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The United States of education: The changing demographics of the United States and their schools

The face of our nation is changing, and nowhere is the change more evident than in public school classrooms. Just consider this: Compared with the last century, we are increasingly aging and white on the one hand and young and multi-hued on the other. More and more of us were born in other nations, speak different languages, and carry different cultural traditions with us. Our family structures are changing—many of us marry older, many of us don't marry at all. Some groups of us have many children and some groups have none or few.

We have developed this guide because demographic trends have important implications for school leaders, policymakers, parents, and the community at large. We begin by taking a look at how the U.S. population is changing through illustrations of where we are now and where we are headed. We shed some light on how changing demographics will alter both school practices and policies. Finally, we give suggestions on how to meet the needs of a changing school population. We hope you will study this guide in its entirety.


Changing patterns of fertility and immigration have put the United States on a short road to a population diversity never before experienced by any nation—a population in which all races and ethnicities are part of minority groups that make up a complex whole. At the same time, the United States faces an aging population of Baby Boomers who are concerned about running out of money before they run out of life, about the increasing cost of health care, and the need for a new definition of "old."

These demographic trends play out differently in different states and regions, with some areas seeing exploding student populations while others experience declining enrollments. The trends also differ for different population groups. Education levels are improving overall, but significant disparities exist by race and ethnic group.

Public schools bear the major responsibility to address these disparities. Indeed, changing demographics pose a number of challenges for schools, most notably:

  • The need for highly qualified bilingual teachers and teachers of English language learners.
  • The need for high-quality preschool programs, especially for young children whose first language isn't English.
  • The need to address gaps in such areas as dropout rates, test scores, high school completion rates, and college entrance rates.
  • The need for outreach to Hispanic and immigrant parents and older citizens.
  • The need to address issues of equity in resources among schools.

How your schools respond to these challenges—and to the opportunities presented by an increasingly diverse population—will play a crucial role in the future well-being of the nation.

Key demographic trends affecting public schools

We are growing older. In 2010, the median age in the United States had reached 37.2 years of age, up 1.9 years from the 2000 median age of 35.3 years.

We are growing more diverse. Trends in immigration and birth rates indicate that soon there will be no majority racial or ethnic group in the United States—no one group that makes up more than fifty percent of the total population. Already almost one in ten U.S. counties has a population that is more than fifty percent minority. Eight counties reached that status in 2006, bringing the total to 303 of the nation's 3,141 counties.

We are growing older and more diverse at the same time. Non-Hispanic whites are the oldest; Hispanics are the youngest. Our youngest populations are the most diverse; forty-seven percent of children younger than five belong to a racial or ethnic minority group.

These trends mean:

  • The population that schools educate is increasingly made up of children of color and Hispanic origin.
  • The population that schools depend on for financial support is increasingly older, non-Hispanic, and white, and does not have school-age children.
  • A multi-hued workforce will support the social safety nets that growing populations of elderly non-Hispanic whites depend on.
  • Achievement gaps between student groups will have ever-more-serious economic implications. Minorities have historically been under-represented in such professions as science, medicine, and engineering. With the non-Hispanic white population shrinking and the entry-level workforce increasingly made up of minorities, the nation could face serious shortages in many critical professions.

The U.S. population as a whole is growing rapidly. Between 2000 and 2010, the U.S. population grew 9.7 percent from 281.4 million to approximately 308.7 million. This population growth of 25.6 million people in one decade is slightly lower than the 32.7 million growth between 1990 and 2000, which was the biggest census-to-census increase (from the Census Brief "Population Change and Distribution 1990-2000") in U.S. history. On Tuesday, Oct. 16, 2006, the U.S. population reached a milestone where the population topped 300 million.

The West and South are growing more quickly than the Northeast and Midwest. Between 2000 and 2010, the West's population grew by 14.3 percent and the South's population by 13.8 percent. In contrast, the Midwest grew by 3.9 percent and the Northeast by 3.2 percent. (See Table 1.)

Table 1: U.S. Population Change by Region, 2000 to 2010
Area Population in Millions Change, 2000 to 2010

April 1, 2000

April 1, 2010



U.S., total 281,421,906 308,745,538 27,323,622 9.7
Northeast 53,594,378 55,317,240 1,722,862 3.2
Midwest 64,392,776 66,927,001 2,534,225 3.9
South 100,236,820 114,755,044 14,318,924 14.3
West 63,197,932 71,945,553 8,747,621 13.8

Source: U.S. Census Bureau, "Population Change and Distribution, 2000 to 2010," Census 2010 Brief, March 2011

The Census Bureau groups the states as follows: Northeast: Connecticut, Maine, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, New Jersey, New York, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, and Vermont; Midwest: Illinois, Indiana, Iowa, Kansas, Michigan, Minnesota, Missouri, Nebraska, North Dakota, Ohio, South Dakota, and Wisconsin; South: Alabama, Arkansas, Delaware, District of Columbia, Florida, Georgia, Kentucky, Louisiana, Maryland, Mississippi, North Carolina, Oklahoma, South Carolina, Tennessee, Texas, Virginia, and West Virginia; West: Alaska, Arizona, California, Colorado, Hawaii, Idaho, Montana, Nevada, New Mexico, Oregon, Utah, Washington, and Wyoming.

