Next week, as children head back to schools across the country, the rituals of Fall will provide continuity and comfort to millions. Students will come eager to share their most vivid summer adventures. Teachers will work to project equal amounts of authority, competence, and warmth. Parents will dispense, one more time, wisdom about first impressions, the wonders of politeness, and being kind to the new kid in school. These timeless rituals have been repeated in schools, East and West, North and South, in rich and working class neighborhoods, in cities and suburbs, since the time of the mythical Little Red Schoolhouse. They will help manage anxiety in the first day of school, create a sense of belonging, and provide continuity with the past.
But in nearly every other respect schools will look very different. To paraphrase the French proverb, the more things change, they more they change. Come next week, American schools will face a task no other wealthy democracy has ever done well: educating the most demographically diverse group of students in history to compete in an ever more globally integrated world at a time of deep economic crisis.
Come next week American schools will be more diverse than ever before. Over 10 million students -- slightly more than the population of Sweden or about size of the population of Michigan -- will come to schools speaking a language other than English. Nationwide approximately a quarter of all children heading to school next week will originate in homes where English is not the primary language. In the nation's three largest school districts, New York, Los Angeles, and Chicago immigrant origin, English language learners (ELLs) are now the fastest growing sector of the student population (25% of all students in New York City, 41 % of all students in LA, and 14 percent of all students in Chicago). In California, nearly 2 million children will come from homes representing well over 50 different languages (Spanish, Vietnamese, Cantonese, and Tagalog lead the way). New York dwarfs California in terms of depths of its diversity pool: in New York City alone approximately fifty percent of the students heading to school will originate in immigrant-headed homes representing over 190 different countries. This never happened before in the history of the world: one city educating children from literally every corner of earth. But it's not just big cities. In Dodge City, Kansas approximately 40 percent of the kids heading to school next week, speak a language other than English at home. We are not in Kansas anymore.
By the time next week's first graders graduate from High School, the U. S. will be the most diverse high-income country in the world with fully 40 percent of the population tracing their origins to groups other than the white-European origin majority.
Are our schools up to this historic challenge? While sociologists, see for example http://www.nytimes.com/2009/08/16/books/review/Patterson-t.html?_r=1&em, tend to celebrate the wonders of the still-well oiled American assimilation machinery, they may be asking too little of schools in an era of global integration and economic uncertainty. While immigrant children are learning English at rates comparable to prior generations and getting better jobs than their immigrant parents, it maybe too little too late. Sociologists comparing how this wave of immigrants is doing vis-à-vis earlier waves focus on the half full side of the glass. The half empty side of the glass becomes clear when we focus on global competition not anachronistic historical comparisons. The children heading to school next week are not going to compete with -- and should not be measured against -- the children of Irish, Italian and Easter European immigrants of last century. They are going to compete with students in Hong Kong, Korea, and Finland for best jobs the global economy has to offer. Data from the Program for International Student Assessment (PISA) a respected system of international assessments measuring the performance of 15-year-olds in reading literacy, mathematics literacy, and science literacy every 3 years tells a blunt story: In 2006, the average mathematics literacy score in the United States was lower than the average score in 23 of the other 29 high income OECD countries for which comparable PISA results were reported. These and other data suggest that our students are more diverse but less prepared in the ways that matter.
The main policy instrument to make sure all American students are ready for the 21st Century is No Child Left Behind (NCLB). Does it make a difference in the twin age of global competition and demographic diversity? Yes, but mostly for the wrong reasons. The high-stakes testing context of NCLB is proving to be extremely challenging to our ever more diverse student population. Not only are many immigrant-origin children tested before their academic language skills have adequately developed, but all too often their day-to-day educational experiences are shaped by instruction that teaches to the test, a far from an adequate measure of what it takes to succeed in the global century. Is it any surprise then that in the "gold standard" National Assessment of Educational Progress reading assessment for 2007, 71 percent of English-language learners in the eighth grade scored "below basic" in reading and zero percent scored at the "advanced" level?
What will it take to thrive in the 21st Century? We will need a KCIC to get us there: Knowledge for Creativity, Innovation, and Complexity. KCIC will shape the global competition. The best research suggests that schools should focus less on tests, and on teaching to those tests, and more on the higher order cognitive and meta-cognitive skills needed for expert thinking and problem solving within and across disciplines and domains, the skills needed for communication in complex settings, and the cultural sensibilities needed for working simpatico in groups made of individuals of diverse origins.
The world has come to the Little Red School House. How we fare in turning the children of the world into productive and engaged citizens of an ever-smaller, more integrated planet will teach the world a lesson on the vitality of the American promise.
Marcelo and Carola Suárez-Orozco, are Members of the Institute for Advanced Study, Princeton and on the faculty at the Steinhardt School of Culture, Education and Human Development at New York University. Their most recent book is Learning a New Land: Immigrant Students in American Society, http://www.hup.harvard.edu/catalog/SUAMOV.html