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?

7 thoughts on “Can Latino Students Achieve?

  1. Closing the Achievement Gap between Latino and other students has to remain a high priority for us despite the frustration and weariness of the seemingly low progress in closing the gap in the last thirteen years since the Federal Government has required the States to measure it. This has happened at the same time that educational resources (monies) have been severely cut back for student support (ADA) and teacher professional development (teacher training). The new school funding formula for California is a good first step to better deal with the problem.

    An important part of the problem that is usually the last to be addressed is dealing with the fact that many students dislike the effort of learning in school (huevonada) and especially so with the subject of mathematics. In the case of mathematics, closing the achievement gap is exacerbated by the parents inability to help the students, especially at the level of Algebra and the higher mathematics taught in the high schools. Many students who have gotten behind in mathematics in elementary and middle school don’t get the support to catch up and they are not motivated to do so on their own. Working on the student’s motivation to do the work is as important as the teacher’s ability to clearly present the work, and the importance of the former is not sufficiently emphasized and dealt with. This leads to learning barriers that extend beyond the K-12 years.

    Let me describe another “Gap” that exists in the perception of parents and teachers on who should be responsible for closing the Gap. This resulted from a discussion that occurred between a Class of Spanish Speaking Parents and a Spanish Speaking Mathematics Teacher that was teaching them Geometry (in Spanish). This was part of a Project, that I ran from 1999 to 2003, which was teaching Latino parents about the Mathematics that their children were learning in school.

    The parents were complaining that their kids no longer listen to them as they enter the teenage years and they felt helpless to control them. The parents strongly voiced the sentiment that the teacher should be the one to motivate the students because the teacher was “trained” to do so. The teacher countered that as a middle school teacher, he teaches to 150 different students every day and that he spends less than hour with each class of 30 at a time, whereas the parents spend at least five hours a day with just a few children. Furthermore, the teacher said that his education was mainly in learning Mathematics and he didn’t receive any training to prepare one person to teach mathematics to 150 kids who were not motivated to learn.

    The lively discussion above resulted in no clear solutions, but it brought out the many dimensions of the importance and the many different things that have to be addressed to increase the motivation of students to learn mathematics.

    At another time, I will comment on the importance of Algebra I, and a third year of college prep Math as important courses (A-G) to completing the college preparatory courses in high school.

  2. Eddie, Keep this coming. There are going to be some great interactions. You know well that, whereas many schools do not meet the educational needs of too many of their students, there are exceptions, and those exceptions greatly exceed expectation. Adelante, LUCHA and Renaissance in Alum Rock are three that you and I know well. One of the powerful learnings from these three schools is that when you truly solicit and value parent voice, they are there in mass and in support. Paul Tough’s book How Children Succeed is worth a read. It is about developing students with perseverance/grit.
    Marty Krovetz

  3. EDDIE you hit the nail right on the head , it is about having high expectations for our kids, there is no excuse not even the money, or not having enough money for education it is always about priorities and commitment from our education leaders ultimately they get to decide how the money gets spend and most times is not where it is more needed.
    our students deserved teacher who are there to teach and do their jobs not who are there to judge and segregated them with their pre-conceived notions of who should go to college. it is so sad to see how no expectations or low expectation many teachers, and administrators have for our kids. I am happy for the opportunity to have this forum

  4. Leo Cortez: Through my experience as a high school teacher in a rural area of Monterrey County, tracking was seen as the way to move students through the system. In the early 90’s the school received a grant from the state to “restructure” how the school delivered instruction to ALL students. The community gathered to share their opinion and ultimately in 1993 the school district instituted a block schedule for high school students, all students were “on track” for college prep courses, and the students had a choice of a 40 minute tutorial/enrichment which rotated T-W and student selection on Mondays and Fridays.
    I will pause here to provide some data on the student population. ~40% of the students were Latino with ~55% white and ~5% other (Asian & Black). The primary source of jobs is in the area is agriculture for both students and parents. The idea that children of farm workers could not achieve was embedded in the social fiber of the community.
    Back to my point. After teaching 4 years at that school the number of Latinos being accepted and attending a university outnumbered other students. Latino students attending a university became part of the day to day discussions in the artichoke and strawberry fields.
    How did this happened?
    First the superintendent of the district had the courage to provide a forum for parents to share what they wanted out of their schools. To the surprise of many educators in the district parents wanted higher expectations for their children, college prep instead of remedial courses, computer labs and summer school so students could get ahead or catch up in they were behind.
    The migrant Program further fueled this by aligning with the school and providing college prep workshops for parents, SAT prep courses for students, regular field trips to universities, and bringing back role models to talk about how they succeeded in college.
    Furthermore, the church put in place a program for students to use the community center as a homework center. The priest called out students from the audience to talk about college and would ask students to stand if they were attending college or if they had been accepted to college.
    In this community that is how expectations were changed, students rose to those higher expectations, parents demanded higher aspirations from their children and the school was recognized as a distinguished school and recommended for the national Blue Ribbon award.

    While there isn’t a silver bullet that will solve every problem there are threads in common. Leaders must face the reality and have the courage to step up to the plate and seek the voice of the stake holders. Together we can make a more lasting change and we have to have the courage to challenge our leaders to step up and initiate or encourage dialogue and action.
    I look forward to future threads for discussion.

  5. I’m for action by Educators, students,parents, and community partners to insure that we increase opportunities in all school systems for all kids.

    No talking; let’s do.

