Re-Imagining Education

In a May 17 headline entitled “Whites Account for Under Half of Births in U.S.,” The New York Times confirmed a well-known trend: the United States is rapidly becoming a multi-racial and majority non-white country. In addition, however, the article highlighted significant generational differences across race and ethnicity with some powerful implications for schools.

Whites continue to constitute the majority of the population as a whole, about 64%—but we are aging. As the dominantly white, older generation of Baby Boomers dies, the article noted, a dominantly non-white younger generation will take its place. William H. Frey, senior demographer at the Brookings Institute, calls this is a “transformation from a mostly white baby boomer culture to the more globalized multiethnic country we are becoming.” Marcelo Suarez-Orozco, NYU’s co-director of immigration studies, gets to the heart of the matter: “The question is, how do we re-imagine the social contract when the generations don’t look like each other?”

As educators, we might ask, “How do we re-imagine education when the generations don’t look like each other?”

This is a pointed question because, despite a lot of well-intentioned efforts, the teaching faculties and administrations of most independent and Episcopal schools remain majority white. And like the majority-white U.S. population as a whole, we are graying.

Teachers are not retiring as predicted. In part it’s the economy, but in part it’s because people are choosing to teach well into their 70s (the new 50s!), a trend likely to continue and, in many ways, a good one. Similarly, pop your head into a typical gathering of independent or Episcopal school heads and senior administrators and you will see mostly white men and women in their 40s, 50s, and 60s (I am solidly in this group).

So here is the question: how prepared are we to meet the educational needs of a globalized, multi-cultural, and multi-racial America?

To be prepared at all, it seems to me, those of us who are majority-white Baby Boomer leaders, teachers, and administrators need to do some tough personal work: to reflect carefully on long-held assumptions about teaching and learning, and to genuinely connect to teachers and students (mostly younger) whose backgrounds and life experiences may be quite different from our own. We can help our schools to seek out and support a new generation of teachers who can guide us in this work, and not simply hire and advance those who look and think just like us. Perhaps most of all we can guard against becoming crotchety old folks who lament the younger generation’s faults and foibles rather than welcome them as peers with something to teach us.

Regardless of age, race, or background, today’s best school leaders are already responding to the changes cited in the Times: preparing students for a multi-racial, multi-ethnic nation and world, exploring new ways to “do school,” creating collaborative models for knowledge sharing, gathering many voices and perspectives around the school’s “educational table,” and developing the cross-cultural competencies of all.

If the Census data is right, these are not just interesting ideas, but essential ways of being. What is your school up to? We’d love to hear.