Racially diverse 'new majority' set to reshape US public schools

For the first time, classrooms in public schools are filled mostly by nonwhite students. The concerns of minority parents could change American schools and education policies.

Melanie Stetson Freeman/The Christian Science Monitor/FILE
A teacher greets students at the start of the day at Sylvanie Williams College Prep elementary school, in New Orleans, on January 16, 2015.

America’s public schools are a snapshot of a changing America: Since 2014, for the first time in the country’s history, a majority of those in public schools have been students of color.

That’s more than just a statistic. The rise of this “new majority” promises to have sweeping effects on American schools over time. The voices and interests of these students and their parents will need to be better woven into the decisionmaking that affects United States classrooms, many education experts say.

What’s their emerging message? In part it’s in keeping with the age-old desires of families everywhere: a good education in safe schools. But it’s also a call for greater equity in school quality – a longstanding sore spot in America’s education system that’s growing harder to ignore. And for some in this new majority, the definition of a good education includes shaping lessons that truly embrace diversity.

Consider just this one finding from a new poll of black and Latino parents: The sense of racial bias was so strong for some parents that a quarter of Latinos and a third of African-Americans agreed with the statement, “Schools in the US are not really trying to educate Black/Latino students.”

The poll focused on education, and that one finding suggests that, despite years of education reforms, states have a long way to go to succeed in the dawning new-majority era. One of the places to start, judging by responses in the poll, is figuring out how to better fund schools in communities that don’t have the tax base of middle-class suburbia.

“The quality is not the same due to less funding,” a Latino parent said of schools serving primarily students of color, during a Chicago focus group tied to the poll. The parent said the money gap means “less teachers, less technology available … and less overall academic opportunities.”

And opportunity is the goal for these new-majority parents. Judging by the poll and focus-group responses, they want their kids held to rigorous standards and expectations, and they’re ready to do their part to prod their children forward. They just want schools to be up to the task at hand.    

“Will states and school districts rise to the occasion and build a K-12 public education system designed to address the educational needs of students of color? Or will they shirk their duty … and condemn a majority of public school students to a future with little to no promise?” asks Wade Henderson, president and CEO of The Leadership Conference Education Fund, in a report on the poll results.

What parents see 

Mr. Henderson’s group is the research and education arm of a large civil rights coalition, and sponsored the new poll for a report titled, “New Education Majority: Attitudes and Aspirations of Parents and Families of Color.”  The survey included 400 black and 400 Latino parents and guardians of school-age children, interviewed by phone in March by the polling firm Anzalone Liszt Grove Research (ALG).

More than three-quarters in the poll said schools in low-income communities – often those with many African-American or Latino residents – receive less funding than schools in wealthy communities. Parents who believed there are racial disparities in the quality of education attributed it primarily to this lack of funding. The next two factors they pointed to: lower teacher quality and overall racial bias.

“I’ve seen it so many times before. They don’t offer to black schools what they offer to white schools,” an African-American parent told a focus group in Philadelphia.

In all, 6 in 10 Latinos and 8 in 10 African-Americans in the survey said schools serving their group receive less than schools in white communities.

The vast majority also believed students should be challenged more and that low-income students should be held to the same or higher expectations, because of the importance of education as a path out of poverty or limited opportunities.

The call for better schools and greater equity comes at an important moment in national education policy. States are working to refine their school accountability systems within the parameters of the new federal education law known as the Every Student Succeeds Act. The law replaced the law known as “No Child Left Behind,” giving states greater flexibility in how to ensure strong schools.

As is often the case with polls of parents, more than 8 out of 10 said the school their children attend is good or excellent. But even within this question, the backdrop of racial equity lurked. Among African-Americans whose child attended a school that is mostly white, 94 percent rated the school highly, compared with 75 percent of those whose school was mostly black.

When asked an open-ended question about what factor is most important to make a great school, half cited good teachers.

Considering new priorities

The poll results may help broaden education policy agendas. In the dominant narrative around education reform, “a lot of the debates that we hear about … just don’t reflect what these new-majority parents have to say,” says Liz King, director of education policy for The Leadership Conference Education Fund. “The hemming and hawing about opt-out [related to standardized testing], for example, we just don’t see that as a priority concern.”

A majority of poll respondents said that when their children make it to college, it is largely due to the student’s and family’s efforts, while only about 15 percent said the school’s role was the most important factor.

But such family support is not always top of mind for educators at struggling schools.

In a high school in Florida that had some of the worst outcomes, an intervention leadership team at first thought of the families as largely unemployed and not particularly valuing education. The team believed that, in turn, this caused the children to not aspire to higher education.

After they surveyed the students, they found quite the opposite, according to an account by Rebecca Carlo, then-coordinator of a Florida project working with struggling learners.

Nearly all the students believed attending school beyond high school was an important goal, and more than 9 out of 10 said their family supported their educational goals and encouraged them to keep trying when things were difficult.

“Too often, the prevailing dialogue faults families of color for bad educational outcomes instead of grappling meaningfully and seriously with the need for the system to make different policy choices,” notes Mr. Henderson of The Leadership Conference Education Fund in the report, which acknowledges that the new majority includes Asians and Native Americans, who are likely to be included in future polls. “We cannot hope to build the public education system all children deserve without including the parents and families of the students who will most benefit from a truly high-quality education.”

But to truly engage with families in Latino and African-American neighborhoods to ensure equity will require a deeper dive into the subtext of the poll, said Jeffrey Duncan-Andrade, a longtime teacher in largely Latino East Oakland, Calif., and a professor at San Francisco State University, during a panel discussion following the poll’s release April 11.

When parents of color call for “rigor” in education, for instance, they aren’t necessarily calling for more academic tests. “You can’t be engaged in academically rigorous education without being engaged in a culturally relevant education,” he said. “For us, the inclusion and centrality of valuing our culture, valuing our history … is by definition what we mean by academic rigor.”

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