Secretary of Education Arne Duncan and Assistant Secretary for Civil Rights Russylnn Ali answer questions regarding the federal government's role in addressing racial disparities in education. (James Arkin/Medill)

WASHINGTON — Almost 60 years after the Supreme Court ruling that abolished legal segregation in public education, black and Hispanic students still face disproportionate access to rigorous courses and troubling levels of discipline in the classroom, according to a Department of Education study released Tuesday.

The Department of Education’s Civil Rights Data Collection, which synthesized data from 72,000 schools between 2009 and 2010, found that only 29 percent of high minority schools offer calculus, compared with 55 percent of schools at the lowest black and Hispanic enrollment.  Secretary of Education Arne Duncan said that the data highlighted a disappointing reality in the American education system.

“The undeniable truth is that the everyday educational experience for many students of color violates the principle of equity at the heart of the American promise,” Duncan said during his announcement at Howard University in Washington. “It is our collective duty to change that.”

Even in schools offering more rigorous classes, the disparity still remains. While Hispanics make up 20 percent of students enrolled in these schools, they represent only 10 percent of students in classrooms teaching calculus.  Rep. Chaka Fattah, co-chair of the Congressional Black Caucus’ education subcommittee, warned that this discrepancy must be addressed in order to fulfill the promise of a “more perfect union.”

High schools with large black and Hispanic populations offer upper-level courses less often. Click for larger view. Data courtesy: Department of Education. (James Arkin/Medill)

“We can calculate the cost to our nation that happens when we have such a dearth in terms of a rigorous curriculum afforded to young people who have all of the god-given ability, but need the opportunity to bring forth their excellence in terms of academic preparation,” said Fattah, D-Pa.

Duncan urged educators to act on these findings in his address. The federal government, he said, encourages the use of federal funds to find alternative ways to handle discipline issues.

“The answer to every behavioral problem cannot be out of school suspensions and expulsion,” said Duncan   This is where the school to prison pipeline begins and it’s on all of us to break this insidious pattern.”

Schools with high minority enrollment also employed almost double the number of first-year and second-year teachers. Teachers in these schools were paid on average $2,200 less per year than their colleagues at other schools. The data shows that this figure is substantially higher in some states, with teachers at high minority schools in Pennsylvania being paid $14,000 less teachers at other schools. Duncan cautioned administrators to “reward great teachers and principals,” persuading experienced teachers to stay at schools with higher minority enrollment instead of leaving for higher salaries

Hispanic and black students are disciplined more often than white students. Click for larger view. Data courtesy: Department of Education (James Arkin/Medill)

Despite the findings, Duncan said that it would be unwise to jump to conclusions of racism from these data.  Without understanding the roots of the discrepancies, he said, patterns of civil rights violations cannot be confirmed.  However, Assistant Secretary Rosslynn Ali will continue to launch “proactive systemic investigations into disparities in discipline practices.”

Duncan hopes that this new level of transparency can serve as a call to action for educators to help solve what he believes is “the civil rights issue of our generation.”

“This is a total opportunity to look in mirror with eyes wide open and find ways to do better for all of our children,” Duncan said. “From transparency and looking at the cold hard truth of these facts, I think we will spur our nation to action.