The nation's population is increasingly concentrated in the West and South. Between 1950 and 2010, the South's share of the population increased from 36 percent to 37.2 percent and the West's from 22 percent to 23.3 percent. During the same period, the Midwest's share has declined from 23 percent to 21.7 percent and the Northeast from 19 percent to 17.9 percent.

These trends are expected to continue. According to U.S. Census Bureau's most recent projections, between 2000 and 2030 the population in the West will grow by 28.9 million, or 45.8 percent, and in the South by 43 million, or 42.9 percent. The Midwest's population during that period is expected to grow by only 6.1 million, or 9.5 percent, and the Northeast's population by 4.1 million, or 7.6 percent. (See Figure 1 and Map 1.)

More than half the nation's population (54.1 percent) lived in just 10 states in 2010: California, Texas, New York, Florida, Illinois, Pennsylvania, Ohio, Michigan, New Jersey, and Georgia. These states are spread among all the regions.

But the fastest growing states during the last decade were concentrated in the West. Nevada grew most quickly of all states, by 35.1 percent between 2000 and 2010, followed by Arizona (24.6 percent), Utah (23.8 percent), and Idaho (21.1 percent). In the South, Texas grew the most quickly (20.6 percent between 2000 and 2010). The 9 out of 10 fastest growing metropolitan areas between 2000 and 2010 were all in the West and South. (See Table 2.)

Table 2: Population Change for the Ten Fastest-Growing Metropolitan Areas, 2000 to 2010
Metropolitan Area Population   Change, 2000 to 2010  

April 1, 2000

April 1, 2010



Palm Coast, FL 49,832 95,696 45,864 92.0
St. George, UT 90,354 138,115 47,761 52.0
Las Vegas-Paradise, NV 1,375,765 1,951,269 575,504 52.0
Raleigh-Cary, NC 797,071 1,130,490 333,419 41.8
Cape Coral-Fort Myers, FL 440,888 618,754 117,866 40.3
Provo-Orem, UT 376,774 526,810 150,036 39.8
Greeley, CO 180,926 252,825 71,899 39.7
Austin-Round Rock-San Marcos, TX 1,249,763 1,716,289 466,526 37.3
Myrtle Beach-North Myrtle Beach-Conway, SC 196,629 269,291 72,662 37.0
Bend, OR 115,367 157,733 42,366 36.7
Source: U.S. Census Bureau, Census 2010

Population change by age

School leaders need to understand not only the change in makeup of the overall population, but also the effects of age cohorts. The most famous cohort of the twentieth century, of course, was the Baby Boomers. Back in 1952, school officials were overwhelmed when the first Boomers arrived at the schoolhouse door. Had they paid attention to trends in birth and fertility rates, they would have seen the boom coming. Yesterday's lesson is pertinent today—tracking trends in births and other components of change can keep schools from being caught off guard.

The Boomers continue to be a highly influential age cohort. They helped bring the nation's median age up to thirty-seven in 2010, for example. But school leaders should bear in mind that, according to the U.S. Census Bureau Brief "Age: 2000" (the most recent data available), the median age varied for different racial and ethnic groups:

  • Hispanic: median age twenty-six
  • Black: median age thirty
  • Asian: media age thirty-three
  • Non-Hispanic white: median age thirty-nine

In general, then, local communities can expect that, increasingly, their older populations will be made up of non-Hispanic whites and their younger populations made up of minorities. The population younger than eighteen—in other words, the students in your schools—will continue to grow through 2030, according to Census Bureau projections, but will account for a smaller percentage of the total population. (See Table 3.)

Table 3: Percent of U.S. Population Under 18, 2000 to 2030
Year Population Under 18 (actual or projected)
2000 25.7%
2010 24.0%
2020 23.9%
2030 23.6%
Source: U.S Census Bureau, Population Division, "Interim State Population Projections," 2005 and Age and Sex Composition: 2010

In eight states, the population under 18 years old grew by more than 10 percent between 2000 and 2010,  higher than the U.S. increase of 2.6 percent: Arizona, Colorado, Georgia, Idaho, North Carolina, Nevada, Texas, and Utah, with Nevada having the largest increase at 30 percent. Clearly, educators in these states should be prepared for swelling school enrollments. But that doesn't mean schools elsewhere are off the hook: See Tables 4, 5, and 6, located in "Also In This Guide," to learn what the Census Bureau predicts for your state up through 2030.

Population change by race and ethnicity

Between 2000 and 2010, 15 states—six of them in the Northeast—saw their non-Hispanic white populations decline. (The states are California, Connecticut, Illinois, Iowa, Kansas, Louisiana, Maryland, Massachusetts, Michigan, Mississippi, New Jersey, New York, Ohio, Pennsylvania, and Rhode Island).

