 and whites went from 9 percent in 1990 to 5 percent in 2010,” the report stated.

Of children under the age of one year, 50.4 percent were minorities as of July 2011, up 49.5 percent from 2010, according to the latest census results.

Hispanics in the United States numbered 52 million in 2011. They also had the fastest growing population, boosting the Hispanic share of the nation’s total population from 16.3 percent in 2010 to 16.7 percent in 2011.

African-Americans are considered the second largest minority group, at 43.9 million in 2011. Asian-Americans numbered 18.2 million in 2011 and were the second fastest growing minority group.

Significant disparities in quality and access

“There is a twofold problem with advanced placement courses in public school system(s) because some heavily minority populated schools have limited access to advanced placement courses,” said Hilary Shelton, director of the NAACP’s Washington bureau.

“Other schools have ‘segregation’ in their advanced placement courses because the classes tend to have a majority of white students,” he noted.

States play a major role in combating education disparities in the United States, Shelton added. “It is really at the state level that we need to focus on resources,” he said. “Only 10 percent of public school funding comes from federal funds and the other 90 percent comes from the state.”

Still, the federal government remains important for changing the quality of schools and education.

Shelton advocated for the NAACP’s six-point education plan, a blueprint for public schools that calls for federal law to fund schools equally and to ensure that all students have the necessary resources and quality of teaching to achieve high standards. It also calls upon the government to “protect the voice of communities in school decisions”.

Ideally, the NAACP’s plan will evolve over time, Shelton said, because “there is enough flexibility in the plan for communities to bring in their community culture into the process….It is a blueprint for the public school.”

The organisation hopes that “the population will become more and more diverse” until eventually one “can disregard a minority group”.

The Centre for American Progress (CAP) published a report, “Increasing Education Effectiveness and Efficiency of Existing Public Investments in Early Childhood Education” on June 1 that noted “the keys to boosting program quality, efficiency, and student results rest with federal officials who already have sufficient legislative authority to continue to streamline, innovate, and improve the early learning services” throughout the country.

The report called for recognising students’ diversity and giving all students access to the same quality of education.

“We need to provide pre-school for lower income children. Right now, you have lower income children, African-American and Latino children who are disproportionately low income start school less prepared than more affluent kids and white kids who are more likely to get high quality pre-school education,” said Cynthia Brown, vice president for education policy at CAP.

Vanessa Cardenas, director of Progress 2050, a CAP project, said in a press statement, “The success of children of colour needs to be at the top of our list.”

The demise of ethnic studies

Yet the achievement gap is only one area of public education in which minorities are losing out.

In a controversial initiative, the community of Tucson, Arizona suspended its Mexican-American studies (MAS) program in a district with one of the largest populations of Hispanic students in country; during the 2009-2010 school year, 49.4 percent of students were Hispanic, according to the Harvard School of Public Health.

The curriculum is being rewritten and will be integrated into a general social studies program. The school board made the decision after a federal judge ruled that the program violated Arizona state law and ordered that what would amount to millions of dollars in state aid be withheld until the district complied and ended the program.

Sally Rusk, a MAS teacher in Tucson, Arizona explained why the program is important and why students, activities and teachers are fighting hard to bring it back.

“If young people do not see the contributions of their ancestors or see themselves as part of the fabric of this country this marginalisation is hurting society. It is desperately hurting society. It is making young people and adults not participate. It is just horrible. Killing these classes now, (when) instead they should be expanded.”

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