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Guest Voz: Growing diversity in schools: Challenges and Opportunities

By Yvette Donado

(Editor’s Note: Yvette Donado, SVP and Chief Administrative Officer of Educational Testing Services, delivered the following address at the annual conference of the National Association of Elementary School Principals on July 1. It has been edited for brevity.)

I am truly honored and delighted to be in your company. Most of you are former teachers, so you know what it’s like to be in the trenches. Together, we struggle to create greater educational opportunities for ALL of our children. You are on the front lines of two unrivalled changes in our country: 1) unprecedented demographic shifts; and 2) the wide array of cohorts engaged in one of the most divisive, heated debates about how we adapt our education systems to ably confront today’s challenges.

To provide some personal context, I will tell you that I am product of the public school system, born and raised in a very diverse, working class neighborhood in New York City. My parents came from Puerto Rico in search of opportunity. Neither was well educated; but I was fortunate to have had good teachers, good principals, a great mentor and supportive parents. This network made going to school pleasurable. Very importantly, my parents inculcated in their children the desire to learn. Parental engagement is key to student success. Families are indeed America’s first and smallest schools!

My parents never took tests, but they made sure my three sisters and I prepared for them. And we did. Tests help level the playing field. That’s why ETS was founded. Our first test was the SAT. You may be surprised to learn that the SAT was designed to promote meritocracy. Its use would ensure that college admissions would be based not on family name, legacy and means, but on merit. So our mission – to help advance quality and equity in education for all – surely aligns with yours.

I fear, however, that the erosion of meaningful investment and support of public schools is jeopardizing that very opportunity for today’s children—the right to receive a well-rounded education—one that includes the arts, music, sports or Physical Ed and of course, grounded in high expectations for academic achievement.

As a by-product of working at the world´s largest educational assessment and research organization, I am bombarded daily by information about educational developments worldwide. In fact, just a few weeks ago, I spoke at an international conference in Brazil on higher education partnerships. I focused on the “commoditization of education,” how education is indeed very much like “goods” that are being developed, marketed, sold and valued… Now, what I am keenly aware of, is that quality elementary education is at the heart of this commoditization.

For if higher education is a valued international commodity, then quality primary education must be recognized as its incubator. As my good friend Loui Olivas, the president of the American Association of Hispanics in Higher Education, reminds me, “There is no higher education without quality lower education.” You, my friends, assure that quality.

A Demographic Tsunami
Today, we are caught up in an unprecedented demographic “tsunami” for which we are inadequately prepared. It has monumental implications for educators, parents, students, administrators – for our very democracy. Let me explain.

Demographic change is occurring at a faster pace than at any other time in our history. Our host state, California, is a microcosm of that change. In 2014, California was already a majority-minority state, at 57.6 percent (38.8% Hispanic; 13% Asian/Pacific Islander; 5.8% Black). Hispanic registered voters in this state grew from 13.9 percent in the year 2000, to 26 percent in 2012.

Nationally, Asians – not Hispanics – are the fastest growing minority. Hispanics, at about 57 million nationally, are also growing rapidly. Baltimore, Chicago, Houston, Los Angeles, Miami and New York are majority-minority cities. Last year, as I spoke to an audience of business leaders and educators in Madrid, they were intrigued by the fact that the U.S. Spanish-speaking population exceeds the size of their own country at 50 million! Yet, less enlightened leaders here at home would have us deny these realities; and even candidates for our highest office seem clearly out of touch with the need to embrace the current face of America.

The facts I will cite are certainly not new to you; but for context, allow me to share the following data:
• In 2013, the U.S. Census stated that “minority” babies were being born at a faster rate than that of whites.
• The Census predicts that by 2044, non-Hispanic whites will be the majority.
• In 2014, the high school graduation rate was 81.4 percent, nearing the 90 percent goal set by President Obama for 2020.
• The number of “drop out factories,” or low-performing schools, dropped to under 1,200.
• Low income students are a majority in our public schools.
• Michigan, New York, Ohio, Georgia, Florida, California and Illinois educate
40 percent of our African American students, and their graduation rates are in the 60s.
• New York’s Latino high school graduation rate is nearly 20 points below the national average for all students
• There are 5.5 million American-born children of undocumented immigrants, and another 1.5 million who are here and also undocumented.

A few years ago, I led an ETS initiative to address the needs of the nation´s English language learners. We met with experts from across the country, conducted focus groups in several cities, reviewed the research & created an advisory committee. One constant thread that struck me, was the extent to which teachers and principals lamented how ill-prepared they were to deal with the 21st century classroom. Although that classroom is increasingly diverse, their training has been largely rooted in the 20th century, highly theoretical, with little real world experience.

Then there’s the digital divide. The problem is not that teachers are inept when it comes to computers. It’s that they don’t know how to translate that knowledge into something that can help their students prepare for the future. A San Fernando Valley teacher said in a focus group that she had at least one Hispanic 6th grader who had never seen the ocean or a museum. That lack of exposure is incredibly sad. And we know what the effects are when an educator is discussing the ocean or a museum for a student who has seen neither. To her credit, that teacher, with the support of her principal, organized weekend beach and cultural excursions.

Unfortunately, many school boards around the country have not kept pace with demographic change. Some years ago, the Los Angeles Times ran a story about a school board with a majority of African American members serving a district with a majority Latino enrollment. Now, surely the composition of that board was a vestige of a prior demographic era. We can’t blame the board members. Latinos in that district should have been mobilizing and running for those seats, using them, once gained, to assure a diverse perspective in school administration.

Elizabeth, New Jersey, close to Princeton, where I live, offers a contrast. Its population, at one time largely European in origin, is now about 60 percent Hispanic. Its school board and its school principals mirror that fact. Now, I am not arguing that equity and opportunity can be assured only by parity representation on boards and in administration. What I am saying is that children’s needs can be better served by diversity on boards and in administration.

