2011 – A Look Forward

Latino students today are facing a K-12 education system that serves many of them poorly and often isn’t doing that well for anybody else, by the sound of things. And when K-12 doesn’t do its job, students often don’t make it to college – or are ill-prepared if they do get there.

A recent report by ACE, the American Council on Education, on minorities in higher education shows Hispanic college enrollment gains that are encouraging but far, far less than those of Whites.

Still, these are improvements. The national high school graduation rate inched up 3 percent between 2002 and 2008 – to 75 percent. Andrew Rotherman reports at Time.com that 29 states improved their high school graduation rates over those years and that two, Wisconsin and Vermont, reached nearly 90 percent. But graduation rates in Arizona, Nevada and Utah “slid noticeably in the wrong direction.” All three states have a growing, even soaring, Hispanic population, though an estimated 100,000 Latinos are believed to have left Arizona since the passage of its controversial SB 1070.

Rotherman writes that the number of “dropout factories” – high schools that graduate fewer than 60 percent of their students – is shrinking. There were 1,746 in 2008, down 261 schools over six years. At that rate, though, it would take another 40 years for all high schools to be graduating just 60 percent or more of their students. And there is a persistent racial/ethnic achievement gap. “Only 64 percent of Hispanic students and 62 percent of African-Americans graduated in 2008 while 81 percent of White students did.”

Rotherman, co-founder and partner in Bellwether Education, a nonprofit “working to improve educational outcomes for low-income students,” is quoting a new report out of Johns Hopkins, Building a Grad Nation, which calls for a “Civic Marshall Plan.”

The report is a collaborative effort of Hopkins with two nonprofits, America’s Promise Alliance and Civic Enterprises.

The Grad Nation authors told Rotherman “they are worried that the volatile political environment in many states, coupled with almost 700 new state legislators and 29 new governors entering office in 2011, could make it harder to push through needed reforms.”

We’re worried too.

Have No Illusions

Tom Friedman, Pulitzer Prize-winning foreign affairs columnist for The New York Times, calls the U.S. Department of Education “the epicenter of national security,” noting that U.S. students are “tied for ninth in the world in college attainment.” He cites a speech by Education Secretary Arne Duncan in November that included an even more alarming finding, by retired generals and admirals, that “75 percent of young Americans between the ages of 17 and 24 are unable to enlist in the military today because they have failed to graduate from high school, have a criminal record, or are physically unfit.”

The bad news, writes Friedman, “is that for years we’ve been getting out-educated. The good news is that cities, states and the federal government are all fighting back. But have no illusions. We’re in a hole.” Let’s hope he’s right about the fighting back part.

In his book The World Is Flat, 2006 edition, Friedman notes several times that it is foreignborn parents who press American schoolteachers for more homework – and more challenging homework – for their kids, just one of many of the book’s unrelenting examples of non- Americans being more competitive, more committed, more hardworking, more impassioned. And more likely to inherit the leadership role we’re losing. Or have lost.

The Mortenson Perspective

Thomas Mortenson, editor and publisher of the monthly research letter, Postsecondary Education Opportunity, and senior scholar of the Pell Institute for the Study of Opportunity in Higher Education, in Washington, has won several awards for his reporting on the contrast between “the articulated ideals of the United States with respect to educational opportunity – and the reality facing low-income students.” He has been tracking this contrast for decades. And he doesn’t pull his punches.

In early November, right after the elections, we reached Mortenson in Houston, where he was working as a consultant to the Aldine school district, which has a student population that is 60 percent Hispanic. We suggested that the situation for Latino students appears rather grim, based on present economics in particular. And that a recent ACE report covering minorities over 10 years concludes that Latino achievement for the “traditional’ age group has largely flatlined, and even dipped for some.

Here’s what he had to say:

“I agree that the higher education opportunity picture is grim for Hispanic students, just as it is for all students from lower-income families. Let me make a couple of separate comments based on data.

“I see Hispanic students making slow progress in gaining the higher education needed to be economically successful in what is now a global Human Capital Economy. I base this on my usual source, which is the Census Bureau’s data on educational attainment. See Table A-3 in the historical statistics at this url, particularly the data for 25- to 29-year-olds:  http://www.census. gov/hhes/socdemo/education/data/cps/historical/ index.html.

“But these data lag far behind the majority population. And the country as a whole is dropping like a rock in the OECD rankings of higher education attainment of the next generation of workers.

“My interpretation is that our many currentfailures in higher education are the direct consequence of the regressive policy choices we have been making since 1980. At the state level, states have been brutally retrenching their investment efforts in higher education for three decades, shifting the costs of higher education from taxpayers to students without regard to the growing lowincome populations in their K-12 and higher education systems. The federal government has moved away from need-based grants, first to education loans and more recently to tax credits, neither of which serve students from low-income families.

