Shifting Demographics in American Education: The Challenges

US education is changing

By Scott Sterling

This is the first in a series focusing on the dramatic demographic changes in the nation’s schools. This shift presents challenges to the existing system, but also opportunities for sustained success and best practices that other districts and schools around the country have pioneered.

We’re at a historic point in the history of education in the United States. For the first time, minority schoolchildren make up the majority of students in the nation’s schools, according to the National Center for Education Statistics. This is fueled by immigration and growth among the Latino population, steady growth among Asian Americans, and a declining population among whites.

Many urban districts in the country have been majority-minority for quite some time. In total, 18.5 percent of districts attained that status by the 2011 school year. But these changes are not limited to large cities or immigration hotbeds like California, Texas, and Florida. Rural districts and schools in places as wide-ranging as Maine and Idaho have also seen individual spurts in immigration.

To be sure, this shift presents challenges to the nation’s existing education system, which historically struggles with educating students who are not white, don’t speak English, and are coming from poverty.

The Non-Shifted Teacher Population

Although demographically America has changed drastically in the past few decades, the ranks of the teacher corps has remained unchanged—remarkably white.

In 2011-12, 82 percent of teachers in the US were white. No other demographic group reaches double digits. Those numbers haven’t changed significantly in at least a decade and, according to enrollment in teacher prep programs, won’t be changing anytime soon.

It’s no secret that students engage better with teachers who reflect their values and can appreciate their culture, so this disconnect between the student and teacher populations has ramifications on student success. Since we appear generations away from a minority influx among teachers, the nation and its teacher training programs need to focus on cultural diversity as an engagement strategy. It is possible, of course, for white teachers to have lasting connections with minority students as long as cultural awareness and appreciation for diversity are firmly in place.

A Stressed ELL Education System

Logically, a majority-minority population means the number of students who require English Language Learner services will continually increase.

ELL education is already a challenge in many schools. Some districts, in places like Miami and Los Angeles, have decades of experience and have worked out what approaches are best for them. Others are meeting ELL challenges they’ve never seen before.

As usual, funding solves a lot of problems when it comes to ELL education. Incentives for bilingual teachers have helped woo them to districts in need. Before- and after-school programs are popular in schools that have found 8 instructional hours simply aren’t enough for ELL students. Finally, technology programs have shown the ability to bridge some of the gaps encountered by ELL students on their journey to proficiency. But those all cost money.

Educating the Poor

One other demographic shift is currently underway in the US. The share of the United States population held by people 65 years of age or older is expected to be nearing 20 percent by 2050, according to Pew Research. That contrasts with only 9 percent in 1960. Seniors tend to be the ones who vote and hold powerful positions in government.

As we are seeing in the movement to replace No Child Left Behind, schools and districts that serve the poor face increasing challenges to assert political pressure and expand their funding. Underserved schools might remain underserved.

With a minority-majority student population, more schools will find themselves in that category. Solving poverty, especially among immigrants, is outside the scope of this article, but just as cultural training might be necessary for the nation’s teachers, so might targeted strategies in reaching impoverished students.

Next week: The opportunities presented by a majority-minority population.

Other articles you might like:

2 Replies to “Shifting Demographics in American Education: The Challenges”

Comments are closed.