Bridging the High School and College Achievement Gap for Hispanics – It All Begins at Home

According to the Pew Hispanic Center’s study Between Two Worlds: How Young Latinos Come of Age in America, Educational Expectations and Attainment (surveying Hispanics 16 years old and older), the high school dropout rate among Latino youths (17 percent) is nearly three times as high as it is among White youths (6 percent) and nearly double the rate among Blacks (9 percent). Nearly all Latino youths (89 percent) – Pew indicates that the term “youths” refers to 16- to 25-year-olds – and older adults (88 percent) agree with the statement that a college degree is important for getting ahead in life. However, just under half of Latinos ages 18 to 25 say they plan to get a college degree. The headline to explain this disconnect is that nearly 75 percent of young Hispanics (age 16 to 25) cite a lack of money as a major impediment to choosing to complete higher school or pursue higher education. But looking behind the headline tells another story. As in most instances, the devil is in the details. The same study notes that about half the respondents cite poor English skills.

If language is a barrier to academic achievement for today’s high school student, the question that has to be asked is why and how schools can remove this obstacle to closing the achievement gap between Hispanic and White students. This Pew study examines how parental influence impacts student behavior and academic achievement in the Hispanic home. The inescapable inference to explain why 50 percent of Hispanics cite “poor English skills” as a deterrent to finishing high school or going on to college could be a lack of immersion and practice. And it starts in the home.
According to Pew, “The way today’s young Latinos choose to describe themselves is linked to a series of identity and cultural signals they received from their parents. Young Latinos are more likely than older Latinos to say their parents socialized them more with a Hispanic focus than an American focus. Six in 10 (60 percent) of young Latinos say their parents often encouraged them to speak Spanish, and less than half (47 percent) of older Latinos say that. At the same time, just 22 percent of young Latinos say their parents often encouraged them to speak only English, and more than a third (34 per-cent) of older Latinos say the same.
These differences in parental encouragement of language use persist even when controlling for immigrant status. Young native-born Latinos are more likely than older native-born Latinos to have been encouraged often by their parents to speak Spanish – 51 percent vs. 40 percent. Among the foreign born, more than eight in 10 (84 percent) of young immigrant Latinos say their parents often encouraged them to speak Spanish, and only about seven in 10 (69 per-cent) of older immigrant Latinos say the same.
The survey also finds that “today’s older Latinos report being raised by their parents with a stronger sense of pride in being American than today’s younger Latinos report receiving from their parents. Nearly four in 10 (39 percent) Latinos ages 26 and older say their parents talked often about their pride in being American; fewer than three in 10 (29 percent) young Latinos (ages 16 to 25) say the same.”
But limited English does nothing to quell the desire for education or diminish its importance. According to the 2009 National Survey of Latinos, a whopping 97 percent of young Hispanics who are Spanish-language dominant rate a college education as important compared to 89 percent and 83 percent of bilingual and English-language youths. And while many of their parents encourage them to speak Spanish at home, these same parents view college as very important for their children’s success. More than three-quarters (77 percent) of Hispanic youths surveyed said that their parents believe going to college is the most important thing for them to do after they complete high school. That contrasts with just 11 percent of their parents who believe the most important thing for them to do after high school is to get a full-time job.

But that’s where the numbers break down. Hispanic high school students and their families might value a college education, but Hispanic youths tend to set the bar lower for themselves, personally. Just 48 percent say they expect to get a college degree or more, compared with 60 percent of the overall U.S. population of non-Hispanic youths.
Here again, there is a significant gap that appears between Hispanic youths who are Spanish-language dominant and those who are bilingual or Hispanic English-language dominant. About one-quarter (24 percent) of Hispanic Spanish-dominant youths say they plan to earn a bachelor’s degree or higher while about half (49 percent) of bilingual Hispanic youths and more than six in 10 (62 percent) of Hispanic English-dominant youths share that ambition. Similarly, more than four in 10 (41 percent) of Hispanic Spanish-dominant youths say they have no further plans to continue in school after high school while 20 percent of bilingual Hispanic youths and 13 percent of Hispanic English-dominant youths feel the same way.
While nearly 75 percent of all Hispanic youth survey respondents who dropped out of the education system during or immediately upon graduation from high school report they did so because they had to pitch in financially to support their family, the other reasons cited include poor English skills (about 50 percent) and “a dislike of school and a feeling that they don’t need more education for the careers they want” (each cited by about 40 percent of Hispanic youth respondents). The survey explains, “In 2007, 29 percent of all immigrant female Hispanics ages 16 to 25 were mothers, compared with 17 percent of native-born female Hispanics and 12 percent of White females. In addition, nearly two-thirds (64 percent) of all immigrant Hispanics ages 18 to 25 say they send remittances to family members in their country of origin ... and just 21 percent of their U.S.-born counterparts.”
Hispanics 16 to 24 and 25 and older have differing opinions about why the rate of Hispanic academic success does not measure up favorably in some categories to that of their non-Hispanic colleagues. Older Hispanics tend to lay the blame at the feet of the parents, poor English skills and the students themselves. Interestingly enough, older Hispanics don’t take teachers or schools as much to task for poor performance and a lack of follow through on education goals such as finishing high school or going on to further education. Overall, 38 percent of respondents think Hispanic students don’t work as hard as their fellow non-Hispanic students and see this as the major cause of the achievement gap between Hispanic and non-Hispanic students.
Parents take a major hit from older Hispanics in this regard. Of Hispanics polled who were 26 years and up, 61 percent gave parents a failing grade when it came to playing an active role in the academic success of their children. They cite that as the major reason for the lackluster academic performance of Hispanics in high school and in college.
When the survey isolated the Hispanic youth response to this, less than half of those polled (47 percent) agreed with their older counter-parts. Some vehemently defend their parents. As
one 21-year-old Hispanic male put it, “Our parents are exhausted every time they come home. They don’t have time to be ‘oh you need help with your homework?’” Another 15-year-old Hispanic student points out how the economic times of crisis complicate the issue. “Parents expect so much and it gets ... overwhelming. You have to support your family and take care of your brothers and sisters. ... some people gotta grow up, and basically never really have a childhood.”
Older Hispanics see English-language skills as more critical than the Hispanic youth do. Nearly 60 percent of Hispanics over 26 say the limited English skills of Hispanic students is a major reason for their education achievement gap, but just 43 per-cent of Hispanic youths agree. As the survey points out, “Older Latinos are also more likely than young Latinos to say Hispanic students not working as hard as other students is a major reason that Hispanics students are not doing as well in school as other students – 41 percent versus 31 percent. Immigrant young Latinos are about as likely as adult Latinos to blame parents, the English skills of Hispanic students, and student themselves for the poor academic performance of Hispanic students.