During the same period, black populations declined in only two states—Alaska and Hawaii—while Hispanic and Asian populations grew in every state.

Even in states where the non-Hispanic white population increased, growth was larger in other populations. For example, nine states—all in the South and West—saw double-digit percentage increases in their non-Hispanic white population but even higher increases in their non-white and Hispanic populations, foreshadowing our nation's evolution into a "majority minority" society. (See Table 7.)

Table 7: States with Growth of Ten Percent or More Non-Hispanic White Population, 2000 to 2010
State Percent of Change, 2000 to 2010

Non-Hispanic White




District of Columbia 31.6 -11.1 21.8 38.6
Utah 16.7 65.9 77.8 49.0
Idaho 15.5 79.8 73.0 60.4
Arizona 12.9 63.0 46.3 91.6
Nevada 12.2 61.4 81.9 116.5
South Carolina 11.7 8.9 147.9 64.0
Hawaii 11.6 -2.6 37.8 4.2
Wyoming 10.3 27.6 58.6 59.7
North Carlina 10.2 17.9 111.1 83.8
Source: U.S. Census Bureau, 2000 and 2010 Decennial Census

Hispanics represent a majority of the foreign-born population. In 2010, the nation's foreign-born population reached 40 million, which accounted for 13 percent of the total U.S. population. Another 33 million (11 percent) were native-born with at least one foreign-born parent in 2009, making one in five people either first or second generation U.S. residents. In 2010, less than half of the foreign-born population in the United States—41 percent—was born in Latin America. Another 40 percent came from Asia, 9 percent from Europe, and the remaining 3 percent from other regions of the world. 

Understanding Population Change

Along with determining which populations are growing or shrinking, it's important to understand why.

Population growth is fueled by two factors: Natural increase and immigration. If births exceed deaths in a particular area, that area has a natural increase in population; if deaths exceed births, it has a natural decrease. Natural increases and decreases, in turn, are influenced by birth rates—the number of births per 1,000 people—and fertility rates—the number of births per 1,000 women between the ages of fifteen and forty-four.

If more people move into an area than away, the area has a net in-migration; if more move away from the area than into it, the area has a net out-migration. Migration can be internal (from one place to another within the United States) or international (into or out of the United States).

These components of change vary from place to place and population to population. Asian population growth, for example, is due primarily to immigration, as Asian families have low birth rates. Hispanic population growth is due to both immigration and natural increase.


A little less than half of all Hispanics live in two states, California and Texas. Nonetheless, Hispanics are well-represented in places that might seem unlikely. In some counties in North Carolina, Georgia, Iowa, Arkansas, Minnesota, and Nebraska, for example, Hispanics account for between six and 24.9 percent of the county's total population. In these states, Hispanics as a whole are less than ten percent of the population.

The Hispanic population in eight states in the South (Alabama, Arkansas, Kentucky, Maryland, Mississippi, North Carolina, South Carolina, and Tennessee) and in South Dakota more than doubled in size between 2000 and 2010. However, even with this large growth, the percent Hispanic in 2010 for each of these states remained less than 9 percent, far below the national level of 16 percent. The Hispanic population in South Carolina grew the fastest, increasing from 95,000 in 2000 to 236,000 in 2010 (a 148 percent increase). Alabama showed the second fastest rate of growth at 145 percent, increasing from 76,000 to 186,000.

Minority populations—especially Hispanics—are growing more quickly than the population as a whole. Between 2000 and 2010, the total U.S. population increased by 9.7 percent. Looking at the population as a whole, however, masks deep differences among various groups. During the same decade, the Hispanic population grew by 43 percent, the Asian population by 43 percent, and the black population by 12.3 percent. The non-Hispanic white population grew by only 4.9 percent.

Census Bureau projections through 2050 indicate an increasingly diverse nation:

  • Between 2010 and 2050, the Hispanic population will grow from 49.7 million to 132.8 million, an increase of 83 million or 167 percent. The group's share of the nation's population will almost double, from 16 percent in 2010 to 30 percent in 2050.
  • The Asian population will grow 213 percent, or from 14.4 million to 34.4 million. Asians' share of the population will double, from 4.7 percent to 7.8 percent.
  • The black population will grow from 39.9 million to 56.9 million, an increase of 17 million or 46 percent. The black share of the population will remain relatively the same at around 13 percent. .
  • The non-Hispanic white population will increase by only 1 percent, from 200.9 million to 203.3 million, a gain of 2.5 million. The non-Hispanic white share of the population will decline from 64.7 percent in 2010 to 46.3 percent in 2050.

For a look at how these changes have played out in your state and region between 2000 and 2010, see Table 8.

