As noted earlier, the issues addressed by this committee are much like those confronted by the NRC panel in 1979; however, much has changed in public education in the intervening two decades. Medical advances mean that more children are living with medical conditions that can cause significant barriers to school achievement (Berman et al., 2001). The biological challenges brought by children to the classroom are thus different than they were two decades ago.
The past 20 years have brought considerable demographic and economic changes. As noted earlier in this chapter, the nation continues to become more ethnically diverse, changing the mix of children by race, ethnicity, and primary language in many school districts. Wealth and economic opportunities have increased for many, but disparities by race persist. Between 1980 and 1997, poverty levels among white, black, and Hispanic school-age children remained relatively constant. However, while the proportion of white students living in poverty hovered around 15 percent, the rates for Hispanic children were between 35 and 40 percent and for black children, rates varied between slightly below 40 and 45 percent (Lloyd et al., 2001).
Minority and poor children are increasingly concentrated in urban areas in which schools were constructed decades earlier and are poorly maintained and inadequately staffed by educators who are often poorly qualified. These children live in urban areas “characterized by a set of problems so severe that some see them as threatening the long-term viability of American society” (NRC, 1999a). Blacks and Hispanics are especially likely to live in neighborhoods where educational and economic opportunities are the most limited and where these problems are worsening, rather than improving with the nation’s economic robustness (NRC, 1999a; Lloyd et al., 2001). The economic context affects the environmental influences on a child’s development, and where poverty is concentrated, it affects the classroom influences as well.
As Figure 1-2 suggests, teachers play a key role in student achievement. One of the greatest future challenges facing the effort to obtain appropriate educational opportunities for children in the nation’s schools will be an unprecedented demand for new teachers to teach an increasingly pluralistic student population (Darling-Hammond, 1997; National Commission on Teaching and America’s Future, 1996; Melnick and Pullin, 2000). There are 3.22 million teachers currently working in the nation’s schools (Gerald and Hussar, 2000). But it is estimated that more than 2 million new teach-