Two years into a demanding new era for the American education system, its defining 21st century challenge is coming into sharper focus.
That new era began in September 2014, when for the first time, kids of color constituted a majority of America’s K-12 public school students nationwide. That tilt will only deepen: The National Center for Education Statistics projects that by 2025, whites will shrink to 46 percent of public school students. Because this shift is most advanced among the youngest children (kids from minority groups already constitute a majority of Americans younger than five), most high school graduates are still white. But the NCES projects that by 2024 minority kids will represent a majority of high school graduates as well.
This demographic transformation frames the education system’s key coming test: extending the opportunity it already provides to kids from the best neighborhoods to those trying to climb from the most troubled communities. Asian American students now equal (or exceed) whites on most key achievement measures. But African Americans and Hispanics, who comprise the vast bulk of the new non-white student majority, still face troubling gaps.
Though long implicitly tolerated, that imbalance has grown unsustainable because those young people constitute an increasing share of our future workers and taxpayers. Unless the U.S. can equip more black and brown young people to succeed, it will face widening inequality, a skills shortage, and growing pressure on Social Security and Medicare as fewer workers earn the middle-class wages that sustain the payroll taxes underpinning those programs. Only boosting the young people already best positioned to scale the ladder won’t meet the economy’s needs anymore.