School successes prove demography isn't destiny
CHICAGO -- As we prepare to bid farewell to 2017, let's end the year on a few high notes from the world of education.
First up, some stats to celebrate: There was an uptick in diversity in the majority-white ranks of America's teacher corps. This is important because most of the public-school students they teach have been nonwhite since 2014.
A statistical analysis by the U.S. Department of Education, which was released in April, showed that even though minority teachers remain underrepresented, both the number and proportion of minority teachers in elementary and high schools grew by 104 percent between 1987-88 and 2011-12, compared with 38 percent growth in the number of white teachers.
The influx of Hispanic women into the teaching profession will have positive ripple effects on increasingly Hispanic student populations for years to come, according to Glenda Flores, a sociologist in the Department of Chicano/Latino Studies at the University of California, Irvine.
"Latina educators ... see mirror images of their younger selves in their students," Flores writes in her book "Latina Teachers: Creating Careers and Guarding Culture." "They use their own life histories to draw on Latina/o cultural resources and serve as agents of ethnic mobility, actively teaching their students how to navigate American race and class structures while retaining their cultural roots ... foster[ing] their students' learning via their ethnic cultural capital, challenging the traditional Americanization approach that institutions and schools still favor."
(I've spent a lot of time in the classroom over the past decade, as both a parent and a teacher. And in every school that I personally have visited, events like Hispanic Heritage Month, Day of the Dead and Cinco de Mayo are rammed down all students' throats. But I do live in a Hispanic-heavy state, and her point is well taken regarding cities and towns with small Latino populations.)
The second bit of good news: U.S. graduation rates are at an all-time high. According to the U.S. Department of Education, more than 84 percent of students graduated on time in 2016, with all minority groups and even new English learners also seeing a rise.
There are a few theories about why this is: accountability measures from the No Child Left Behind Act, data-driven education policies from the Obama era, or (on the negative end) fewer high school exit exams and grade inflation that make it easier for lower-achieving students to get out of school with less effort.
In all likelihood, the rise in graduation rates can be attributed to some combination of all these factors, which yielded positive, aggregated national averages. So, it may not be ideal progress across the board, but in a sector that rarely sees such clear improvements, let's assume the best for now and keep an eye on the trend lines.
Third: Demography is not always destiny. A new analysis of public-school district data from Stanford University posits that poverty does not determine the quality of a school system.
Stanford Graduate School of Education professor Sean Reardon studied test scores for students in third through eighth grade at 11,000 school districts across the country. He actually found that academic growth rates in many low-income school districts outpaced more affluent ones.
"There are many relatively high-poverty school districts where students appear to be learning at a faster rate than kids in other, less poor districts," Reardon said, in a Stanford blog post. "Poverty clearly does not determine the quality of a school system."
If we can figure out what these successful-despite-high-poverty schools are doing, it could be potentially game-changing.
Lastly, my favorite education news comes from France, where the education chief recently announced he is banning all mobile phone use in schools for students under 15.
Smartphones and other electronics (including, in many instances, school-issued Chromebooks) can be a real and devastating source of student distraction and misuse in the classroom.
The French policy comes on the heels of a flurry of op-eds regarding studies showing that students who use laptops to take notes during class in college demonstrate poorer understanding of course materials than those who take notes by hand.
Hey, the titans of Silicon Valley tend to send their kids to schools where instruction is delivered without the aid of Chromebooks, iPads or phones -- they want their children to learn to concentrate, problem-solve and make decisions through hands-on activities and brain-expanding work like sustained reading and writing, on paper.
My New Year's wish is that electronics-free schools become the next big trend in education.
Esther Cepeda's email address is email@example.com.
(c) 2017, Washington Post Writers Group