In my Bernie Mac voice: America, don’t say I didn’t warn you!
As a principal and superintendent, I’ve learned that uncomfortable “facts on the ground” are difficult for many people to work with when those facts painfully shift them out of their emotional comfort zones. Intelligence embraces facts. Education, at its core, is a force of radical disruption in the process of the peaceful surrender to ignorance and the ignoring of facts. The formal act of growing intelligence (schooling), when done right, can produce thinkers, and those thinkers can become questioners of the status quo: “Why must it be like this?” — “Why must we continue to do something that is not working?” Formal educational learning can stretch the learning modalities intelligences of children and thus produce students who can be effective analyzers of objective facts, which will lead to them becoming first-rate formulators of reasonable hypotheses. The present intellectual power drain on our nation, and the cause of much painful social-psychological trauma, covid-19 illnesses and related deaths, is the rejection, lack of appreciation, and diminishing power and influence of factual (aka scientific and mathematical) information.
The 2020 US Census Report presents us with some very excellent sociological and numerical facts. One, in particular, is the nation’s demographic projected calculations of birth rates based on race and ethnicity. This exciting body of data could lead us to arrive at several hypothetical possibilities. Our response (or lack of) to these hypotheses could very well determine America’s international competitiveness capabilities, national economic strength, and the US global influencing-events power status in the future.
Let me go straight in: One objective fact of the 2020 census is that the White American percentage of the population is shrinking and is projected to continue to shrink over time. So, putting aside that the assumed classification of “White Person” is problematic from a genotypical and phenotypical scientific analysis point of view, let’s work with its present commonly understood social-political construction of what being “White” means in America.
The numbers are what they are…
#1 Challenge: The national ability to face facts; and then act as if those facts mattered. Honestly, a major fairness and justice for all paradigm movement shift and the ending of a biased-based belief-system culture are required if the U.S. citizenry is to succeed and prosper in the future collectively. And even the ugliest legislative actions of the shredding-of-the-constitution through voter suppression laws is a false permanent fix for maintaining an unfair advantage; for no acts of denying voting rights, or the most creatively designed gerrymandered maps, will, in the end, affect the present and projected low birth rates of US White citizens. The problem is that if your survival plan is dependent on you permanently keeping your knee on another person’s neck, then you can’t move and walk forward down a life path to a full and fulfilling future human experience. Therefore, if America is to survive and thrive entering the upcoming decades, then she must liberate herself from the dependence on separate and unequal high-quality educational opportunities; not an easy thing to do when the simple suggestion to teach U.S. history accurately is seen as an existential threat and generates a major national rhetorical slugfest.
And to add additional painful awareness, insult, and political injury to the cause of the deniers of equal opportunity gang’s game-plan, as well as others who want to conserve racial segregation in our nation; is the fact according to the 2020 census, that there is a rapidly increasing number of Americans who probably stayed awake in their high school biology class, and thus they know that the designations of “Black” or “White” people are political inventions and not the descriptions of two-separate species; as a result, more and more of these U.S. citizens are getting married and having children (Who knew, science education inspiring romance!). But, what is public educational systemic racism to do with this growing phenomenon? Because they can’t create schools that can deny a quality education to only the black-side of these children! And even if the children of “mixed-race” parentage self-select or, because of systemic societal racism, are forced to identify as “Black,” their mere tremendously growing presence is going to change all of America’s (ready or not) thinking about this unscientific thing called “race” and how it’s discriminatory applications damages America’s capacity to be genuinely powerfully great!
I am afraid that more bad news is coming for those for whom “American Greatness” seeks to exclude Black and Latino students. Wearing my school district superintendent’s hat, and therefore knowing that student behinds in seats drives a district’s budget. As we hit the 2030’s, 40’s…, school districts will not be able to financially sustain school buildings (there is a high operational expenditure-cost “floor” whether a school building has 500 students or 1,000 students) full of phantom white kids; this means that school integration, based on demographic reality pressures (not political or social reasons), will eventually become a budgetary imperative. In addition, the high cost of living in many areas of the nation (mainly cities) will probably remove the private school option for a lot of working-class (or even middle-class) white parents.