A demographic profile of today's children

Increasingly, students in the nation's classrooms—and those of preschool age—reflect these demographic trends. According to the Census Bureau report "School Enrollment—Social and Economic Characteristics of Students: October 2008,"

In 2008, the Census Bureau reported, elementary and high school students today are more diverse by race and Hispanic origin than the Baby Boom generation of students. In 1970, when the crest of the Baby Boom was enrolled in elementary and high school, the student population was 79 percent non-Hispanic white, 14 percent black, 1 percent Asian and Pacific Islander and other races, and 6 percent Hispanic. In 2008, 59 percent were non-Hispanic white, 15 percent black, 5 percent Asian, and 18 percent Hispanic. The Census Bureau's population projections indicate that the population aged 6 to 17 will become increasingly diverse in future years.

Undercounting and Overcounting

School districts should keep in mind that the Census tends to undercount minorities and overcount non-Hispanic whites. A disproportionate number, but small percentage, of non-Hispanic whites—such as college students and owners of second homes—may be counted twice, while poor blacks and immigrant Hispanics may be missed altogether.

In many states with small but growing Hispanic populations, the number of undocumented Hispanics could be several times higher than the official Census count. This creates a major problem for enrollment planning in certain school districts. In Lexington, Kentucky, for example, the 2000 official Census count was 8,000 Hispanics; the Lexington/Fayette County police department uses a rough estimate of 20,000 to 30,000 Hispanics; and some community leaders put the number as high as 50,000. In such cases, unfortunately, enrollment planning becomes an educated guess.


Although the trends play out somewhat differently from region to region and state to state, school leaders should be aware of the national picture:

  • Hispanics are the youngest population. More than one-third of all Hispanics are younger than 18. In 2010, only 19 percent of the Hispanic population were 45 or older. (See Table 9).
  • Using 2005 figures, the Population Reference Bureau estimates that about 45 percent of children younger than 5 are minorities.
  • In 2008, there were 49.3 million elementary and high school age children (5-17 year olds). About 1 in 10 students attended private school in 2008, a ratio that has remained fairly consistent since the 1970s.
  • Between 2000 and 2008, 13 states saw increases in enrollment in grades 1 through 12. During the same period, 37 states experienced decreases, although only 16 saw decreases that were statistically significant. .
  • In 2010, 21.6  percent of children under age 18 lived in poverty. Notably, in the 10 states with the highest poverty rate for school-age children, the poverty rate is even higher for babies and children age 0 to 4—the children who will soon be in your schools. (See Table 10.)
  • The percentage of births to unmarried mothers has nearly doubled since 1990, up from 26.6 percent that year to 40.6 percent in 2008.
  • In 2009, 23 percent of U.S. students had at least one foreign-born parent; this includes the 5 percent who were foreign born themselves and the 18 percent who were born here with at least one foreign-born parent.
  • Among the foreign born in 2009, 53 percent were born in Latin America, 27 percent in Asia, 13 percent in Europe, and 7 percent in other regions of the world.
  • Nearly twenty percent of the nation's population age 5 and older speak a language other than English at home. (See Table 11.)

Table 9: Percent of Population by Selected Age Groups, 2000
  Under 18 Age 18-24 Age 25-44 Age 45-64 Age 65+ Median Age
Total U.S. Population 25.7 9.6 30.2 22.0 12.4 35.0
Asian 24.1 11.1 36.0 21.0 7.8 33.0
Black 31.4 11.0 30.9 18.6 8.1 30.0
Hispanic 35.0 13.4 33.0 13.7 4.9 26.0
Non-Hispanic White 22.6 8.6 29.4 24.4 15.0 39.0
Source: U.S. Census Bureau, "Age: 2000," Census 2000 Brief, October 2001

Table 10: The 10 States with the Highest Child Poverty Rates
Rank State Percent in Poverty
     Ages 0-4  Ages 5-17
1 Mississippi 37.5 30.2
2 Louisiana 32.9 25.0
3 New Mexico 32.0 26.7
4 Arkansas 32.0 24.9
5 Alabama 31.3 25.6
6 South Carolina 31.2 23.6
7 Kentucky 31.1 23.7
8 West Virginia 30.4 23.4
9 District of Columbia 30.2 30.9
10 Tennessee 30.1 23.9
Source: U.S. Census, Small Area Income and Poverty Program Estimates for 2010.

Table 11: Top Ten States in which Persons Five and Older Speak a Language Other than English at Home
Rank State Percent of State's Total Population
1 California 43
2 New Mexico 36
3 Texas 34
4 New York 29
5 Arizona 29
6 New Jersey 28
7 Nevada 27
8 Florida 26
9 Hawaii 26
10 Illinois 22
Source: U.S. Census Bureau. "Language Use in the United States: 2007," American Community Survey Reports, April 2010

What this profile means for your schools

The changing demographics of the nation's children have clear implications for schools—especially in terms of preschool education, the education of English language learners (ELL), and the rate of high school completion. Clearly, too, these trends signal the importance of careful planning for a school district's long-term needs.

Minorities—especially Hispanics—benefit greatly from high-quality preschool education. Not all children are equally ready to learn when they enter kindergarten. For those who start out behind—and that often includes low-income and minority children—it can be difficult indeed to catch up. In response, many states have initiated prekindergarten programs to promote school readiness and close achievement gaps.

