The faces and attitudes in America's classrooms are about to undergo a dramatic transformation - one that will shape consumer attitudes for years to come.
Children across the country are sharpening their pencils, loading up their backpacks, and sliding their legs under their pint-sized desks. But they're not the only ones heading back to school this month. Marketers, too, are gearing up to attract and entice today's youngest consumers. If you think it's a hard job these days, just wait. By 2010, everything that marketers know today about elementary-aged kids will be completely outdated. There will be a new generation of elementary school students - and a whole new generation of elementary schools.
In the next decade, primary school education in America will experience a tremendous period of transition. Enrollment of the lunchbox set, which has been on a steady increase over the past decade, will experience a small dip in the next five years, and then swoop up again by the end of the first decade of the new century. And, the faces that will make up that increase will include a healthy mix of races; diversity is on the verge of an explosion in America's grade schools.
Yet, the makeover is far from limited to people. The physical classroom is also expected to get a facelift. Thanks to technology, access to information will be unprecedented. The children of 2010 will have learning experiences that their parents could not have imagined when they first walked through the school gates. It's said that Gen Xers embraced computers in high school and college. Gen Ys were introduced to them in primary and/or secondary schools. Gen Z may be computer literate even before they get to school. For these kids, multimedia will be as prevalent in the classroom as the chalkboard. Lessons will be enriched in ways that would have left our mouths ajar five years ago.
For marketers, the lesson is this: Don't underestimate the power of this radically different educational experience. "Schools have always transmitted norms and values," says James E. Schnitz, education strategy executive for IBM's Global Education division, in Provo, Utah. The norms and values that this new generation will pick up in grade school will reverberate long after they've left their formal education behind. In 2010, marketers who sell to children are going to have to start all over again to figure out how to impress this new generation.
Talk to teachers today, and you'll hear about their struggle to cope with a veritable tsunami of students pouring into school each year. Between 1984 and 1997, the number of children enrolled in kindergarten through eighth grade increased by 21 percent. That's because of the large Gen Y population hitting the schools. Given that the much smaller Gen X group will be the primary parents of school-age kids by 2010, relief should be in sight, right? Unfortunately for strained school resources, the reprieve will be all too brief. Thanks to the small size of Gen X, and the expansion of childbearing years of Baby Boomers, a slight downturn in K-8 enrollment should occur for just five years - between 2003 and 2008, according to the National Center for Education Statistics. Then enrollment will begin to climb again.
In fact, that Gen X dip will ultimately be outweighed by the increases that will follow, when you examine the decade as a whole. For public elementary schools, the average growth rate each year will be .02 percent, indicating that by 2010, schools will be just as crowded as they are today. Plus, trends that have developed because of the overcrowding, will continue into the next decade: Home schooling is expected to increase - as is the clamor for year-round class schedules. Since 1985, the number of schools with year-round schedules has increased by 16 percent, according to School, Home and Office Product Association (SHOPA), a trade organization for the school supply industry based in Dayton, Ohio. The number of children who are home schooled has been growing at a 15 percent rate each year, to 1.5 million children in the 1997-1998 school year, according to the Home School Legal Defense Association.
Tomorrow's students will defy easy classification. They will come from a wider mix of backgrounds, and will bring different experiences and ideas to their first years of education. "The demographics of American schools are dramatically changing, more so than any other time in American history," says Chad R. Wollery, former superintendent of the Dallas schools, and the president of HOSTS, which stands for Help One Student to Succeed, an educational materials company also in Dallas.
Between 2001 and 2010, the number of non-Hispanic white elementary school students will plummet by 2.1 million children, a decrease of 8 percent for children aged 5 to 9, and a decrease of 9 percent for children aged 10 to 14. The number of non-Hispanic black elementary school kids will experience a smaller decline. There will be 400,000 fewer blacks in elementary school by 2010, a decline of 3 percent for the 5- to 9-year-olds, and a decline of 10 percent for 10- to 14-year-olds. But since overall enrollment will be increasing steadily, kids of other racial and ethnic backgrounds will fill in the spaces vacated by white and black children. Between 2001 and 2010, the percentage of Hispanic children aged 5 to 9 will increase by 21 percent while the number of Hispanic 10- to 14-year-olds will increase by a whopping 29 percent. The number of Asian students aged 5 to 9 will increase by 22 percent by 2010, and the number of Asian students aged 10 to 14 will increase by 31 percent.
Race is only the most obvious way that these students will be diverse. Connie Erpelding, assistant professor of education at the University of North Iowa, spent the last seven years as the principal at Thomas Jefferson elementary school, in Newton, Iowa. Over that time, she says, "What I've seen change the most is the way families are configured. There are so many different structures that can be called a family."
And in fact, while the "traditional" family structure, with two parents present, is still the most common - it's also rapidly becoming a rarity. In 1980, 77 percent of American children lived with two parents. By 1999, that number fell to 68 percent. Nearly 23 percent of all children lived with just their mothers, 4 percent with their fathers, while 4 percent lived with neither parent.
Gen Z will likely come from more varied family backgrounds than has been experienced in recent history. It's a change that makes a big difference in the way teachers educate, says Erpelding. Previously, a kindergarten schoolteacher, for example, could count on students having approximately the same experiences as the next child sitting cross-legged on the floor. But even today, and even in Iowa, that's no longer the case. Last year, Erpelding says that Thomas Jefferson's kindergartners were learning the alphabet using a curriculum called "The Letter People." To introduce "Mr. L," for example, they decided to hire a "limousine" to drop Mr. L to school. But as the teachers started to talk about it with the kindergartners, they realized that some kids were confused. "Some of our kids had participated in weddings and had been in limos, while other kids really had no concept of what the car was like, why you'd use one, and when," she says. The teachers had to be aware of these differences in order to build in prep time so that all the students could get the most out of the experience.