There is a statistical birthrate price to pay for financial well-being and a college education…
This White birth rate decline phenomenon should not surprise anyone who took a college economic or sociology 101 class and probably learned that as factors of wealth and education increase, those women who are the beneficiaries of that increased wealth and education tend to have fewer children. Therefore, let us accept that the present birthrate trend outlined in the 2020 census holds steady, and going forward, the socio-psychological laws of finance and education and their effects on the number of children born to a family stays true, then that means America is possibly heading for a series of troubling hypothetical events. And so, here now are two additional theoretical warnings that the 2020 Census Report offers.
#2 Challenge: As we advance into the future and think about our nation’s necessary employment skills and workplace competencies requirements. America will not be able to prison-its-way out of the problem of providing poor quality public education for massive numbers of Black and Latino children, who will represent the majority of our public school population. Presently the US utilizes its international record-breaking (in the number of incarcerated persons) Criminal Justice System (CJS) to primarily serve as a place-holder-station for those citizens who fail to master the required ‘soft’ and ‘hard’ market-able, marketable skills and knowledge that would allow them to function in a highly professional and competitive job environment. These grossly uneducated and under-skilled individuals will often get cyclically caught up in the CJS for the duration of their lives.
Secondarily, the CJS serves the purpose of being a civil service, good-paying, benefits-rich, relatively secure employment outlet for millions of US citizens. And the primary survival rule of any government civil service bureaucracy is never to undermine and raise reasonable questions that might eliminate its reason for existing, even if those questions could be helpful to the practical success of that bureaucratic organization’s primary mission. A U.S. public education system that does not successfully educate its majority Black and Latino student population (soaring rhetoric notwithstanding), is essentially in a philosophical and operational partnership with the CJS that requires a continuous flow of failed public education recruits.
Unfortunately, this humanity-destructive bureaucratic partnership has worked well for many years because the economically poor, “American Promise” disinherited, and the politically disenfranchised populations of our nation are the communities who are offering their children as the “raw feed” of this failed-education to successful-incarceration process?
But, here is the problem that the 2020 Census Report forces us to confront. What happens to the nation when these CJS feeder population children become the numerical foundation and primary participants for the country’s future economic development skilled-workforce needs? Simply throwing them away (by throwing them in prison) won’t work in the nation’s best economic and internationally competitive interest.
Over the years, I’ve had, both as a principal and superintendent, enjoyed very positive and productive partnership relationships with the corporate sector and with many national governmental agencies (e.g., US State Department, NSF, USDOT, the Office of Naval Research, etc.). Those partnerships were so successful and extremely helpful for my students because I always framed my ‘ask’ request (proposal) in the language they spoke and understood. But I have come to accept that many people who want to help Black and Latino students succeed may or may not share my moral rationale for effectively educating those children. However, beyond the moral imperatives of expanding educational opportunities to diverse cohorts of children in this nation; it’s also true that for practical reasons, the country can’t succeed or survive based on its current trajectory practices of the successful incarceration of so many of its citizen-children, and thus losing out on the gifts, talents and potential contributions of these quality-education-denied children.
A nation will undercut its own social and physical infrastructure development; stifle economic expansion possibilities; weaken any response to national health or environmental crisis; limit technological capabilities and innovation; comprise its national defense; incapacitate international business cooperation and competitive efforts; if the plan starting-off includes a strategy to exclude the majority of its student population from high-quality liberal arts, the creative and performing arts, Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (S.T.E.M.) and a skills trades Career Technical Education (C.T.E.) learning opportunities.
#3 Challenge: As we advance into the future, our nation will require more, not fewer, professional S.T.E.M. and Career Technical Education (C.T.E.) skilled labor (electricians, solar/wind power technicians, allied health professionals, roboticians, welders, etc.) trained personnel.
