UNC professor urges State Board of Education to prepare for “disruptive changes’

GREENSBORO — America is changing.

UNC professor James Johnson (standing} talks demographics during a State Board of Education meeting held in Greensboro on the N.C. A&T University campus.

It’s quickly becoming a nation where the people are older and browner.

These “disruptive demographic” changes, as James Johnson, the William R. Kenan Jr. Distinguished Professor of Strategy and Entrepreneurship and director of the Urban Investment Strategies Center at the Frank Hawkins Kenan Institute of Private Enterprise, calls them, will challenge the country and bring change in ways once unimaginable.

“They’re going to dramatically transform all of our social, economic and political institutions,” Johnson told the State Board of Education (SBE) during its fall planning and work session held on the campus of N.C. A&T University.

Johnson also cited a re-emerging South, interracial marriage, the withdrawal of men from the workforce and the increasing number of grandparents rearing grandchildren as disruptive forces changing the country

His advice to the SBE? Be prepared because the business of education will continue to be dramatically impacted by ongoing demographic shifts.

“The way we manage these issues are going to be the key to our ability to thrive and prosper,” Johnson said.

Perhaps nowhere is the changing demographics of North Carolina felt more intensely than in the state’s 116 school districts.

Chart provided by James Johnson

The dramatic increase in the state’s Hispanic population — it’s grown 1114% between 1990-2016 – has forced districts to make acute adjustments to serve student populations that look a lot different than they did a few decades ago.

By comparison, the state’s black population grew 48 percent during that span and its white population 29 percent. Meanwhile, the population non-Hispanic immigrants grew 586 percent and the state’s Asian population 440 percent.

Johnson said North Carolina is quickly moving from a largely black and white state.

“If you think you have change in your school system now, you haven’t seen anything,” Johnson said. “Buckle your seat belt, because the change is going to become more dramatic.”

As a result of the demographics changes, public schools must rethink the way they deliver instruction and services, Johnson said.

“The kids who walk in the school door moving forward wont’ fit into the nice and neat crucibles we’re accustomed to putting them in, and they won’t allow you to put them into those crucibles,” Johnson said. “This is further transforming the complexion of our society, and what it means is, whose history do we teach? What are the curriculum implications of a more diverse population?”

Johnson’s presentation comes just months after the SBE adopted a new strategic plan that focuses on equity. The SBE has pledged to use the concept as a guiding principle in its decision-making.

The plan has three broad goals: Elimination of opportunity gaps; improving school and district performance and increasing educator preparedness to meet the needs of every student.

SBE member James Ford, who co-chaired the board’s strategic planning committee, said he was introduced to Johnson’s work about four years ago, and found it “stunning.”

“So much of what we talk about when we talk about equity is rooted in systems and structures that go far beyond education,” Ford said via a telephone conference call. “The demographic data and picture that he [Johnson] painted back then [four years ago] has shaped the political discourse and climate for the last three years.”

Ford said Johnson’s work gives us a look at what the state will look like if it doesn’t appropriately respond to the needs of its growing and diverse student population.

“One of the most pressing concerns and questions we have to answer as a state board is, if we fail to respond to and negotiate and interrogate how we’re serving students from diverse backgrounds, what does prosperity in North Carolina look like,” Ford said. “We have an ethical, moral and frankly and economic imperative to respond to the data and changing demographics.”

Like Ford and others attending the board’s planning session, SBE member J.B. Buxton had seen Johnson’s presentation before.

“It never ceases to help you better understand the state,” Buxton said.

He said board can use the information to help guide decision-making when it comes to students.

“This all feeds into our new strategic plan and trying to better understand the challenges of the state and how to best address them,” Buxton said. “It gives us a sense of where the state is going from a demographic perspective and what the challenges are for the kids coming into the school systems.”

 

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