As the U.S. population grows more diverse, it’s impossible to tell the story of American education without considering the many ways our schools and colleges are shaped by the demographic make-up of the people inside them.
Think about how your own socioeconomic status, race, ethnicity, gender identity, immigration status, native language, residence, religion, and similar factors influenced which schools you attended. Think about how those factors affected your experiences in school. Think about how they constrain your options as a parent or guardian, and what they meant for our own parents and guardians to obtain the quality of education they wanted for their children.
Many educators agree that children and young adults benefit when classrooms and campuses comprise students and teachers representing a variety of races, ethnicities, religions, gender identities, immigration statuses, sexual orientations and socioeconomic backgrounds.
Yet demographics go hand-in-hand with disparities. Many schools and universities remain stubbornly segregated and student outcomes diverge dramatically among groups. Indeed, the country has a long legacy of educational haves and have-nots, and the dividing line between those groups has often fallen along demographic lines.
Reporters must consider how students’ experiences on campus and in classrooms affect their opportunities to learn — and how those experiences are shaped by their demographic differences.
Since 2014, nonwhite children comprise the majority of the more than 50 million students in the country’s public schools. Latinos are the only racial group of new college students that is steadily growing. Projections show both those trends will continue.
Historical data make clear that African American and Latino students have made considerable gains over the past few decades. Yet children of color are more frequently and more severely disciplined than white students. Racism and bigotry are daily realities for many students, in part evidenced by increasing reports of hate crimes on campuses.
Other differences matter as well. Food and housing insecurity threatens to force students to choose between basic survival and their education. LGBTQ students are more frequently the victims of physical and sexual violence and bullying at high schools, according to a national study from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Diversity or lack thereof among teachers must also be considered, as more than 80 percent of the nation’s public school teachers are white.
Whatever the issue, the same questions often are at its root: Who gets to go to which schools? What resources are available to support which students while they’re in school? The answers often cut along demographic lines, and can reveal whether education policies successfully create diverse learning environments and offer equal opportunities for students to succeed.
Here is a guide to tackling this enormous topic that has major implications for every student and parent, and for any school or college in the country.
Updated May 2020