For example, 62 percent of immigrant youths say parents of Hispanics students are a major reason that Hispanic students do not do as well in school as others, similar to the share (61 percent) of older Latinos who say the same.”
And it has become a generational divide for Hispanics. According to the survey, “Foreign-born young Latinos are more likely than second- or third-generation young Latinos to identify parents, the English skills of Hispanic students, teachers, and Hispanics students themselves for the poor performance of Hispanics students relative to other groups. More than half (51 percent) of immigrant young Latinos say that Hispanic students not working as hard as others is a major reason that Hispanic students do not do as well in school as others. This is more than twice the share (22 per-cent) of second-generation young Latinos, and nearly five times the share (11 percent) of third-generation young Latinos who say the same.”
One thing that everyone can agree on is that parental involvement is an important tool for narrowing the achievement gap for high school Hispanics. It might, in fact, be the best tool we have.

Theory into Practice

When it comes to encouraging more Hispanics to finish high school and attend some form of higher education, it’s all hands on deck. The stakes are too high to allow the education gap between the White population and Latino population to continue or grow. It will take, however, a concerted effort to establish an education partnership with Hispanic parents to reverse course. Here are tools recommended in a Tomás Rivera Policy Institute (TRPI) report, Understanding Latino Parental Involvement in Education: Perceptions, Expectations and Recommendations by María Estela Zarate, Ph.D., assistant professor, University of California-Irvine, for policymakers, schools and teachers, whom it says can make a difference.

TRPI’s Recommendations for Policymakers and Schools:

  • On a state level and federal level there should be a way to measure the involvement of parents in school matters surrounding their children, and that involvement should be quantified and made public.
  • There needs to be a commitment, through legislation if necessary, by local businesses and employers to allow parents and guardians to be available for reasonable school activities such as conferences, open houses and parent-teacher meetings.
  • While a greater effort has been made over the years to make sure vital information is provided in Spanish as well as English to students and their parents, there is no substitute for greater Spanish-language fluency among the staff and administration of schools to give parents a greater comfort level in academic settings. More active recruitment of Spanish-speaking staff is needed, according to this report.
  • Some part of local, state or federal education funding should be devoted to developing English literacy, language and computer skills of parents who only speak Spanish in the home. In this era of underfunding and budget cuts, this is a hard sell but would pay great dividends if it results in higher Hispanic achievement in schools.
  • Just as schools develop curricula and lesson plans, they need to come up with goals for increasing parental involvement for all students, particularly Hispanics. These goals should be delineated and made public, along with providing objective means to measure the success or failure of the plan to reach those goals.
  • There should be a heightened sensitivity in scheduling school events and activities that would benefit parents and parents’ participation in schools so that they are planned for days and times most convenient for working parents. Teachers and staff should be in some way recognized for extra efforts in this regard. As the report stated, “Flexible meeting times place demands on teachers and counselors and need to be recognized in the distribution of class or student load.”
  • Parents need their own space in their children’s school. A classroom, an office, a conference room can be converted to become a welcoming place for parents to assemble. It can be used for parent get-togethers, English classes and naturalization workshops, for example. It should be available some evenings and weekends.
  • Schools should be in touch with parents for positive as well as negative developments in their children’s academic development. When a note goes home or the phone rings, a parent should not feel it’s a foregone conclusion that their child is in trouble. Good news encourages parental involvement.