Last week, I wrote about California’s Latino student population becoming the majority in the state and how education policymakers have historically struggled to educate them by focusing more on social and political solutions rather than academic rigor. The result is that most Latinos still work in low-paying service jobs. I concluded the post by rhetorically asking, “Could it be that the mindset of our school systems is that Latinos should be working in service and support roles?”
A couple of readers, both educators, responded with well-reasoned comments. They mentioned the lack of professional Latino role models, student apathy toward academic achievement, and the social challenges faced by today’s digital world. Self-motivated students do well one reader wrote, “it is those in the middle and below that we are fighting against cultural, societal, and self imposed limitations.”
It’s the students “in the middle and below” that have been collateral damage to policies that rely on social and political solutions. High standards, tools to achieve them, and high expectations form the foundation of Latino student success. In recent years, we’ve seen positive change in raising standards and providing resources. One reader was on target by writing, “I believe the challenge is getting students to believe that they are NOT limited to those [low-wage service and support] roles.”
What are those “cultural, societal, and self imposed limitations” the reader mentions in his comments? What causes them and how can school systems overcome them?
My friend Linda Ortega, a retired educator, recently posted a video on Facebook that shines a light on how cultural and societal representations of people of color impact children. The video shows young Black kids evaluating the value of white and black dolls solely based on color. Their answers are predictably disturbing: the white doll is good and black doll is bad.
(To see the video go to: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0mPtHpgjEP8)
Cultural images of Latinos are similar, so one could argue that the resulting negative effect is the same for Latino students. In the mainstream media, Latinos are portrayed as tattooed gangsters, illicit drug traders, domestic workers, gardeners, and Spanish-speaking undocumented immigrants. Given these images, it’s understandable that all but the most motivated students impose limitations on themselves and don’t do the hard work that’s necessary for academic success.
The cultural and societal representations of Latinos also impact the expectations of educators and school systems. School board members, administrators, teachers, counselors, and school support staff also see the same portrayals of Latinos in the media. Former California State Superintendent of Schools Jack O’Connell called this phenomenon the “expectation gap.” Despite his recommendations to address this gap, little has been done about it at the policymaking level.
So how do we as a society overcome these cultural and self-imposed academic limitations on Latino students? First of all, we need to talk about it. We should have what educational equity experts call a “courageous conversation” about how race impacts our school systems and students of color. This is difficult to do in an era when people don’t want to acknowledge that race is still a barrier to achievement. The video that Linda Ortega shared proves that we’re not even close yet.
Once we have that “courageous conversation,” school systems may better understand why many Latino students truly believe that they are limited to the roles portrayed in the media and that educators unwillingly may perpetuate that expectation. Many Latino professionals I meet during my travels recount stories of teachers and counselors with good intentions encouraging them to seek opportunities in the trades and the service industries.
In California, the governor has changed the funding mechanism to provide schools with more dollars to better serve its students. School boards and administrators are rushing to upgrade technology and infuse teacher development funds for the Common Core, the latest one-size-fits-all social and political solution to academic achievement woes. Despite higher standards and increased funding, our state is headed down the same road unless we truly change what we expect from over half our students.
Education policymakers at the school district level need to invest in raising the expectations of Latino students through systematic and comprehensive educational equity and culturally relevant teacher training, as recommended by former State Superintendent O’Connell over five years ago. This will help resolve the challenge of “getting students to believe that they are NOT limited to those [low-wage service and support] roles” described by a reader of this blog.
It could be generations before the mainstream media and society change their perceptions about the largest growing community in the United States. That’s why our education systems are so important in effecting change and preparing the next generation of breadwinners and leaders. Maintaining a large and permanent underclass in the nation’s biggest state doesn’t bode well for our future.
Education policymakers can take the first courageous step by investing in systematic change in their perceptions of Latino students. Only then can Latino academic achievement begin to reach the levels necessary for our state’s future success. I hope to hear from readers on this as I continue the conversation next week.