Changing Demographics, Lasting Commitments

June 2015

According to recent data from the National Center for Education Statistics, one in three students in Alaska, Idaho, Montana, Oregon, and Washington is now a member of a racial/ethnic minority group. Twenty years ago that number was one in five.

All one has to do is visit a K–12 classroom—from Anchorage to Anaconda, Pasco to Pocatello—to see the growing diversity in our region. These changes are not limited to Seattle, Portland, and the I-5 corridor—they are having an impact in rural communities and towns of all sizes, from the booming oilfields in Northeast Montana to the rapidly expanding vineyards of Eastern Washington. The times they have a-changed. And yet, some of our deepest problems remain stubbornly in place.

As we enter our 50th year in operation, Education Northwest continues to track trends, conduct research, and explore strategies that can address the needs of all students, from those who have recently arrived and barely speak a word of English to those whose family roots go back to a time when English had yet to be heard in our region. We asked two of our veteran staff members to share their thoughts about a significant trend or issue that is shaping public education in 2015.

Recognizing the Value of Bilingualism

English learners have been the fastest growing subgroup in our region for nearly two decades. Although the growth rate of that population has leveled out in recent years, the influx of English learners continues to present challenges for many schools and districts.

Theresa Deussen, who co-directs Education Northwest’s Center for Research, Evaluation, and Assessment and specializes in issues related to English learners, sees dual language instruction as the most significant trend in how we are serving these students. “States are beginning to see the value of programs that provide both English learners and monolingual English speakers the opportunity to become proficient in two languages,” says Deussen. In particular, she points to the new seals of biliteracy in Washington and Oregon as evidence of the growing value of bilingualism in the Northwest.

“However, there’s a gap between our desire to provide this opportunity to students and our capacity to do so,” says Deussen. “As we move forward we need to develop more teachers who are able to teach in dual language programs. Our most logical options are supporting college-educated immigrants to become certified teachers and encouraging bilingual young people to pursue teaching.”

Choosing To Care

Joyce Harris, Education Northwest’s manager of community engagement, says that even as demographics shift, it’s critical to maintain our focus on addressing the inequities for students whose populations have not changed. “The achievement gap is not closing for African American children,” says Harris.

Results on a recent fourth-grade reading proficiency test given across the region illustrate Harris’s point: African American students are still 21 percentage points behind white students.

Harris, whose career in education spans nearly five decades, emphasizes that for change to take place, it will take a strong will. “Education is so critical to ensuring that young people develop as citizens,” she says. “We can’t turn our heads and accept where things are now. When children do not have an education that empowers them to be successful, it impacts how society treats them.”

Harris says the 50th anniversary of Education Northwest has put her in mind of one of her heroes, Dr. Asa Hilliard, who said in 2000:

“By now it should be clear that, for the most part, our children are geniuses with capacities to go far beyond any current school requirements. They respond very well to quite a variety of well-executed methods and techniques. There is no mystery about how to teach any of them.”
— Dr. Asa Hilliard

Even as our region undergoes major changes, Harris says, it’s important to remember our primary mission. “Dr. Hilliard’s words remind us is that closing the achievement gap is an act of will,” she says. “We can do this. We must do this. That has not changed.”