We need to address the racial disparities in our schools.

New survey data released by the Department of Education reveals a frightening and stark picture of the depth of these inequities.

Black students, including preschoolers, are suspended and expelled at three times the rate of white students. Black and Latino students tend to have teachers who are lower paid and less experienced. These students are also much more likely to have less access to college preparatory courses.

Most Americans believe that public schools should provide a path to success for all students who "work hard" and "play by the rules." But the sad truth is that structural barriers create an opportunity gap that has a significant impact on outcomes.

When black or Latino students go to a school where they are more likely to get suspended than tutored - and with grossly inadequate access to college prep classes - it should be no surprise that this has a huge impact on their chances.

And for a country that desperately needs a highly skilled, competitive work force, this reality isn't just unfair and immoral. It also imperils our economic prosperity.

These inequities impact all of us, regardless of our income or the color of our skin.

So what can we do?

President Barack Obama recently proposed a $300 million "Race to the Top" initiative to help close the opportunity gap. And his administration issued guidance to schools on how to modify their discipline policies.

States are also taking action. California implemented a "weighted student formula" to provide more support for schools that serve largely disadvantaged students.

Many of these efforts are laudable and should be supported. But they are not enough.

It is time we reflect as a nation on whether we are being honest enough about the extent of the challenge, and whether we're even using the right vocabulary to take it on.

Much of the national focus has been on "education reform," a term that might suggest that our schools just need a bit of tinkering. But often this term is used as a Trojan horse for privatizing public education.

These so-called reforms fail to get at the deeper issues, including an overreliance on high-stakes testing, attacks on employee protections and systems of competition creating winners and losers.

What we urgently need is a focus not on education reform, but on education transformation. To truly transform our schools and root out structural economic and racial inequities, we need a new way of thinking and talking honestly about the depth of the problem.

A renewed national conversation around education transformation may bring us closer to addressing the core issues: underfunded schools with undersupported staff, the lack of a relevant and engaging 21st-century curriculum accessible to all and the need for a head-on assault on concentrated poverty.

Until that happens, we'll have one survey after another that shows us slipping, rather than getting ahead.

Matt Haney is a commissioner on the San Francisco Board of Education and a lecturer at the Hasso Plattner Institute of Design at Stanford University. He wrote this for the Progressive Media Project. Distributed by McClatchy-Tribune News Service.

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