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Which States Do the Worst (and Best) Job of Educating Kids Regardless of Class? The Results May Surprise You

Economic differences are reflected in the classroom, with students in wealthy schools taking many more advanced courses. But some states have begun to bridge these disparities.
 
 
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Florida is a state of stark contrasts. Travel a few miles from the opulent mansions of Miami Beach and you reach desperately poor neighborhoods. There’s the grinding poverty of sugar cane country and the growing middle class of Jacksonville. All told, half the public-school students in Florida qualify for subsidized lunches. Many are the first in their families to speak English or contemplate attending college.

In many states, those economic differences are reflected in the classroom, with students in wealthy schools taking many more advanced courses.

But not in Florida. A ProPublica analysis of previously unreleased federal data shows that Florida  leads the nation in the percentage of high-school students enrolled in high-level classes—Advanced Placement and advanced math. That  holds true across rich and poor districts.

Studies repeatedly have shown that students who take advanced classes have  greater chances of attending and succeeding in college.

Our analysis identifies  several states that, like Florida, have leveled the field and now offer rich and poor students roughly equal access to high-level courses.

In Kansas, Maryland and Oklahoma, by contrast, such opportunities are far less available in districts with poorer families.

That disparity is part of what experts call the “opportunity gap.”

“The opportunity to learn—the necessary resources, the curriculum opportunities, the quality teachers—that affluent students have, is what determines what people can do in life,” said Linda Darling-Hammond, a professor of education at Stanford University.

Our analysis offers the first nationwide picture of exactly which advanced courses are being taken at which schools and districts across the country. Previous studies and surveys have tracked some of these courses, but never with so many variables and covering so many schools. (More than three-quarters of all public-school children are represented in our analysis.  Check out our methodology.)

We have also created an interactive feature  so you can search for your school and see how it compares, for example, with poorer and wealthier schools nearby. It also shows the percentage of inexperienced teachers in schools. Here’s  Beverly Hills High compared to a much poorer school in Southern California. And  here’s a stark example from New Jersey.

The analysis was drawn from a nationwide survey by the Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights, which collected school-by-school reports on a range of offerings, including physics, chemistry and Advanced Placement courses in high schools. The department did the survey to assess whether states and other localities are discriminating by race, gender or disability. State and local education administrators, of course, are responsible for most funding and policy decisions.

We compared the survey results to poverty levels. (We measured that by looking at the percentage of students who receive free- or reduced-price lunch— which the government offers to students from low-income families.)

While our analysis found a link between race and lack of access, poverty was the predominant factor in determining the proportion of students in a school or district who were enrolled in higher-level instruction.

The department plans to make public additional data in the coming months on graduation rates and test scores for these schools. When it does so, we will publish additional stories pinpointing the states in which equal access has achieved the desired results and where it has not.

From the data released so far, Florida stands out. Its results follow a decade-long initiative to broaden educational opportunity launched by then-governor Jeb Bush and his Education Commissioner, and now fellow former governor, Charlie Crist.

“The fact that some states have eliminated these disparities proves that if we make this a priority of policy it can be done,” said Pedro A. Noguera, an education professor at New York University.

 
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