These state-funded pre-K programs vary from state to state, and not all of them have been rigorously evaluated. But, according to the Center for Public Education's report, "State-funded pre-k: What the research shows," several studies have shown the beneficial effects of high-quality preschool education for all children, and particularly for low-income children. One national study of more than 14,000 kindergartners, for example—the Early Childhood Longitudinal Study-Kindergarten Cohort—showed that children from extremely poor families made the strongest gains in pre-reading and math after attending a child care center, preschool, or pre-K program. Gains were particularly high for Hispanic children with limited English proficiency.

The Center's report also looked at what it takes to provide high-quality pre-k education. Among the necessary ingredients are well-trained teachers who receive on-going professional development, small class sizes, low child/staff ratios, and learning goals tied to K–3 or K–12 standards.

Students who are learning English as a second language need help to succeed in school. All students deserve the opportunity to achieve academically, but those whose first language isn't English face a special challenge. That challenge is reflected in their academic performance, which has remained lower than that of other groups of students. Results from the 2011 National Assessment of Educational Progress, for example, show a substantial gap between the scores of ELL and non-ELL students in both reading and math and in fourth and eighth grades alike.

The good news is that research is now identifying ways to improve both the English language proficiency and the academic performance of ELL students. "Preparing English language learners for academic success ," from the Center for Public Education, synthesizes the current research and offers some valuable lessons:

  • Academic English proficiency is key to student achievement, especially in the secondary grades.;Too often, however, students are reclassified as proficient in English on the basis of their oral rather than academic language proficiency. On average, it takes four to seven years for ELL students to become proficient in the kind of language used in textbooks.
  • Students with formal schooling in their first language generally become proficient in English more quickly than those with no such schooling. Other factors include socioeconomic status, parents' educational attainment, and age—older students are likely to become proficient more quickly than younger ones.
  • Bilingual programs tend to be more effective. Although debate remains, research suggests that "oral proficiency and literacy in ELLs' first language can facilitate literacy development in English, and inclusion of first-language instruction in ELL programs can have long-term benefits."

In addition, the Center's report outlines the common characteristics of schools that support ELL students' achievement. Such schools usually have:

  • A schoolwide focus on English language development and consistent language support services across all grades.
  • A well-trained staff supported by sustained, job-embedded professional development.
  • Effective curriculum that is aligned with state standards and assessments, that incorporates higher-order thinking, and that is grounded in sound theory and best practices.
  • Reading instruction that focuses on phonics, phonemic awareness, reading fluency, vocabulary, and reading comprehension.
  • Attention to oral language skills and reading and writing skills.

In addition, it's worth noting that English language learners are by no means a monolithic block—in fact, some four hundred native languages are represented. Given the growth of the Hispanic population in the United States, however, it should come as no surprise that seventy-nine percent of today's ELL students have Spanish as their first language.

Finding Census Bureau Data

Probably the easiest way to get started finding and using Census Bureau Data is to explore the Bureau's American FactFinder, where you can retrieve fact sheets and peruse population trends by selecting a state or entering a city, county, or zip code in a search box.

Other sources include the following:

  • The Population Estimates Program. These yearly projections—estimates of the population at future dates—are based on assumptions about future births, deaths, international migration, and domestic migration. The projections are broken out by age, sex, race, and Hispanic origin for the nation as a whole and for the states.
  • Small Area Income and Poverty Estimates (SAIPE). This Census program provides estimates of selected income and poverty statistics by school district, county, and state. Included are estimates of the number of poor children ages five to seventeen in each of the nation's 15,000 school districts.
  • The National Center for Education Statistics School District Demographics System. This online resource provides direct access to school district geographic and demographic data drawn from Census 2010, Census 2000, and the Census Bureau's American Community Survey, which collects data from approximately three million households each year.

How the U.S. Census is changing. The Decennial Census of the past, done every ten years, has now been replaced with the American Community Survey, ACS. The survey is mailed nationwide to about 250,000 addresses a month (roughly 1 in every 480) and will provide current demographic, housing, social, and economic information about America's communities every year.

Data will be available for the nation, states, congressional districts, counties, and cities.

The ACS data includes information on income, earnings, poverty, educational attainment, employment status, household and family characteristics, and population profiles by race, Hispanic origin, and ancestry.


While the high school graduation rate has risen overall, gaps persist. According to the April 2006 Census report "A Half Century of Learning: Historical Statistics on Educational Attainment in the United States, 1940 to 2000," high school graduation rates for the population twenty-five and over have increased threefold in the past six decades: from 24.5 percent in 1940 to 80.4 percent in 2000. In 2011, 87.5 percent of the population 25 and older held some type of high school certificate.