On the S.T.E.M. high-tech level, many of these job positions face ‘state security challenges’ (e.g., in the military, the nation’s numerous security organizations, the many U.S. intelligence organizations; and in private companies with military and intelligence organizations contracts); these entities will require a U.S. citizenship status from their employees and managers. In a practical case of numbers not lying, the 2020 National Census informs us of the racial and ethnicity profiles of the growing numbers currently attending or will enter our public schools in the 2022, 2023, 2024,….2030 years ahead. If in the future we plan to prepare Black and Latino public school students for careers in S.T.E.M. or C.T.E., the way we are presently preparing them, then we are in serious trouble as a nation. Our only rational option is to radically change our thinking and methods for preparing (our majority) Black and Latino PreK-12 public school children population. As a superintendent, I warned principals of the “Lake Woebegone” defective vision syndrome. “You must,” I said, “work and succeed with the students and parents you have, not the students and parents you wished you had!” America is about to face a similar significant decision-making moment in the area of future PreK-12 S.T.E.M./C.T.E. education.
There is a very straightforward question I kept asking for so many years in the past (1970-90s.) while speaking before groups like the New York Academy of Science or the American Association for the Advancement of Science: “Who will do science in a future America?” I would ask. And of course, my audiences being in many ways, numbers-driven thinkers, were perhaps not alarmed by my question because back then and to a large extent now, our hospitals, corporate, and university research vacancies were being adequately filled by huge numbers of S.T.E.M. practitioners arriving from other parts of the world (e.g., Asia, Africa, Europe, Central, and South America, the Caribbean, etc.) And in the spirit of full and honest disclosure, even those of us working in the K-12 public and private education systems community, in cooperation with U.S. Emigration Agencies and The State Department, we worked with many foreign nations to facilitate the fast-track recruitment and hiring of their nationals to fill our S.T.E.M. and other critical content area staffing shortages. But my question of: “Who will do science in a future America?” was not based on the U.S. demographical data of the 1970-90s, but rather on future demographic profiles. What happens as nations like China become hyper-S.T.E.M. competitive with the U.S. and at the same time they build their own powerfully modern S.T.E.M. governmental and commercial infrastructures, research facilities, K-12 and university programs that can teach and absorb their own homegrown S.T.E.M. professionals (or maybe some Chinese S.T.E.M. professional might, wait on it— just enjoy living and working in China!). America needs to get its S.T.E.M. education act together and rely more on our public school K-12 home-grown, very capable but presently ignored and disempowered S.T.E.M. career able Black and Latino future stars. Just take a glance at the long list of the last twenty years of Noble Prize wining stars in science, where we see that the gap between American and other nation’s S.T.E.M. labs “sophistication” has closed dramatically. For example, even a small country like Israel is amazingly over-performing (despite the American GNP/GDP, population and the number of U.S. universities differential advantage) in advanced chemistry research and the wining of Noble Prizes in chemistry.
And then there is the family and quality of life issues for many of those internationally recruited S.T.E.M. professionals we Americans have grown accustomed to receiving. Perhaps you wonder why a S.T.E.M. scientist-researcher practicing in their home country of the Netherlands, Scotland or Japan, might want to live and work in labs there; after all, what’s not to like about those beautiful environments and rich cultural experiences? And, (I don’t know why I am feeling the “Wiz” this morning) there’s no place like home!
