Richard W. Riley calls them the “millennium generation,” the approximately 53 million children entering public and private schools this fall. “How we educate their minds and shape their values now will go a long way to defining the destiny of this nation,” the U.S. secretary of education declared earlier this year.
Anyone who wants to glimpse the future of America’s school-age population can look to California. Today, a majority of the schoolchildren in the Golden State are members of a minority group. But as the demographer Harold L. Hodgkinson likes to say, “What’s happening in California is coming to a high school near you."In the 20th century, public education in the United States underwent a remarkable transformation, marked by universal schooling, broad-based access to college, and the democratization of a melting-pot culture.
The new century poses no fewer challenges. Public schools today are being asked to educate a generation that is more racially and ethnically diverse than at any other time in the nation’s history. Thirty-five percent of U.S. children are members of minority groups, a figure that is expected to climb to more than 50 percent by 2040. One in five comes from a household headed by an immigrant. And nearly one- fifth live in poverty.
Such diversity offers an unprecedented opportunity to build on the nation’s pluralistic traditions. But first, Americans must prove that demography is not destiny: that the color of children’s skin, where they live, the languages they speak, and the income and education levels of their parents do not determine the educational opportunities they receive.
This five-part series, “2000 & Beyond: The Changing Face of American Schools,” uses the lens of demography to look ahead. It suggests that the picture may look far different depending on where in the nation one resides.
The series, which concludes in December, begins with the following overview of the demographic forces shaping education in the 21st century.
Research Associate Greg F. Orlofsky provided data analysis for this report.