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?