These improvements are evident across regions and states. Between 1940 and 2011, graduation rates for all minorities rose as well, but in 2011, the graduation rates for Hispanics and blacks were still lower than the rate for non-Hispanic whites:

  • Non-Hispanic whites—87.9 percent, up from 26.1 percent in 1940
  • Asians—88.6 percent, up from 22.6 percent in 1940
  • Blacks—84.4 percent, up from 7.7 percent in 1940
  • Hispanics—64.2 percent, up from 44.0 percent in 1960 (data for 1940 were not available).

The low graduation rate for the Hispanic population points to the need for effective dropout-prevention efforts that target Hispanic students in particular. There are no magic bullets—no interventions that keep all at-risk students from leaving school—but research suggests some successful strategies. The Center for Public Education's research report "Keeping kids in school: What research says about preventing dropouts " offers the following key lessons, among others:

  • Pay close attention to the transition grades. "Students who drop out often struggle making the shift from elementary to middle school, or middle to high school. Even students who showed no warning signs in earlier grades can suddenly see their classroom grades or their engagement in school drop off during sixth and ninth grades, putting them seriously at risk."
  • Provide ongoing, comprehensive, and personalized attention from counselors."Programs that work use counselors as case managers who build sustained relationships with students, closely monitor each student's attendance and performance, intervene rapidly at the first sign of trouble, help students and families overcome obstacles to educational success, and teach students how to solve problems."
  • Keep schools small and curriculum focused. "Students who attend high schools that have smaller enrollments; better interpersonal relationships among students and adults; teachers who are supportive of students; and a focused, rigorous, and relevant curriculum drop out at lower rates."
  • Consider certain high school reform models. Two models that have been shown to reduce dropouts are (1) Talent Development high schools with a ninth-grade Success Academy that provides intensive social support and academic support; and (2) Career Academies—small schools-within-schools that combine challenging academics with career and technical training.

Comprehensive planning begins with good data. Whether it's planning for facilities or for educational services, school leaders need to start with good answers to questions about the community. For example:

  • What is the population breakdown by race or ethnic group?
  • How many children under five live in the community?
  • What percentage of the population are foreign born, or speak a language other than English at home?
  • What is the birth rate?
  • the average household size?
  • the median family income?
  • the average education level?

About Population Projections

What will the U.S. population look like in the years to come? The Census Bureau bases its projections on assumptions about future demographic trends—births, deaths, and net migration, the components of population change. These assumptions, in turn, are extrapolated from current estimates of the population according to the most recent census data. The bureau produces a range of alternative projections for each component of population change and reports the projections by age, sex, race, and Hispanic origin.

The bureau also forecasts the future of each demographic trend separately for each birth cohort—that is, the people born in a given year. Birth cohorts are added to the population every year on the basis of projected fertility rates for women of childbearing years, and the population as a whole is advanced one year.

Note that projections, which refer to future trends, are not the same as estimates, which are based on existing data. Some Census Bureau reports include both. When the two statistics do not agree, it may be because they were produced at different times. In such cases, the bureau considers the estimates to be more reliable.

Census data are generally the gold standard when it comes to reliability, but distortions can sometimes creep in despite the bureau's careful attention to methodology. Writing in the January/February 2004 issue of The IRE Journal, D'Vera Cohn of The Washington Post cautioned fellow reporters about ways the data can go wrong:

  • Uneven response rates. Some people—including whites, homeowners, and the well-off—are more likely to fill in census forms than others, admits the bureau, which says it sometimes makes "an educated guess" for less-responsive groups, such as younger people, renters, minorities, and non-English speakers.
  • Poorly worded questions. The bureau advises caution when it comes to census data on things that are difficult for respondents to measure—home values, number of weeks worked, and extent of disability, for example.
  • Estimates of people in group quarters. Problems can arise in counting the number and characteristics of people living in prisons, college dormitories, homeless shelters, mental hospitals, and similar situations.
  • Accuracy of follow-up surveys. The bureau has found that responses on initial surveys and follow-up surveys are often inconsistent.
A word about race. Another difficult area is race. "The bureau's own research includes caveats about some widely used figures on race," Cohn wrote, "noting that the census has a difficult job imposing a series of fixed categories on what is a fluid social phenomenon."

That fluidity, and the fact that Hispanics and Latinos may be of any race, has led the bureau to change the way it asks people about their race. Beginning with Census 2000, the question includes six basic categories for race: American Indian or Alaska Native; Asian; Black or African American; Native Hawaiian or Other Pacific Islander; White; and Some Other Race. There are also two minimum categories for ethnicity: Hispanic or Latino and Not Hispanic or Latino.

People may also select one or more races when asked to identify themselves. In all, there are sixty-three possible responses: six for those who report a single race, and fifty-seven for those who report two or more. In some reports, the bureau collapses these fifty-seven combinations into a category called Two or More Races, which results in seven mutually exclusive categories.


Answering such questions is an important first step in making data-based decisions that will best serve the community's schools and its children.

Public policy implications

The demographic trends that affect local schools have wider implications for public policy, raising questions that cannot be answered by school leaders alone.

