The Latino Decade Is Here…Now what?

Speaking at Gavilan Community College
Speaking at Gavilan Community College

I was invited a couple of weeks ago to be the featured speaker at the Enhance Your Potential Conference hosted by Gavilan Community College.  The conference included workshops on practical skills to provide students with tools to navigate through college and the competitive job market. My role for the conference was to give a motivational talk about the value of a college education and the limitless opportunities available to those with a degree.

I was rehearsing my prepared remarks on my morning walk through the neighborhood when I was pleasantly surprised to hear norteño style Mexican music blaring from a house.  Since it was home to an Indo-American family, I was confused until I saw Latino workers inside. On the drive to Gavilan College, I stopped at a McDonalds drive-thru for a Diet Coke.  The young woman who took my order was Latina as was the older woman who gave me the soda.

A group of about 70 undergraduates attended my talk at the conference; about three-quarters of the students were Latino.  After the speech, on my way back to San Jose, I heard Latina megastar Shakira singing on a easy-listening radio station. I started reflecting on how every ten years since the 1980s demographers proclaim that we’re living in the “Decade of the Latino.” Given that Latinos and Latino culture was all around me that day, it appears that the Latino Decade has arrived In California.

What does that mean?  Now what do we do?

The Pew Hispanic Research Center estimates that there are 14.3 million Latinos statewide, which represents a plurality (39%) of the Golden State’s population. A more telling number is that over half of the state’s 12 million students are Latino, according to the California Department of Education. Latinos are part of everyday life in California and come from every sector of our community. This means that a whole bunch of us live in California.

Before racist fear-mongers prepare to fight a Latino revolution or old-school Chicanos call for a coup, let’s look at the reality that, despite the massive shift in demographics, most Latinos still work at low-wage service and administrative support jobs. This isn’t good news for California’s future. Public policy analysts have been warning for years that the state can’t sustain itself if more than half of the population is undereducated and absent from civic life.

So, what do we do about this? First and foremost, we must provide access to a quality education for all students, including the 50-plus percent who are Latino. Unfortunately, state policymakers have historically failed to do this. During the 1930s, 40s, 50s, educators sought to “Americanize” Latinos by teaching valuable skills like eating bacon, eggs, and toast for breakfast instead of chorizo, beans, and tortillas. I’m not making this stuff up.

In the 60s and 70s, the Chicano Movement took hold and forced school systems to realize that Americanization wasn’t working. Bilingual education became all the rage in California schools throughout the 70s and 80s. There was one major problem with this, most Latino children were born and reared in the United States and grew up speaking English. The watered down bilingual curriculum was devoid of academic rigor.

When Mexican immigration increased during the 80s, Ron Unz and his entitled Silicon Valley chums thought ridding the state of Spanish altogether was the solution. Voters passed his state initiative banning bilingual education and education policymakers were again scratching their heads. English as a Second Language (ESL) was the answer, they thought. Forget math, science, and history.  Immersing students in English for the entire school day will prepare them for the 21th century.

The state’s response to educating Latino students has always been based on political and social practices, rather than academics. Americanization, bilingual education, and ESL all left out the most important factor of a quality education: high academic standards. Each one of these movements places the responsibility entirely on the socialization of the student and not the practices of the system. If students just assimilated to “our” ways, the thinking has been, they would be smarter.

Most experts agree that a quality education is multi-dimensional.  High academic standards, well-trained teachers, high expectations, and parent involvement form the cornerstones for academic achievement. Traditionally, schools with large Latino populations lack one or more of these cornerstones, thus access to a quality education is difficult. That’s starting to change in Silicon Valley.

The East Side Union High, San Jose Unified, and Palo Alto Unified school districts have all raised graduation requirements to meet college entrance eligibility and the state plans to spend $1.25 billion dollars training teachers in the recently approved Common Core Standards. Parent involvement is also increasing and these school districts have active Latino parents groups. Missing are high expectations for Latino students.

A 2009 State Superintendent of Schools report on closing the academic achievement gap recommends that high expectations, educational equity, and culturally relevant teacher training should be included in schools’ approach to educating Latino students. However, little has been done to implement this recommendation. Could it be that the mindset of our school systems is that Latinos should be working in service and support roles? If so, why? Could we even change that mindset? Look for more on this next week.

4 thoughts on “The Latino Decade Is Here…Now what?

  1. I don’t believe the educational system believes that the roles of latinos is limited to working in the service and support roles. In fact, I believe the challenge is getting students to believe that they are NOT limited to those roles. It’s not to say that those jobs aren’t important but it seems that since so many are in those roles now, many students feel those jobs are their ONLY future. They see those latinos who have “made it” as the exception to the rule. I am speaking mainly about those students in the middle, the ones that aren’t the highest or lowest achievers but can easily be pushed one way or the other, or neither. Few choose to find out how or take the time to work harder and move into that higher learning category. It’s “too much work” or “too hard” and they quit, despite the many resources schools now have to offer them. They don’t want to take time away from what I call the “Four Fs” (friends, family, fun, and to some extent, more importantly, their phones!) Social media and cell phones has become really the biggest problem with student learning over the past 5 years. But that is another issue. Reaching the top students and convincing them that they can be successful is not hard. It is those in the middle and below that we are fighting against cultural, societal, and self imposed limitations on their future occupational lives.

    1. David, Thanks for your comments. I think they’re right on target, especially when you say, “I believe the challenge is getting students to believe that they are NOT limited to those roles.” Also, I agree that the “middle” 80% are the target students. I will write on these topics for the next several weeks, so please keep sharing your thoughts. Thanks again!

  2. As a former educator in NYC and a product of Eastside schools, I can experiences from two unique sides. There are several issues in the education of Latino. Yes, the standards, especially in the elementary grades, are way too low and especially when it comes to the exposure to solid and fun STEM education. There is a real problem when much of the curriculum is dictated by an an annual assessment test. It has been shown time and time again that Latino students do not test well and part of the issue is not lack of knowledge, but merely that they do not understand test psychology. The curriculum for math and science is less rigorous in the US than in other parts of the world, such as the Dominican Republic. In NYC I used to get students from this country who were 3 years ahead in math and science concepts they had learned in 3rd grade and we were barely covering them in the NYC at the 6th grade level. There is way too much time wasted in the elementary grades on what I call fluff and not enough substance. I remember my 5th and 6th grade class asking me when we were going to have time for coloring and I almost fell off my chair when I heard this. I got written up once for teaching my students the proper way to learn contractions, since they had no sense of grammar rules. This was the result of whole language. It is the lack of information and power over their own knowledge that makes Latino students insecure and go into a mindset they cannot handle more complex subjects. On another occasion I got written up for refusing to publish student’s work, on our outside class board, that had mistakes. No one had taught them the editing process that takes place in order to publish work. This was exactly what I used to experience as a student in East San Jose. My fellow students who did not grasp the concepts fast enough were deemed not very bright and this was something they started believing. I do not believe that Palo Alto children are smarter than Eastside children, but there is the standard, especially in the early grades, that students’ weaknesses must be addressed early, even if it takes several approaches until they have mastered those subjects.

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