Although the significance of having sunk into the back seat of a limo by the time you've reached kindergarten appears trivial, it highlights a larger problem, says Erpelding. "We have to recognize a child that is enriched with many experiences in their environment really comes to school with a bit of an advantage," she says. "The challenge for the teacher is to figure out how to structure learning tasks so everyone can benefit. The teacher has to bring some common ground to the wide range of experiences that the children bring to the classroom."
Faced with a crush of students of diverse experiences and ethnic origins, schools will turn to technology for the solution. To meet the needs of many, schools will "mass customize" education. Instead of assuming that all third graders should be learning the same thing, "we'll assess where the child is on the learning structure, and customize information to suit them," explains Wollery. The traditional grade structure will still be there, but "while you're sitting with your age-mates, you'll be doing your own learning," he says.
Wollery's company, HOSTS, has created a database that includes thousands of the best educational materials that are produced each year, and which pass his organization's 14-point quality standard check. Schools or school districts contract to use the database, which is then aligned to each state's individual requirements. Teachers are able to activate highly customized searches of the materials. If little Jenny, for instance, is interested in cars, and needs help with grammar, her teacher can pull material designed specifically for her. Or if Jimmy is interested in computers and needs help with math, the teacher can select educational materials that will teach those lessons in a way that will be most effective. HOSTS is now serving more than 500,000 students in 44 states, and by 2010, programs like this will enable teachers to provide better education to a more diverse student body.
Customized educational materials is just one of the ways that technology will aid educators. Gwinnett County Public Schools, in Georgia, is handling the diversity challenge by using a strategy that's familiar to marketers - data mining. In the last school year, Gwinnett piloted the program in seven of its 87 schools, and saw academic achievement soar, says Alvin Wilbanks, the district's superintendent. "We're experiencing a much more diverse population, and while the majority of our students come ready for school, other students do not," he says. "And the number and percentage of those who don't is growing. These students don't have word recognition skills, and they're not the most psychologically prepared students. It creates a challenge to make sure that those students are getting what they came to school for."
Gwinnett County's solution: Arm teachers with as much information as possible. For example, a teacher can pull from a number of resources on her computer, and customize a lesson for a particular student. An instructor who notices a fifth grade child struggling in math, for instance, will be able to see at a glance whether that's been a pattern throughout the child's elementary school career. The teacher will be able to discover which subjects the child has excelled at, and which provide a clue to the child's best learning style. Plus, the teacher can cross-reference that data with any information on file with the guidance office, to check if the child is struggling with issues at home.
This level of information is unprecedented for educators like Wilbanks. Before, teachers could only rely on "toplines" about an entire class: The class average on a standardized test; or how the third grade reading scores in one school compared to another. But starting now, and in full effect by 2010, teachers will be able to "target market" education to students. "Teachers will have to challenge and engage all students," he says. "It will stop kids from falling through the cracks."
This level of customization in the classroom will have huge implications for marketers who will sell to this generation. Children who grew up in the old days (last year) learned to expect that every member of a group would receive roughly the same kinds of information and materials. The elementary students of 2010 will not. In an environment of mass customized classrooms, products and services that are not equally tailored to their fingerprints will seem hopelessly generic and outdated. Welcome to Generation 1-to-1. "These kids will be used to an extremely customized environment and they will bring that expectation to the marketplace at large," says Tim Coffey, president of The WonderGroup, a Cincinnati-based market research firm that specializes in the kids market. "Clothing should be custom fit, shoes should be designed just to fit me," he says. School supplies will be equally customized, Steven Jacober, president of SHOPA, speculates. "There will be notebooks or writing surfaces that are customized for posture and size, notebook covers and other supplies designed by you at an in-store kiosk, or online," he says.
In the classroom, these tailored educational materials will look very different from the mimeographed sheets of yesteryear. Remember learning about Christopher Columbus in elementary school? It's safe to say that it was probably nothing like what Beebe School elementary students, in Malden, Massachusetts experienced last year. "An archaeologist discovered another one of Columbus' ships that sank near the Dominican Republic, and as they were doing the research, the kids were able to follow along on a giant screen TV," says Peter J. Magner, principal of the school. "The kids were able to communicate with the researchers online," he says. The children also learned about the Dominican Republic, and started a pen pal program.
That's a long way from a static textbook. As for the children of 2010, their access to information and people will be commonplace. Eye-popping, multi-media effects will be expected. For marketers, this means that these kids will be harder to impress outside of school. But this kind of educational experience also reflects an important shift in the way we view the process of elementary education, says Schnitz. "We've had a historic view of kids as being empty vessels, and we needed to fill their brains with stuff. Now we're more accurately viewing children as producers and consumers of information, and in that sense, we transform how we expect them to behave, and how we work with them. Children become contributors to human knowledge, not replicators of existing knowledge."
Kids used to fantasize by "playing" scientist or news anchor. Today, CNN has a program that allows school children the opportunity to file stories, and Vanderbilt University in Tennessee has recruited children to help monitor drinking water. There's no doubt that Generation 1-to-1's expectation of leisure time - and of what's possible - will ratchet up. Even more importantly, by teaching kids how to access information, and work with adults and other "real world" people remotely, we're teaching kids important lessons in using technology, and in what Schnitz calls "asynchronous collaboration" - an essential skill in the digital economy. With that kind of grade school preparation, marketers can be prepared for consumers who will eventually have lots of knowledge, power, and money. The trick will be in figuring out how to get them to spend it with you.