Can Latino Students Achieve?

(Stock Photo)
(Stock Photo)

The school year is in full swing and once again the education community will engage in the age-old question, “Why can’t Latino students close the academic achievement gap?”  A parade of education experts and sociologists will tell us that poverty, language barriers, gangs, drug and alcohol use, and indifference are the root causes.  Of course, these challenges do exist.  Most Latino students, however, come from hard-working families that want a better life for their children.

The simple analysis that all Latinos are mired in poverty, substance abuse, and a culture that does not value education is part of the problem itself.  Former California State Superintendent of Schools Jack O’Connell calls this phenomenon the “expectation gap.”  In his 2007 report, “Closing the Achievement Gap,” Superintendent O’Connell was one of the first high-profile statewide education leaders to acknowledge that school systems “do not always reflect and are [not] responsive to the diverse racial, cultural backgrounds, and needs of its student populations.”

San Jose State University adjunct professor of education Glenn Singleton puts it more bluntly in his book, Courageous Conversations About Race, where he says that students of color are “viewed by the school system and the larger society as a problem,” which results in the common belief in “their inability to thrive in ‘mainstream’ society.”  I’ll share a few of stories that illustrate Professor Singleton’s point.

The first story is about my high school guidance counselor.  I don’t want to use his real name, so let’s call him Mr. Jones.  I wasn’t a stellar student, but I passed college prep courses and did well on the SAT, so I was eligible to apply to San Jose State University.  During senior year, Mr. Jones advised that I consider learning a trade as he did not believe that I could meet the rigor of college.  He provided no further explanation.  Lucky for me, my parents had higher expectations.  Those not so lucky were certainly negatively impacted by the counselor’s guidance.  I call this the Mr. Jones Effect.

Almost 30 years later when I was a school board member at the East Side Union High School District, Latino students shared their versions of the Mr. Jones Effect with me.  Some counselors and teachers were discouraging them from even taking college prep classes, essentially institutionalizing their inability to be eligible for college.  When I was elected president of the school board I proposed the “A-G Initiative,” at the urging of a group of students called Californians for Justice, to make college entrance requirements the basic curriculum, thereby eliminating the school system’s ability to discourage students from pursuing a college education.

This brings us to the third story.  Shortly after proposing the “A-G Initiative,” I began meeting with teachers to garner their support.  I was met with skepticism and doubt.  Teachers explained that the initiative was setting up students to fail because many of them came from poor households with language barriers and an indifference to school.  One math teacher, who happened to be Latina and an East Side grad, summed it up by telling me with sincere conviction, that “these kids just can’t do Algebra II.”  I was stunned!

Despite this opposition, the school board unanimously approved the “A-G Initiative” in 2010 with the leadership of the Silicon Valley Education Foundation and strong support from students, parents, and the community.   The Class of 2015 will be the first class in East Side’s history that every graduate is eligible for college.  Unfortunately, that alone won’t close the achievement gap so long as the institutional expectation gap persists.

My Mr. Jones story, similar stories three decades later, and some teachers’ low expectations of Latino students proved Singleton’s contention that school systems do not believe that certain kids can thrive.  Critics call the Mr. Jones Effect racial profiling at best and institutional racism at worst.  I don’t believe it’s either.  The problem is systematic and individual unintentional bias.  Regrettably, it doesn’t matter what the intent is, the result for Latino kids is the same.

There’s hope.  Superintendent O’Connell’s bold statements about race and education in 2007 have opened the door, however slightly, to the notion that education leaders and front-line educators need to have the courageous conversation about how inherent bias plays a vital role in how school systems educate Latino students.  Educational institutions must find a way to look past the poverty, language barriers, etc, etc. to develop strategies and solutions to help “these” students achieve.

There has been a simmering discussion about how to do this in academic circles from education thinkers.  Understanding that teachers need the resources to overcome the challenges they face on a daily basis, thought leaders like Dr. Linda Darling-Hammond, Dr. Edwin Lou Javius, and Singleton have long advocated for educational equity and culturally relevant teacher training.  Equity policy will move the resources to where they’re needed to support teachers and culturally relevant teacher development could help in the elimination of the expectation gap.

So, can Latino students achieve?  The short answer is “yes.”  First, education policy makers and administrators must have the courage to acknowledge that race plays a role in educating our kids.  Second, our leaders need to allocate resources equitably to ensure that teachers and administrators have the tools to help students succeed.  Third, school systems (school board members, administrators, teachers, staff, students, parents, community members) need to look deeply into how their own inherent biases affect our kids and how they could change their thinking so Latino students can thrive.

There is no silver bullet here.  It will take commitment and hard work.  We just need education leaders to take that first step by acknowledging the existence of the expectation gap and making equity policy/culturally relevant teacher development an integral part of their plans to close the academic achievement gap for Latino students.  Okay…let’s get started.  Who wants to be first?

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Welcome to ESEReport.com!

West wall of the Mexican Heritage Plaza in East San Jose
West wall of the Mexican Heritage Plaza in East San Jose

Dear Readers,

Welcome to the ESE Report, a weekly blog that touches on leadership, education, and public affairs from a unique perspective.  It’s a view from the “other side of the tracks.”

I was born and raised in East San Jose, the predominately Latino section of the Santa Clara Valley that has been historically mislabeled “the bad side of town” by those whom have spent little or no time there.  Despite this negative stereotype, the East Side I’m from is a no-nonsense working-class neighborhood with no frills, a place where my late parents taught me and my siblings to work hard, get an education, play by the rules, and respect ourselves and others.

As a boy, I had a happy and carefree childhood.  As a young man, I flunked out of college, wandered aimlessly through life for several years, and ultimately returned to college to graduate on the dean’s list.  As a man, I have lived the American Dream: I married a wonderful woman, we have two daughters, and I built a career on work that inspires me.

Professionally, I’ve had the rare opportunity to roam the sidelines as a high school basketball coach, walk the halls of Congress as a corporate executive, strike the gavel as a school board president, and experience the machinations of local government as a political chief of staff.

In over 25 years of working in politics, business, education, and community service, I’ve seen self-interest and self-preservation bring out the worst in people, and I’ve seen the enduring human spirit of serving others bring out the best in people.

When I was 46 years old, I had a massive heart attack and suffered from Acute Respiratory Distress Syndrome (ARDS), a rare lung disorder that few people survive.  With strong faith, a loving family, supportive friends, and a great medical team, I live to tell the story today.

It’s these experiences slow-cooked together that have molded the way I see the world: practical and hard-nosed, yet hopeful and idealistic.  Like Frank Capra’s fictional hero George Bailey from the 1947 Christmas Classic “It’s a Wonderful Life,” I’m a sucker for happy endings.   Through it all, my heart and soul, and my core values are still from the East Side.

The inspiration for the name of this blog came from Navarra Williams, a former corporate executive who became a mentor and friend.  Early in my corporate career, Navarra, who himself grew up in the tough neighborhoods of Washington, D.C., gave me the nickname “East Side Eddie,” a moniker I proudly carry with me to this day.

Every city, town, and hamlet in America has an “east side,” and every east side has a voice.  It’s the voice of hard-working people who toil so their children can have a better life.  It’s the voice that’s rarely heard.  It’s the voice that deserves to be understood.  The ESE Report hopes to do just that by being insightful, provocative, amusing, and, at times, inspiring.

Please feel free to browse the Leadership, Education, and Public Affairs buttons on the blog.  I hope you find the topics interesting.  You can follow the ESE Report by clicking the “Follow” link on the bottom, right-hand corner of this page.

I look forward to hearing from you!

Eddie García
San José, California
September 23, 2013