Is the US ready to admit the changing face of its schools?

21st March 2014 at 00:00
Calls for action on diversity as white students become minority

White students will become a minority in US public schools from this September, according to the latest projections.

Figures released by the National Center for Education Statistics, a government agency within the US Department of Education, suggest that the tipping point will be reached at the start of the next academic year, from which time white students will be outnumbered by other racial groups.

According to the statistics, in 2014 just over 50 million students will enrol in US public schools from kindergarten to 12th grade. For the first time in the history of the country's school system, just 49.7 per cent of them are projected to be white. The other 50.3 per cent will be black, Hispanic, Asian or Pacific Islander, and American Indian or Alaskan Native.

Although white students will still be the largest single ethnic group, their numbers are expected to dwindle to about 45 per cent by 2022. Hispanic students, meanwhile, are forecast to make up a third of the country's public school body by that time, double the proportion in 1997.

The figures reflect the changing demographic of the US school system and the wider population of the country.

Meira Levinson, associate professor of education at Harvard's Graduate School of Education, said she hoped the change would lead to new approaches in policy and education. "What it may have the effect of doing is shifting schools, educators and citizens from seeing white students as being the norm from which non-white students diverge," she told TES.

"Even the phrases `white' and `non-white' make us assume that what white students are doing is either normal or is likely to be the best and then we do all of these comparisons as to why non-white are not normal or the best. Ideally we'll stop doing that and it will make diversity and the need to educate a diverse population the norm," she said.

Professor Levinson added, however, that while the shift in demographics was a national trend, it was not evenly spread across the country. Some areas had "vanishingly small" populations of white students and others expected to maintain "super-majorities" for many years to come.

The issue has become an area of concern for some educators and social scientists, who believe that school districts in certain parts of the US have become more racially segregated than they were 40 years ago. Figures published by thinktank the Economic Policy Institute show that in the mid-1970s, 36 per cent of students attending "typically" black schools were white. The figure is now just 29 per cent.

Similar studies by the University of California in Los Angeles have revealed that 15 per cent of black students and 14 per cent of Hispanic students across the US attend so-called "apartheid schools", where less than 1 per cent of those enrolled are white.

According to researchers from the Civil Rights Project at UCLA, segregation is increasing rapidly across the US but policymakers have not responded.

A 2013 report from the body states that the Bush administration did not take any significant action to increase school integration and neither has the Obama administration.

The report states: "The consensus of nearly 60 years of social science research on the harms of school segregation is clear: separate remains extremely unequal."

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