An era of missed opportunity

Predictions from the end of the 19th century about education at the end of the 20th would seem ludicrous today in some ways and strangely accurate in others.

Who could have foreseen the vast scale of higher education or that the lowly Irish and Southern European immigrants would be part of the establishment, often railing against letting new groups into their schools? Who could have imagined that vast libraries would flash around the world for free on electronic webs that affluent nine-year-olds would find perfectly normal?

As Plessy v. Ferguson, the 1896 Supreme Court decision that upheld separate facilities for whites and blacks, was being consolidated in a rigid segregation system, who could have imagined the civil rights revolution and a national holiday for a black preacher who gave it its voice? Who could have foreseen girls surpassing boys right up through college and many graduate programs?

In other ways, school has not changed nearly as much as one might think. Adolescence has always been hard, and racism is far from solved. Some families still have much more influence than others, and poor kids still get much worse schools. New immigrants are still often treated badly. The best teachers, technology, and learning opportunities are in the schools with affluent children.

American schools will face many changes in the next century. But few, if any, will have more impact than the vast demographic transformation already under way. The Census Bureau projects that our school-age population will have only 42 percent whites or European-Americans in 50 years. We already have five states - including our two largest - where whites are a minority in public schools.

If the existing trends continue, we will have around 95 million Latinos in the nation in 2050. About a tenth of our people will be Asian and about a sixth will be African-American. For the first time since European settlement, we may be turning away from Europe and toward a broader exposure to other major cultures.

One central theme of American education, law, and politics in the 20th century was the struggle to end official apartheid and incorporate African-Americans in our major institutions. The first half of the century saw rigid exclusion and inequality.

The 1954 Supreme Court decision on Brown v. Board of Education was followed by two decades of struggle that ended apartheid and brought the greatest emphasis on integration and equity in US history. The subsequent decades reflected a conservative-dominated era in which civil rights protections were gradually cut back and segregation and inequality grew.

Almost totally ignored was the emergence of Latinos as our largest group of minority children at the end of the 20th century. They are the youngest major group in the US and have a much higher birth rate than other groups. They will soon be the majority of all students in California and Texas. The influence of this huge change will sweep the nation.

Education is a central part of the dream for all Americans. We expect the public schools to help make genuine opportunity possible for all and to convey the common experiences that bind us together as a nation.

The first decades of the new century will be seen either as a transition to a resumption of the themes of equity and opportunity largely abandoned during the Nixon and Reagan years, or a consolidation of deep structures of educational inequality like those laid down after Reconstruction and not seriously challenged for more than a half century.

We will see a continued decline of urban school districts, followed by a sweeping and erratic set of reform efforts that may imperil public schools. The trends are toward greater racial and economic stratification, particularly within large metropolitan areas. We will see dramatic differentiation of suburbs. The population of minority and poor students is already increasing rapidly in sectors of suburbia, while other segments are becoming extremely affluent and isolated.

Problems will be accentuated by a continued aging of the population. A huge racial gap will grow between students and aging voters that will affect politics and resources for youth. There will be battles over the cultural and historical content of schooling, as well as the language of instruction.

If one were to project the trends several generations into the next century, there would be grave threats to the future of a rapidly changing society. We will enter the new century with the highest level of child poverty and economic inequality of any major advanced society. We go in with healthy suburban schools and colleges, but a health based too much on fragmentation and exclusion.

We enter this period with a brief movement for racial justice that ended 30 years ago, followed by a systematic retreat on many fronts of that revolution. We are a metropolitan people without effective metropolitan institutions and we have an economy that requires post-secondary education for reasonable security but lacks the policies that make it generally possible.

I believe that the present era will be seen as one of wasted opportunity. People will wonder how the obvious trends stimulated little response, and why politicians increasingly wrote off large groups of the young.

Our educators must turn our attention toward successfully dealing with the massive changes we face. We still have tremendous assets. The country shares a very high regard for education and a belief (at least in theory) about educational opportunity.

We had very successful policies for increasing educational opportunity during the civil rights era. Much has been learned about the conditions for effective compensatory education. Language instruction could be built into schools as a resource rather than a problem in two-way bilingual classes. Schools could provide more-developed windows on world cultures and help prepare leaders.

It will be a decisive challenge of the early 21st century. Our existing leaders have neither the vision nor the courage honestly to address this challenge. We need new leaders with the understanding and eloquence of those who finally defeated apartheid in the South in the 1950s and 1960s.

*Gary Orfield is professor of education and social policy at Harvard University.

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