“I have reported our analysis of financial barriers to higher education extensively and thoroughly in past issues of my research letter. These financial barriers are limited to students from the bottom half of the family income distribution, below about $68K per year (2008). The financial barrier metrics include unmet financial need, student work-loan burden, and net price to family. All of these have been growing, rapidly, between 1990 and 2008, for students from the bottom half of the income distribution, using data from the
National Postsecondary Student Aid Study.

“The consequences of these public policy failures are borne almost entirely by students who were born into low-income families. I see the consequences, and report them whenever fresh data appear, not in access but more so in choice and completion data. The students are  trying. But the system is failing them.

“Based on the elections this week, I do not see any light on these problems in the future. We just do not seem to care. And the consequences of not caring are evident in our fractured economic, political and social fabrics.

“As Pogo said: ‘We have met the enemy and he is us.’”

Immigrant Students

“There is growing evidence,” writes Pedro A. Noguera, “that immigrant youth are susceptible to a variety of hardships and pressures that many adults, including their parents, do not fully understand.” These include feeling “caught between two worlds” and arriving “without have experienced formal education in their countries of origin nor literacy in their native language, Spanish.” Citing Laurie Olsen, author of Made in America, he writes: “Those interested in supporting Latino immigrant youth and their families must at the minimum demonstrate a capacity to understand the difficult choices transnational families face.”

Noguera is the Peter L. Agnew Professor of Education at New York University, executive director of the Metropolitan Center for Urban Education, and co-director of the Institute for the Study of Globalization and Education in Metropolitan Settings.

His article on Latino immigrant students and their prospects, published in In Motion Magazine, March 2006, cites relevant points developed in his own research and that of Gary Orfield and Susan Eaton, Alma Flor Ada, Alejandro Portes and Rubén G. Rumbaut, David E. Hayes-Bautista, Marcelo Suárez-Orozco and Mariela M. Páez, Grace Kao and Marta Tienda, and others over several decades. Its purpose, he writes, is to help educators find ways to ease these students’ adjustment to “this strange and often hostile land.”

Noguera suggests that the situation for Latino immigrants is very different than it was for Irish, Jews, Italians and others who were initially denounced as ethnically inferior but, over generations, accepted as “full-fledged white Americans.” Latinos are “the ethnic group least likely to be unemployed, but most likely to be impoverished.” Latino youth are the mostly likely to be in a school segregated “not only by race but by class,” “more likely to be arrested and incarcerated than white youth, more likely to have children as teenagers, less likely to graduate from college.” And in big cities where they are a majority of the school-age population “disproportionately consigned to schools that are overcrowded, underfunded and woefully inadequate” in quality.

“In short, if the old adage that the youth are our future is correct, then current trends suggest that the Latino population in the U.S. is in deep trouble.”

And yet – about 65,000 recent high school graduates are “undocumented” immigrant Latinos, some of them class valedictorians, some welcomed at top universities. Some of the bravest are pressing for passage of the DREAM Act so they might attend college with the same status as their classmates, forge a path to legal citizenship, and be legally employed in the U.S. They have put themselves at great risk by going public, marching many miles, becoming the leaders they too often did not find to plead their case.

And indeed Noguera takes note of several positive elements of immigrant Hispanic students. “Most are characterized as well behaved, courteous and deferential toward adults.” More important, “Like their parents, many Latino immigrant youth have the drive, the work ethic and the persistence to take advantage of opportunities that come their way. And unlike so many urban youth, they have the will and determination to find a way to improve the circumstances in which they live.”

Here, then, are potential leaders of Latinos and others who might have lost their way.

What Will It Take?

Research by the Pew Hispanic Center, the Tomás Rivera Policy Institute and others confirms that Hispanic parents of all income levels and backgrounds want their children to have a college education. As much so or more than parents in other groups. Research also confirms that lack of familiarity with how to get them there is a sizable stumbling block. And so is the reliance of many lower-income Hispanic families on money earned by high school and college-age children. A lot is known and shared already about what it takes to attract and engage students. More is being learned about enabling them to persist to graduation.

The Obama administration has substantially increased federal aid to education and particularly to low-income students. But not enough to compensate for the decades of regressive state and federal policies described by Tom Mortenson and unlikely to change for the better under the incoming Congress.

Entities such the Bill & Melinda Gates and Lumina foundations, National Council of La Raza, Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund, ASPIRA, LatinoJustice; PRLDEF, and the dozens of nonprofits new and old that are committed to education equity will be providing resources and lending a hand, to be sure. But they will need an unprecedented amount of grass-roots support to get Hispanic students where they need to be. In truth, all students need this help, given the ground already lost in American competitiveness. 

Latinos are a growing population with a long tradition of concern for family and community. A long tradition of travel, sacrifice and hard work to earn a living. Many also have a passion for the justice often denied them here and in their countries of origin. When these traditions are combined with effective, broad political activism – ¡Sí, se puede!