A recent opinion piece in the New York Times described a private school-dominated NY school district, north of Manhattan, whose board is all white, while the public school enrollment is 46 percent Hispanic and 43 percent Black, or 89 percent minority. About 83 percent are poor and 27 percent are English learners.

To quote the New York Times: “In 2013-14, only 14 percent of students in grades 3 through 8 were proficient in English Language Arts, and only 15 percent were proficient in math.” A state report showed that the board had slashed public school services and increased spending on private schools. The title of the piece was “When a School Board Victimizes Kids.” The consequences for learning are obvious. And the example illustrates how demographic change and diversity matter.

Frankly – while I am a proud Latina – I must observe the inescapable truth that some leaders (Latinos included) have simply failed to seize the opportunity to replicate the Elizabeth example and counter the situation in the New York district. Institutional racism, be it conscious or not, does impede change. But the underserved and underrepresented groups in every community, must work to ensure that they are represented on boards and in elective politics in general.

An Epiphany in Education
I am privileged to gain important insights from the various non-profits that collaborate with ETS. I serve on the board of the Committee for Hispanic Children and Families, a New York City-based group that works in the poorest schools in The Bronx. It serves all students, and all families in the communities where it works. Its current chair is an African American woman who in her day job runs a nonprofit that provides scholarships to urban minority children.

ETS also supports Dallas-based Parents Step Ahead (PSA). It works to get parents into schools – literally. K-12 enrollment in Dallas public schools is 65 percent Hispanic. PSA teaches parents and their children about risky behaviors, makes them aware of the value of school counselors, and about how to build a college-bound culture in the home. They promote parents reading to their children, and listening as their children read. Now, I could regale you with many anecdotes.

Here’s just one. PSA’s President, Lupita Colmonero, wanted to take the program to a suburban school. “They won’t come,” the principal replied. “We’ve invited them; THEY don’t care about education.” “What if we held the program on a Saturday morning and provided a meal?,” asked PSA’s founder. “You’d be lucky if you got 75 people,” was the principal’s reply.

The principal acceded, and to her surprise 500 people showed up. McDonald’s sent extra meals, and the principal learned a valuable lesson. Many parents, working two or more jobs, caring for children, often two bus rides away, cannot attend a Thursday evening PTA meeting. Understanding the home environment is key to educating.

Another example is Hispanics Inspiring Students’ Performance and Achievement, or HISPA, a New Jersey-based non-profit that sends Hispanic role models into middle schools to tell their stories of how they overcame challenges to become successful professionals. Just last month, HISPA held its 6th annual youth conference at Princeton University. I go every year, taking care to bring tissues to wipe away tears. The speakers, the role model stories are truly inspirational. And for many kids, it was their first time on a university campus, and the first time they met a successful professional whose success they might emulate.

HISPA arranged for me to be a Role Model speaker at a school in Trenton. The principal was in the room. But the lack of respect, discipline and considerate behavior among the students shocked me. “How can learning advance in such an environment?” The principal there struggles mightily, seemingly against all odds. I am still troubled by that experience. Having said that, the work YOU do continues to evoke my admiration and respect.

Each of you could cite similar anecdotes and data and describe novel approaches to improving teaching and learning that you apply every day. I hope that mine are useful to you. To be explicit, we recognize that on its own, ETS as an institution cannot and will not solve what confounds our collective efforts to improve education in this nation. That coveted outcome can only be achieved through strong alliances and true partnerships among: community based organizations, parents, educators, administrators, unions and policymakers. As leaders, you, we and others must demand the conditions and resources required—or we risk the inconceivable failure of our public school system. America must demonstrate leadership and muster the political will to address these inequities. Let’s give our vote to those who advocate for our children.

Again, I am so grateful for the opportunity to learn from you, to hear so many illuminating presentations, to have seen your website and the challenging issues you are confronting. Grounded in my own experience and drawing on some research at ETS and elsewhere, I will be bold and issue a series of actions for school administrators and school districts. Perhaps these musings, if put in action, might help turn challenges of demographic change into opportunities.

• Anticipate and prepare for change, rather than reacting to it as it descends upon us.
• Demand that teacher preparation include coursework in cultural competency, EL’s and what it means to educate the disabled—after all, that’s today’s reality!
• Learn about and adapt to the home environments of the children you serve.
• Deal carefully with ELs – the fastest growing student population; their predicament is not sufficiently well understood.
• Don’t assume that lack of English proficiency means a slow learner.
• Strive to be inclusive in all you do.
• Work with school boards to assure inclusion and diversity in their membership.
• Become familiar with local issues beyond the school that affect learning.
• Read local journals to better understand what is not reflected in the mainstream media.
• Partner with community-based organizations that share your mission.
• Use consistent and comparable data to determine where the challenges lie.

I began by referring to the front lines. I conclude by saluting you who are in them. Yours is a noble calling. Next to teachers, you are the closest instrument engaged in assuring that our children learn, advance and go on to secondary and higher education. Last year, upon being elected president of the NEA, Lily Eskelsen García explained her core beliefs about teaching and learning:

“No matter how students arrive, no matter what their learning conditions,
their home conditions or their health conditions, educators have the sacred
duty to be professionals, caring for the whole student – mind, body and character.”

And she believes that professionalism carries with it the responsibility to take action, individually and collectively, to fight to make the promise of quality public education a reality and to prepare the whole and happy child to succeed in becoming a whole and happy adult. “We must measure what matters and put students’ needs at the center of the system once again,” she said. “We know what’s at stake, and it is why we are educators. It is why we are fearless and why we will not be silent.”

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