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Lesson 2.1

The Changing Face of America's Students

Want to see the future of California? Look here.

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Image: Hands CC Woodley Wonderworks

California has the largest and most diverse student population in America. About 6 million students attend California public K-12 schools. Another half a million or so attend private schools. In rough terms, our state has about half a million students in each grade level. To provide for their education, more than 300,000 teachers work in about 10,000 schools in about 1,000 districts across the state.

Half of California students are Hispanic

About half of California’s students are Latino. In about 30 years, the state’s K-12 schools added about 3 million Latino students, accounting for virtually all of the growth in California enrollment.


Non-Latino white students make up about a quarter of the state student body. Most of the remaining students are Asian (9%), African-American (6%), or Filipino (3%). About 3% of California students associate themselves with none of the above. California’s large urban districts educate students from virtually every culture and linguistic background on the planet.

In about 30 years, the state’s K-12 schools added about 3 million Latino students, accounting for virtually all of the growth in California enrollment.

Nearly half are bilingual

Nearly half of California’s students speak a language other than English at home. Many of them have been very successful at learning English; less than a quarter of California’s students are “English Language Learners” (abbreviated EL or ELL), which means that they speak another language and have not yet achieved functional fluency in English.


About 1 in 30 students are undocumented

Statistics regarding the immigration status of California’s students and their families are imprecise. The biggest changes in California demographics have been driven by immigration from Mexico and Latin America. Undocumented students make up perhaps one in every 30 students enrolled in a California public school.

In 1982 the US Supreme Court ruled in Pyler vs. Doe that immigration status cannot serve as a condition for enrollment in American public schools. Access to public education is open to all resident students, regardless of immigration status. This right of access includes higher education; Assembly Bill 540 extended in-state tuition benefits to all residents. After about a decade of litigation, in 2010 this policy was upheld by a unanimous ruling of the state Supreme Court.


Which ONE of the following statements about California’s public school students is NOT true?

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Questions & Comments

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user avatar
Jeff Camp - Founder June 23, 2016 at 10:39 am
Affirmative Action was upheld by the US Supreme Court in 2016. The University of Texas includes race among the factors it uses for a portion of its admission decisions. In summer 2016 the US Supreme Court upheld this practice in Fischer v. University of Texas. This decision stirred up a lot of passionate, uninformed blather. Ignore all that and read the actual SCOTUS opinion and dissent here:
user avatar
norburypta February 29, 2016 at 6:56 pm
We make the issues harder to address by being imprecise, i.e., does 'Asians' include most Indians, many/most Russians, are 'Latinos' Caucasian, Negro, or Native Americans, etc.
Maybe sorting this out is not productive to the discussion.
user avatar
johanna.smith.nilsson May 21, 2015 at 11:34 am
In response to the first discussion question, if people in my community were asked to estimate the demographics of California's students I believe that they would overestimate the number of English Learners. When I was asked the same question, I estimated that over 50% of Californian students were English Learners (the actual statistic is more like 22%, according to the California Department of Education: In particular, I far overestimated the number of Asian students in California because the Mountain View-Los Altos district where I work has a much higher proportion of Asian and Asian-American students (~21% versus the 8.75% statewide). You can look up your district's enrollment by ethnicity at the CDE's website (
The changing demographics in schools mean that teachers and schools need to change the ways that they approach education. It is increasingly important for more teachers to be certified in teaching English Learners (ELs) and in bilingual instruction.
I don't actually know how many students in my district zone attend charter/private schools. A quick search didn't show any obvious answers.
user avatar
tonyammarquez April 28, 2015 at 8:50 am
what are demographics?
user avatar
johanna.smith.nilsson May 21, 2015 at 10:59 am
Demographics are statistics that describe certain populations or groups. For instance, the number of English Learners in California is its own demographic.
user avatar
Mark MacVicar April 24, 2015 at 3:00 pm
When I was in high school, way back in the 80's, I took Spanish figuring that it would be an important language to know given changing demographics. I don't think I had any idea that it would change this much.
user avatar
geecookie2011 April 18, 2015 at 6:38 am
However I am for "ALL" students gettin a quality education but still unfortunately the black or african american studentsin particular are african-american young males are still at the bottom of any scales or grass that shows that they are still the main ones who lack true education even under our immigrants students.
user avatar
jenzteam February 27, 2015 at 8:02 am
'Free' public education is usually the option for undocumented workers and/or hispanics. You (website) stated that 10% of students are undocumented. Why is that?! 43% speak another language at home (spanish?). Why aren't teachers allowed to speak Spanish in the classroom so these kids have equal opportunities?!
user avatar
johanna.smith.nilsson May 21, 2015 at 10:58 am
One of the main reasons that teachers aren't allowed to speak Spanish (or any other language) in the classroom is Proposition 227 that passed in 1998, stating that classes needed to be taught "overwhelmingly in English" ( It was passed partially in reaction to many parents feeling like their children weren't learning English in school, thus holding them back from other subjects.

Just last year a law was proposed by Senator Ricardo Lara to repeal Prop 227 ( This is a really important bill because many studies show that bilingual and dual-immersion are overall more successful for reclassification (

Up until very recently California didn't offer a secondary credential that is solely for teaching English Language Development. The only way to teach ELD was for teachers to get a credential in a different subject and then get an extra clearance to teach English Learners (now it's a part of every secondary ed credential) or to get a bilingual certification. Now that ELD has its own credential, hopefully more teachers will be prepared to teach our increasingly diverse student population!
user avatar
Eve Green February 4, 2015 at 11:27 pm
Just a point of clarification, are Latinos (or any other non-Blacks) considered people of color?
user avatar
johanna.smith.nilsson May 21, 2015 at 10:08 am
Yes. Any person who is non-Caucasian can be considered a POC. Here is the breakdown of enrollment by ethnicity in this school year.
user avatar
Arun Ramanathan March 10, 2011 at 1:56 pm
A few additional stats. With 1.3 million English Learners, CA has more English Learners than the individual student populations of 38 states. With 3 millon Latino students, CA has more Latino students than the individual student populations of 48 states. 73% of CA's public K-12 students are students of color.

This is a massive generational change and one that should be viewed in this increasingly globalized world as a strength. In particular, if we viewed speaking multiple languages as a strength vs. a weakness and invested in it vs. trying to eliminate it, CA would be leading the nation in bi- and multi-lingualism.

Now, based on recent census figures, we are a very different CA. Our Latino and Asian populations are growing while our White and African-American populations are either static or declining. Our population is shifting to the east vs. the more expensive west. And our students are increasingly poorer and more needy, espcially in these difficult economic times.

In our current climate, with the stranglehold the extremes of our parties and longtime lobbyists and staffers hold on Sacramento, we are barred from the type of structural change particularly in our education system that we need to address these massive shifts and focus on the needs of children. But at very least one thing is certain - demographic change of this magnitude will promote electoral change.
user avatar
Steven N June 20, 2014 at 3:45 pm
The largest structural change in public school financing in 4 decades happened in 2013 with Gov. Brown's inspired LCFF (Local Control Funding Formula). Coupled with the Accountability Plan - under local district political control - we shall see how local communities follow through with structural change. From the vantage point of mid 2014 - and EdSource's LCAP coverage, it seems that "change" will go really slowly in some communities. I'm not so disillusioned with the prospect of reform! Some of the LCAP plans are inspired.
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