I remember doing a science education workshop for teachers in Trinidad & Tobago; while there, I was introduced to a Trinidadian civil engineer who worked for the government and studied and received his engineering degree from an American university. I will never forget his comments as he had me over for lunch at his house (and large surrounding land), for which I can’t think of any other descriptive words except a lovely small mansion. He really did not need to say what he eventually said because his beautiful home (a short distance from a stunning beach) said it all. “Of course, I could make more money in the U.S.,” he said, but I could not enjoy the quality of life there that I enjoy here. And that quality-of-life included things like professional educators and the society in general not having low expectations of his children, and not worrying about someone calling the police if he was working in his garden, bird watching in the forest near his house, or jogging in his own neighborhood. “Further,” he continued, “I am near my aging parents, friends, and other family members (particularly the young folks still in school), and my being here means that I serve as a role model for young people who travel abroad to acquire skills, and should think about coming back to help develop our country.” And so, how long will we be able to convince people like my young Trinidad & Tobago engineer to sacrifice the quality of life issues, quality high-expectations education for their children, personal racial safety, and the ability to fulfill a patriotic duty to their nation, in exchange for an American high price tag living expenses residency? I get that (and am a proud product of) our “nation of immigrants” story narrative, and it is indeed a powerful potential admirable strength. But it becomes a national weakness when we let life-success blocking bigotry and discriminatory denial practices drive public educational decisions. At some point, motivated by either moral or demographic realities, we will need to stop discarding our American-born talent simply because they live in the ‘wrong’ neighborhood, look like the other-than-my-child, or don’t have access to political or financial power.
And let’s be completely transparent about the “facts”…
Since we are in the being-totally-honest mode and speaking of real deleterious facts-on-the-ground; we will specifically need to confront and dramatically change our way of doing things in those school districts/localities with majority Black and/or Latino students, where the local civil governmental political leadership (consistently Democratic), school district leadership, and the school governance control is in the hands of people who look like and share the ethnicity of the children. And yet, the Black and Latino students in those public schools chronically fail, underperform, drop(pushed)out at an amazingly alarming high rates, and suffer from gifts, talents, skills and intellectual under-stimulation and discouragement. Too often these already struggling school districts are (wrongly) primarily focused on: Engaging in personal self-serving, hurting, or ignoring students’ needs political behaviors (aka shenanigans); acting as educational mission distracting local economic development projects; the overreliance and over-indulgence on annual highly-expensive poor-outcomes “school improvement” and “closing achievement gaps” consultant services and programs; and functioning as local community employment centers. Further, many of these (Black majority-controlled) districts have an unbelievably high, quick, educational progress damaging and destructive turnover of their superintendents, usually for political reasons only. Ineffectual educational policies or practices inflicted by elected or appointed leadership persons of color are not less educationally devastating to the deserved opportunities, high hopes, and future dreams of Black and Latino students.
“Don’t nobody bring me no bad news!” — Evilline; Job Title: Wicked Witch of the West (of the “Wiz” fame) before the eventual dramatic end of her reign.
Ignoring the factual data of challenge #1 will lead to a series of miscalculated acts of unpreparedness that will produce too little or too late responses to address the #2 and #3 challenges. I genuinely want to be optimistic and believe that as a nation, we will see the light that the 2020 Census Report’s statistical data is shining on our present and future demographic reality. But then there’s that troubling recurring histography curriculum knowledge problem that suggests former empires and people who were in positions of an unearned and unprincipled power advantage, even when passionately and continually warned, will predictively fail to listen and act in a proactive, positive, and productive way. They only get it (or they don’t) when the angry teeming masses are at and ripping down their protective gates, or the guillotines of history are being rolled out to separate their delusional heads from their body politics of false entitlement. Always tragically too late because as conditions worsen, there is the strong inclination to ignore or reject all factual information; it’s that fateful historical self-defeating moment when great efforts are made to silence or kill their patriotic prognosticators and truth-producing prophets; eventually, there are the last-ditch delusory verbal affirmations of braggadocios exceptionalism pride, and an overabundance of overconfident sloganeering pronouncements; all before the final, fatal and dramatic fall.
Michael A. Johnson is a former teacher, principal, and school district superintendent. He led the design, development, and building of two Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics—Career Technical Education (S.T.E.M.—C.T.E.) high schools: Science Skills Center High School, N.Y.C. and Phelps Architecture, Construction, and Engineering High School, Washington DC. An author of a book on school leadership: Report to the Principal’s Office: Tools for Building Successful High School Administrative Leadership. He has served as an adjunct professor of science education in the St. John’s University School of Education. Mr. Johnson is presently completing his second book on school administration and leadership: Report From The Principal’s Office (Fall/2021).