Latino Thursdays: Do We Care About School?

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NEWS FLASH: Latinos DO Value Education

As the old saying goes, if I had a dollar for every time someone told me that Latino families don’t value education, I’d be a rich man.

During my four years serving on the high school board of trustees, the immediate response to any innovative idea on how to improve Latino educational achievement and attainment started with the “fact” that getting a higher education just wasn’t Latinos’ cup of tea.

These comments came from credible sources like school administrators, teachers and counselors, usually non-Latinos and a sprinkling of their Latino colleagues. The latter group’s worldview is puzzling to me and opens the door to an entirely different blog subject. We’ll leave that for another time.

I checked with the experts to make sure that I wasn’t imagining things. A pair of researchers from the University of New Mexico and the University of Massachusetts has studied these issues extensively. In their 2004 book on the topic, Professors Nancy Lopez and Raul Ybarra wrote, “non-Latino academics often refer to traditional family values as serious barriers that prevent access into higher education.”

According to Lopez and Ybarra, non-Latino academics claim that the rate of college attainment is “unlikely to change as Latino families value 2-year career-only degrees over a higher (four-year university) education.” The Latino professors rightly question the validity of this perception. I’d also like to know where the data is to support these broad statements. I couldn’t find anything.

To answer the question, the nationally-renowned Pew Hispanic Center went out and surveyed Latino families in 2009. Here’s what the survey said: 89% of Latinos agree that a college degree is important for getting ahead in life, 77% of Latino students ages 16-25 say their parents think going to college is the most important thing to do after high school, and just 11% say their parents think getting a full-time job after high school is important.

So there it is, straight from the caballo’s mouth. We do value education. So, what gives? Why does the data show that Latinos care about education, yet test scores and college attainment and completion rates continue to lag behind non-Latino counterparts?

The answers are no doubt complex. Academia and education policymakers will surely debate the merits of competing strategies on how to solve this problem for decades to come. In the meantime, education leaders need to find the courage to confront the misguided stereotypes and assumptions that create barriers for 89% of Latino students and 77% of their parents who want to take the college route. That way, we can get past assumptions and get to solutions.

Latino parents also have to get off the sidelines and participate in their children’s education. I know that could be intimidating. As long as the stereotypes and the obstacles they create persist, parents will continue to feel unwelcome. But we have to do it for our kids. Get to know teachers, go to back-to-school nights, attend after-school activities, volunteer, join the PTA. If we show the school system that educating our children is important to us, it will become important to them.

The good news is that that there’s solid evidence that the myth of Latinos not valuing education is just that, a myth. Once educators acknowledge and erase the negative images and parents get into the game, Latino students will be able to fully participate and benefit from the education system. The bad news is that I won’t become rich anytime soon. But that’s okay with me.

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