AS classrooms across the United States refill this September, take a moment to really look at the students. They represent a rich mix of humanity. Norman Rockwell's freckle-faced redhead is no longer the typical student. In four states - Hawaii, Mississippi, New Mexico, and now California - black, Hispanic, and Asian children will occupy more seats than children whose families have European roots. Texas is expected to join that number within two years. Between 1980 and 1986, according to latest Department of Education figures, Hispanic public school enrollment expanded from 8 percent to 10 percent of the 40.3 million total, while Asian enrollment rose from 2 to 3 percent. During the same span, white enrollment dropped from 73 percent to 70 percent, and the percentage of black youngsters remained at 16.
Some may be inclined to view the ever-increasing ethnic blend in American public schools with concern. How are already strained staffs going to deal with language differences, with the cultural shock of immigrant children, with wide differences in experience between teachers and students?
Without discounting these challenges, we see more opportunity here than cause for despair. The US is immersed in an effort to reshape its educational system. From PTA members to presidential candidates, Americans are calling for schools capable of molding better citizens and more highly skilled workers. The term ``literacy'' is being stretched to include familiarity with computers, with higher complex mathematics, with art, history, and democratic values, as well as the English language. It's into this educational ferment that the country's varied mix of students surges this fall.
How will the child of a Hmong tribesman, Chicano field hand, Korean shopkeeper, or black sharecropper fare? With the emphasis on effective schooling stronger than ever, they'll have at least a widening possibility of finding motivated teachers and discovering the thrill of learning. If school reform is done right - with a closer eye on students' abilities to grasp and share ideas than on test scores and formal standards - it will lift every child, regardless of background. The fundamental goals of education are the same for all: a capacity to think things through, absorb new knowledge, and function in society.
This assessment, admittedly, is heavy in ideals. Gaps in educational quality are found about the country - between different regions, or even between different sections of a city. The thousands of local school districts diverge in culture and curriculum.
In recent years, the thrust for reform and the limits on local revenues have pushed much educational decisionmaking up to the state level. The momentum of reform may yet bring about a larger federal role in education.
American public education is a massive experiment - pledged to equality but steeped in diversity. Its success in educating a racially and ethnically varied citizenry is important not only to Americans, but to people everywhere.