Are U.S. public schools growing more separate and less equal? The lower graduation rates for minority and low-income students are symptomatic of a long-standing problem. Today, however, the issue is increasingly relevant to Hispanic as well as African American students.

The Pew Hispanic Center, which chronicles the growing impact of Latinos on the entire nation, addressed this issue in a November 2005 report, "The High Schools Hispanics Attend: Size and Other Key Characteristics." The report found that Latinos are much more likely than whites or blacks to attend the nation's largest public high schools and more likely to attend schools with lesser instructional resources and higher student/teacher ratios.

"The characteristics of high schools matter for student performance," said Richard Fry, the report's author. "Hispanic teens are more likely than any other racial or ethnic group to attend public high schools that have the dual characteristics of extreme size and poverty."

Are we preparing all students to participate productively in a global economy? Persistent gaps in achievement, graduation rate, and college completion suggest the answer is no, and census data on occupations confirms that assessment.

Education levels for the U.S. population as a whole are rising, but again, the picture is different for different racial and ethnic groups. According the the U.S. Census Bureau's report, "Education Attainment in the United States: 2009," only 60.9 percent of Hispanic students complete high school or more, for example, compared to 90.4 percent of non-Hispanic whites and 81.4 percent of African Americans. That educational deficit continues into college, with only 12.6 percent of Hispanics earning a bachelor's degree or more, compared to 29.3 percent of non-Hispanic whites and 18 percent of African Americans. 

The picture is similar when it comes to occupation: Fewer Hispanics hold management or professional jobs—only 18 percent, compared to 31.1 percent of non-Hispanic whites and 17.6 percent of African Americans. Workers with a bachelor's degree or higher earn more than twice as much as workers who have not finished high school, according to census reports. Not surprisingly, then, the estimated average earnings for Hispanics in 2009 were significantly less than earnings for other groups—$39,900, compared to $48,000 for non-Hispanic whites and $41,000 for African Americans.

The U.S. workforce will continue grow, according to "The Future at Work—Trends and Implications," a 2004 RAND Research Brief, but the rate of increase will be much slower than in the past. Meanwhile, the pace of technological change will accelerate. The result, the brief says, will be an increased demand for highly skilled workers. Will the minority students in your schools be ready to enter those high-skill professions?

Are voters willing to support the public education funding needed to educate immigrants? The profound change in the demographic makeup of the school population is due primarily to immigration. Immigrants make up 13 percent of the nation's population, up from 12 percent in 2006, according to the Census Bureau's 2010 American Community Survey Briefs.

Close the door behind you

The United States may be a nation of immigrants, but Americans have conflicting attitudes about immigration. In surveys, the public consistently makes a sharp distinction between legal and illegal immigrants, according to Public Agenda, a nonpartisan opinion research group. In addition, although six in 10 Americans say immigration is good for the country, other surveys show that about half of the public believe there are too many immigrants.

The foreign born population in the United States peaked in 1890 at 14.8 percent of the total population and declined to a low of 4.7 percent in 1940, according to the Census Bureau's "Historical Census Statistics on the Foreign-Born Population of the United States: 1850 to 1990." Even as percentages varied, the foreign born population increased in numbers from 2.2 million or 9.7 percent of the total population in 1850, to 9.2 million or 14.8 percent of the total population in 1890, to 14.2 million or 11.6 percent in 1930. Between 1930 and 1970, both the number and percentage of foreign-born population declined as immigration policies became more restrictive; by 1970, there were only 9.6 million foreign-born people in the United States, 4.7 percent of the population.

Since 1970, the foreign-born population has increased rapidly due to large-scale immigration, primarily from Latin America and Asia. By 2004, the number was estimated to be 34.2 million, or 12 percent of the total U.S. population. Additionally, second-generation Americans—natives with one or both parents born in a foreign country—numbered 30.4 million, or 11 percent of the total population. Nearly one-quarter of all people living in the United States are first- or second-generation residents.


Only three developed countries in the world are now experiencing population growth: Australia, Canada, and the United States. In these countries—known as "Settler Nations"—past, current, and continued population growth are based on immigration.

Another factor in the changing population picture in this country is the differing birth rates among racial and ethnic groups. According to the Census Bureau's "Population Profile of the United States: 2000" (the latest information available), the U.S. fertility rate has been approximately two births per woman for the past two decades. That is slightly below the 2.1 needed for a population to remain stable (two children to replace the two parents plus 0.1 to adjust for infant mortality). The fertility rate for non-Hispanic white women, however, is only 1.8 births—less than the replacement level and considerably less than the birth rate of 2.5 births per Hispanic woman.

"The nation's educational institutions must educate [an] increasingly larger and more diverse population at the same time as public support for education has softened," wrote RAND Education researchers Georges Vernez, Richard Krop, and C. Peter Rydell in "Closing the Education Gap: Benefits and Costs" (1999). Using a simulation model, they looked at what it would cost to raise the high school and college graduation rates of Hispanics and blacks to the same level as non-Hispanic whites.

