Predicting the future in this rapidly changing and complex world is problematical, but never more so than now because political and economic developments occur rapidly, aided by the new technology of the information age. There is, however, one aspect of the future I can forecast. I believe the greatest challenge this nation faces now and in the years ahead, is how to provide high-quality education for the growing racial and ethnic diversity of our society.
America’s diversity is accurately reflected in our elementary and secondary schools. Minorities will make up a majority of the total public school enrollment in 12 states early in this century. The ten largest school districts in the United States are already 70% black or Hispanic. “Minorities” are now the “majority” population in four states: California, New Mexico, Arizona, and Texas. The rapid growth of the Hispanic population is a major contributor to this demographic shift. These changes pose unprecedented challenges for our nation and to our schools striving to provide the highest-caliber education possible to its minority students.
All of our students, not just some of them, must be educated to their fullest potential. Unfortunately, the educational attainment of black American, Hispanic American, and American Indian students lags significantly behind the general population. It is characterized by high dropout rates, illiteracy, and minimal academic achievement. We must act soon to substantially improve the education of our increasingly diverse society. The challenges of the 21st century are already upon us, and we must ensure that our young people are educated and equipped with the knowledge and skills necessary for active and successful citizenship. Enhancement of education for all students must be the highest priority we face as a nation.
For many years, I have worked to improve the quality of education underrepresented minority students receive and to increasing their numbers in the health professions. As a faculty member, a medical school dean, and president of a major university and a Health Sciences Center, I sought to bring more minorities into medicine. While U.S. Secretary of Education, I repeatedly urged restructuring of elementary and secondary education in order to improve student educational achievement. Therefore, because of my commitment to minority education during my long academic career, I welcomed, in 1995, the invitation to serve as a member the National Advisory Committee (NAC) for the Health Professions Partnership Initiative (HPPI). The Robert Wood Johnson and the W. K. Kellogg Foundations funded the HPPI, and it was administered by the Association of American Medical Colleges (AAMC). Two years later, I became chair of the NAC.
The NAC eventually identified 26 sites for HPPI funding over the ten years of the program. These HPPI sites included health professional schools, universities and colleges, K–12 school systems, parent groups, and community members working in a collaborative partnership to increase academic achievement of underrepresented minority students. Each HPPI site raised student awareness of the possibilities of entering the health professions, and raised their expectations of the possibility of a career in the health field.
During the years of working with my colleagues on the NAC and at the AAMC, we came to understand from the HPPI sites that there were a number of strategies to improve the education of minority students. One strategy included early educational intervention with academic enrichment programs for K–12 students, such as tutoring, enhancing test-taking skills, and math and science programs on Saturdays or during the summer. Also, successful HPPI sites stressed parental involvement and had leadership for educational change from the top of the administration in the health professions schools and the school districts. It became obvious that a National Program Office (NPO) at the AAMC was essential to oversee, evaluate, coordinate, assist, and advise the HPPI sites in their educational activities. Members of the NAC working with the NPO gave considerable time, energy, and thought to assist the HPPI sites in meeting their education goals.
I have repeatedly stated that meaningful change starts with caring. Those at the HPPI sites, and members of the NAC and NPO truly cared about the education of children.
Effective partnerships such as those in the HPPI are essential to move minority students successfully through the academic pathway to the health professions. Frequently, on HPPI site visits, I heard deans of health professions schools lead the discussion on ways to improve education in grades K–12, with active participation in the discussion by faculty, teachers, parent groups, community leaders, and school administrators. I saw them as partners coming together with a commitment to enhance education of minority students. I am confident that, from meetings such as these, will come lasting partnerships continuing to function long after foundation funding ceases.
The commitment from the health professions schools and the school districts was not just verbal and participatory, but fiscal as well. Additional HPPI funding came from the school districts. Finding ways to sustain the HPPI effort, and to institutionalize it after foundation funding ceased, became a major topic of discussion at each of the site visits by the NAC.
I was pleased on one site visit to hear a school superintendent announce to a gathering of students, teachers, and parents that the district planned to continue the HPPI program and concept, although foundation funding was ending. To me, this was one example of validation of the HPPI effort to improve education for underrepresented minorities for their subsequent entrance into the health professions.
The HPPI ended in 2005 and evaluation attests to its success at many sites. I am confident that subsequent reviews over the next few years will find increasing numbers of underrepresented minorities entering the health professions from some of the HPPI sites. The education enterprise must acknowledge and be thankful for the financial support from the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation and the W. K. Kellogg Foundation. They provided ten years of significant funding for HPPI, and their contributions will have a lasting impact on improving the education of minority students. It is suggested that the HPPI can serve as a national model for those seeking to change the face of the health professions and to improve education for all children in our diverse society.