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Jump Starting Latino Achievement

Jump Starting Latino Achievement

The nation’s largest minority group has fallen behind academically, but dedicated scholars and programs are working to close the gap.
By Ronald Roach

Lorretta Chavez knows that for poor Mexican American children in Colorado, getting a quality education means overcoming monumental odds. She is all too aware that poorly funded public schools and a lack of parental and community support often make it difficult for Mexican American children to aspire to and attain higher education. Chavez, a public school teacher and a doctoral student at the University of Colorado, is writing her dissertation about the families, communities and academic struggles of six public school teachers and four teachers-in-training, all of Mexican-American origin.

“These are ten people who struggled against tremendous barriers, and it’s important to know why and how they persisted,” Chavez says.

Lawmakers have made the closing of racial and ethnic academic achievement gaps an acknowledged priority of the federal No Child Left Behind Act. But so far the research has largely explored common factors explaining why Black and Latino students generally lag behind Whites and Asian Americans. Chavez and others argue that scholars must do research that delves deeper into the experiences of Latino children.

Numerous national education and Latino civil rights organizations have joined the cause of “Latino education.” And in states and cities where Latino communities have grown rapidly, local colleges and universities have launched research centers, faculty positions and community outreach programs designed to boost Latino student achievement.

“About 80 percent of the fastest-growing jobs require postsecondary education, yet only about 10 percent of Hispanic Americans have a college degree. In other words, a college education is more important than ever, and far too few Hispanic Americans have one,” U.S. Education Secretary Margaret Spellings told attendees at the 30th anniversary of the Hispanic Scholarship Fund.

Getting Latino students up to speed as quickly as possible could have an impact far beyond that particular community. Demographers predict that the United States could become a non-White majority nation by the year 2050. The country’s long-term economic and social prospects depend in part on boosting the achievement rates for Latinos and other students, many experts say.

Language Complexity
Achievement gap research has typically shown that Black and Latino students are disproportionately faced with the worst the public K-12 system has to offer. They are far more likely than other students to attend poorly equipped, poorly staffed and poorly funded schools. As a result, Blacks and Latinos in predominantly minority schools have the least access to rigorous, college-prep level courses.

When Black and Latino students attend affluent, racially integrated schools, they often find themselves shoved into a symbolic corner. Compared to their White and Asian American peers, Blacks and Latinos are more likely to be tracked into less challenging classes or assigned to special education programs. Socioeconomic data reveals that the parents of Black and Latino students have, on the average, lower incomes and less formal education than do Whites and Asians, often rendering them less effective at overseeing and guiding their children’s education.

What sets Latino students apart, particularly those from Mexican immigrant families in the South and Southwest, is that many Latinos enter school as Limited English Proficient students. In 2002, 80 percent of the 4.5 million LEP students were Spanish-language speakers, according to the National Clearinghouse for English Language Acquisition & Language Instruction Educational Programs. Many researchers contend that the language gap for Latino students puts the English learners at a distinct educational disadvantage.

California’s public school system has approximately 1.6 million LEP students, nearly a quarter of the state’s total public school K-12 population. Eighty-five percent of those students are Spanish speakers, according to the Public Policy Institute of California.

“Fluency in English is one of the most basic building blocks for creating a good quality of life in the United States. It can determine whether or not students go to college and how much earning potential they have. To have such a large segment of our young population facing this kind of disadvantage has serious implications for the state,” says Dr. Christopher Jepsen, a research fellow at the institute and co-author of a report entitled, “English Learners in California Schools.”

Typically, programs for English language learners fall under two categories — bilingual education and immersion. In bilingual education, instruction is delivered in both the students’ native language and in English. Proponents of bilingual education have contended that the practice enables LEP students to keep up with their English-speaking peers in math, science and social studies while they learn English. With the immersion approach, also known as English as a Second Language instruction, all teaching is done in English.

Bilingual education, opposed largely by conservatives who insist on an English-only approach, has proven controversial and has been curtailed in some states. In 1998, California voters approved Proposition 227, which requires that public schools teach entirely in English.

A 2006 study by the American Institutes for Research and WestEd has found that since the passage of Proposition 227, “students across all language classifications in all grades have experienced performance gains on state achievement tests.” However, the achievement gap between English learners and native English speakers has stayed constant in most subject areas for most grades.

Andrew Brodsky, the director of research and evaluation at the Colorado Children’s Campaign, says the debate over bilingual education versus English immersion remains unsettled because it’s not fully understood which approach works better. Unlike California, Colorado allows bilingual education in its public schools.

“The evidence doesn’t appear to be conclusive. I think the answer as to which approach is taken is still in the realm of politics and philosophy,” he says.

Culture Matters
For some researchers, investigating the cultural and sociological issues underpinning the educational achievement of Latinos is an essential step. Dr. Gilberto Q. Conchas, an associate professor of education at the University of California, Irvine, has done considerable comparative analysis on low-income immigrant and U.S.-born Latino, Asian American and Black youth. The son of Mexican immigrant farm workers, Conchas focuses on learning how students “make meaning of their lives in urban communities and schools.”

Conchas has not shied away from examining some touchy subjects, including how machismo among Latino males shapes their social aspirations and academic performance. He says many Mexican-American boys regard education as a feminine pursuit.

“Persisting and doing well in school is often seen being at odds with masculinity,” Conchas says.

He is now turning his attention to intervention programs, which have had some recent success with minority males. In his 2006 book, The Color of Success: Race and High-Achieving Urban Youth, Conchas examined why and how some minority students achieve academic success despite attending poorly resourced schools. The co-author of the forthcoming Small Schools: Digging Beneath the Layers of Educational Reform, Conchas writes about the emerging small school experiments, which are providing educational opportunity for minority students in large cities across the United States.

Currently, Conchas is in the midst of two long-term research projects. The first has been a qualitative study of Latino students who have participated in academically enriching after-school programs. The qualitative study should provide a look at the views of Latino parents on their children’s after-school programs. It is also the first large-scale investigation of after-school experiences of Latino youth. The second study will be a quantitative examination of the Mexican-origin youth in California who participated in the first study.

“We know that after-school programs have benefited White, middle-class children,” Conchas says. “My study will investigate whether Latino immigrant-origin kids are benefiting as well.”

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