Vernez and his colleagues found that the costs would be high—increasing by about twenty percent in California and ten percent in the rest of the nation. But, they concluded, "closing the educational attainment gap … can more than pay for itself in the form of both reduced public expenditures on social transfer programs and added tax revenues throughout the lifetime of the beneficiaries."

Do current policies at the state and national levels serve families and children well? Children in the United States live in widely varying circumstances, and the majority of them grow up healthy and well cared for. A significant number, however, face daunting risks. In 2010, according to Census data, 21.6 percent of all children were in families with incomes at or below the poverty line.

For many of these children, health care is a serious concern. The federal Centers for Disease Control reported that, in 2010, 14.6 percent of U.S. children under age 18 were uninsured. According to The Robert Woods Johnson Foundation, "uninsured children are more likely than insured children to lack a usual source of health care, to go without needed care, and to experience worse health outcomes." The Foundation reports that, among uninsured children, 33.5 percent are Hispanic, 12.1 percent are white, 20.4 percent are black, and 18.1 percent are of other ethnic origin.

Child Trends, an independent research center, has looked at other measures of well-being. In its 2007 report "Food Insecurity and Overweight among Infants and Toddlers," Child Trends found that 12.5 percent of U.S. households with infants are "food insecure"; that is, to use the U.S. Department of Agriculture's definition, the family faces "limited or uncertain availability of nutritionally adequate and safe foods." Among poor households with infants, the number rises to 28.9 percent.

Other indicators of risk, based on a review of research by Child Trends, are (1) poverty, (2) single-parent family, (3) parents with a low level of education, (4) large family, and (5) family not able to own or buy a home. Based on these widely measured factors, Child Trends reported—in "Cumulative Risks Among American Children" (2006)—that sixty-four percent of children grow up in families with no risk factors or only one. Another twenty-nine percent experience two or three risk factors and may need assistance that families, schools, and communities cannot provide.

Finally, seven percent face four or even five of the risks identified. These children develop less well, Child Trends reported. They are "more likely to have been suspended or expelled from school, to have behavior problems, to be in poor health, and to be less engaged in schoolwork than are children in lower risk families." Their parents suffer as well and are more prone than lower risk parents to poor mental health, frustration, and worry about providing food and other basics.

"We cannot rely on maternal instinct to overcome the enormous financial obstacles now facing parents in advanced societies; nor should we rely on a return to more traditional, coercive gender roles," wrote Phillip Longman in The Empty Cradle: How Falling Birthrates Threaten World Prosperity and What to Do About It (2004). "Instead, profound changes are needed to restore the economic rewards of family life, so that parents, as well as others who nurture the young, will be able to recapture more of the value they create for all members of society."

Questions for school leaders

Shifting demographics bring transformations in the nation's social fabric and economy, and public schools are in the vanguard of change. Your challenge as school leaders will be to meet the needs of a student population that includes increasing numbers of minorities and English language learners and, at the same time, take the public education story to an aging population with little or no connection to the local schools. A first step in meeting that challenge is to reconsider the role of the school in light of changing demographic realities. Here are some suggested questions for discussion:

  • Access to good preschool education is especially important for children from low-income families. Are preschool education programs available in your community? Has your school district launched such a program in the schools or taken other steps to expand access to prekindergarten programs for local children?
  • Changing demographic patterns will bring more non-English speakers into your schools—and your neighborhoods. Are your programs for English language learners designed to develop proficiency in reading academic English in addition to everyday speech? Are your programs staffed with highly qualified bilingual or ELL teachers? Are your parent involvement and community outreach efforts geared to reach the parents of these students?
  • The persistence of significant disparities in educational attainment by race and ethnic group presents a serious challenge. What are your schools doing to address these disparities? Have you established mentoring, tutoring, and dropout prevention programs for at-risk groups? Have you involved parent organizations, community groups, and others in the effort?
  • As jobs get smarter, those with limited education and skills are getting left behind. What can your schools do to ensure that high school graduates have the skills they need to contribute to a global economy? Are you encouraging female and minority students to enroll in upper-level science and mathematics courses and recognizing students for academic as well as athletic accomplishments?
  • The combination of slow growth in the work force, an aging population, and changes in technology will put new emphasis on retraining and lifelong learning as the nation works to stay competitive. What role can your schools play in expanding learning beyond the K-12 years?

Now more than ever, a vital system of public education is necessary for the common good. To make that case, public schools need to take credit for what they have done well and accept the challenge of what they can do better. Like the rest of society, public schools must continually reinvent themselves in a changing world that presents new and greater risk to the families and children they serve.

This document was prepared for the Center for Public Education by Ron Crouch with additional editorial contributions from Sally Banks Zakariya. Crouch is director of the Kentucky State Data Center, located at the University of Louisville. Zakariya, a free-lance writer based in Arlington, Virginia, is former editor-in-chief of American School Board Journal. The document was updated in 2012 by Joyti Jiandani, policy research intern for the Center for Public Education.

Posted: November 15, 2007. Updated May 2012.
©2012 Center for Public Education

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