  6. Look, Eastside Eddie, the answer lies in your own experience. You’re successful, and you overcame, and thousands others have as well. Why didn’t Mr. Jones assess you correctly? While bias, cultural blindness, institutional nonsense and yes, even the “expectation gap”, and all the rest matter and need to be overcome, the sad fact is we have people in positions that are important that couldn’t spot the mass murderer from the achiever because they can’t spot or assess aptitude. And this is not taking into account knowledge, skill, and ability of the person being evaluated. My point is this: culturally relevancy is not as important as ability to spot individual attributes. Your own experience tells you this. You said you were not an especially outstanding student, but that you scored high on the SAT. Mr. Jones missed that? Did he not care? Was he being racist? Was he culturally blasé? Was he even trained in assess human potential?

    Let me be clear about my own experience…I’m so old that I’m an “affirmative action” baby. That’s right. What allowed me and thousands of others to get what was then an impossible dream for Latinos? Why is today different? I may not even be competitive in today’s world.

    It’s still about providing equal opportunity, plain and simple. But its also about making sure that educators know that they are in the human potential business, that they are assessing and selecting (God’s green earth is a limited system at the end of the day) for a better society and advancing opportunity. Individual attributes matter. What says you and your readers?

  7. Hope this finds you and yours well, Eddy. First and foremost, so glad to see your BLOG, and great discussions to bring education, Latinos, and succeeding forward in this uphill climb of educational evolvement. There are so many perspectives that can be brought to the table, but will be brief in my contributions to this discussion.

    Can students succeed? Yes
    Are there challenges that we face? Absolutely

    As a Latina from the Central Valley, knowing the importance of an educated mind was to be the only out from the fields of Huron and Mendota, during the holiday season, where I learned the Valley of hard work. The life-long works that I have been entrusted and have passion for is to empower, educate, and know the power of BELIEF in a student. From encountering adversities along the way these last 25 years of serving children, communities, and organizations, what I know is that one person CAN make a difference. Unfortunately, I have heard the same story all along the Central Valley, of teachers giving up before even giving HOPE. In working with diverse groups, where 97% live in poverty, gang infested, drug dealing neighborhoods, I have watched students rise and overcome in both rural and urban areas. There are many challenges indeed, budget cuts, programs cut, lack of parent involvements, student immigrants whose parents live out of country, the list goes on and on. But nonetheless, EVERY child/student deserves a high quality education. Have I witness insane student:teacher ratios at site visits, yes….I will never forget the one class that had 47 students to learn CORE English daily, while the Principal was busy eating doughnuts with Vice-Principal. Supplies not available, study trips cancelled, Districts penalized for not achieving, thus have to lose out on more funding the following year due to lack of attendance.

    Being an active voice as educator, public speaker, and consultant, I have encountered the challenges we are faced with and take it to the table everytime there is a chance to bring awareness, empower, and inspire our educators to keep setting high expectations for their students. Why? Because our students deserve it. Have I had charge over multiple sites of 700+ students, knowing the great challenge of teaching different levels and being responsible for their learning under adverse challenges? Yes. The difference is attitude and belief in a child to rise and overcome. I come from farming community, born and raised in Fresno and the outskirts, and had it not been for teachers, leaders, and mentors BELIEVING, I don’t think I would be where I am now in paying it forward. I had two sons that had unique needs…, cancer/amputee/coma survivor that I homeschooled 4 years before placing him back into public schools, the other son is gifted and talented and purposefully placed them in a low income, low achieving school because of the campus culture. The teachers were open, sensitive, understanding to the fact my boys had lived in hospitals, growing up in doctors offices for a couple years while my son had treatment. I know first hand and listen to the challenges parents, teachers, administrators, Boards face. However, that doesn’t mean we give up. It takes a community, so I took action, acquired grants, tapped into retirees, communities, etc…and changed communities/schools scores with a team that we led. It took a TEAM to get us out of Program Improvement, but we did it.

    The fingerpointing can go on in a cycle, its the parents fault, the teachers, the STATE, the funding stream, however ultimately, we have a choice. Do we quit? Do we rise up and continue on and come together and ask ourselves:
    1) Do we analyze what’s working?
    2) What hasn’t been done?
    3) What needs to change?
    4) What are new options?
    5) Who needs to be replaced?

    On one site I remember, I would meet daily with a core of troubled and labeled “misfits, doomed to fail” class of 20……I shared daily, how important they were, how incredibly talented they are, how they could change the world and their story. Guess what? Those same misfits have gone on to do great things. Why? In their own words, “You cared and I believed you. No one has done that for me.” Why in every speaking engagement I share those words with every audience, “The POWER of your words are everything. MAKE them count, use them well, and use them wisely in everything you do.”

    Will we see change in our lifetime? Maybe not. But at least I can rest my head knowing I made a difference today in the life of those who lead our children, those who impact our students, or students themselves but the work I do. And may be the next generation will pass on the words for the future.

    As for Latinos achieving through hardship and dedication, I agree with Eddie, POSSIBLE.
    As my youngest, is now soaring onward @Georgetown University-McDonough School of Business, and my eldest cancer/amputee overcomer is thriving in his junior year @ CSUF, and will apply to nursing school next semester. As for me, I am so grateful for the privilege of every moment I share to empower humanity, students, leaders, change agents, educators to reach for the stars with their goals, dreams, and soaring onward to success. It takes all of us, it takes a village. There was a village that was there for my family, now I can only pay it forward for others. So as I take the stage on campus at Georgetown Univeristy’s Going Global Women’s Business Conference on social/global/economic/education in a couple of weeks, you bet I am going to address the audience that there is still more work to do for our Latinos/Latinas, but I will celebrate all those who have made it there and to ensure that they never give up.

    I can only do this because educators believed in me along the way and encouraged a humble Latina to dream. I am so thankful for those educators that paved the way. I take our California heart with me wherever I go to ensure that our voices are heard. Each of your voices are what inspires me to continue to BE the change.

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