Shifting Demographics in American Education: The Opportunities

By Scott Sterling

This is the second in a series focusing on the dramatic demographic changes going on 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.

Last week, we discussed how, for the first time, the American public school system is made up of a majority of minority students. These shifting demographics bring challenges, especially for an education system that has traditionally performed poorly for minorities, but if these students can receive a fair and proper education, they might hold the key to continued American economic, cultural, and social growth.

Economic opportunities

It is estimated that economic spending in emerging markets could reach $30 trillion by 2025. In these markets, 7 out of 10 people do not speak English—and yet, in the US, only 10% of the population speaks a second language.

That’s a steep hill to climb if we are to continue as an economic powerhouse in the 21st century. It’s hard to do business when you can’t speak your customers’ language.

Luckily, this surge in minority school populations is fueled by families who speak the languages in the greatest demand for worldwide business: Spanish and varied Asian languages that include Mandarin Chinese and Vietnamese.

The challenge is that these students typically enter our system as English-language learners. But if we can effectively educate ELL students, we’ll suddenly have a talent pool of millions of Americans perfect for competing in the multicultural global economy.

Cultural gifts

American culture has always been a hodgepodge of people who descended from immigrants. For an example that’s perhaps a little crass, simply look at the food court of your local mall. A Chinese noodle shop will be located next to an Italian counter, across from a burrito/taco joint. To be sure, those cultures have provided a lot more to Americans than just their food, but people of all nationalities eat in that food court. It’s part of the American experience.

That experience is expanding rapidly. It will increase in width and breadth because schoolchildren will have a greater opportunity to share cultural traditions and ideas with someone close to them—a classmate. As our schools become more and more multicultural, traditions will meld into new traditions. Ways of doing and thinking will converge. And yes, American food will probably get even better.

Social growth

Broadly speaking, one of the goals of our education system is to produce worldly students who can think deeply about society, ready to solve the problems they find within.

In contrast with perhaps how we or our parents were educated, our children are now much more likely to share a classroom with someone from another culture. That’s a learning opportunity waiting to happen.

It’s the role of the teacher to facilitate that discussion. How can these worldviews merge to offer all students a more complete toolbox for understanding the world? That begins with mutual respect, open dialogue, and a willingness to learn (yes, even the teacher needs to be prepared to learn from these students).

This does not come naturally for much of the majority-white teaching ranks. Cultural competence takes training and experience. But when a culturally diverse classroom becomes socially cohesive, the learning goes much further than just standards and academics.

By now, we’re familiar with the concept of fixed (versus growth) mindsets. In this case, the fixed mindset would have you believe that a majority-minority school population is a “problem” or a “challenge.” If we as educators can adopt a growth mindset regarding these changes, the rewards can extend much further than simply educating more kids in more effective ways. They can be transformative for the country.

Next week: Some of the best practices in minority education.

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