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The Tragic Ways Our Schools Shortchange Latino Students

Latino families have the highest workplace participation rates in the country. Yet few of their kids end up graduating from college. Why?

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This week’s edition of Destination Casa Blanca looked at all these questions and more; about the Obama Administration’s initiatives in education, uniform national standards, whether or not education is underfunded, charter schools and the depressing numbers for Latinos in colleges and universities.

Though the guests came from different ideological perspectives, the discussion wasn’t as divisive as it would have been in earlier decades. Left, right and center share more agreement than you might realize about what has to happen in education, especially when it comes to lifting up low-performing schools and doing better by the lowest-performing students. It was a somber and still hopeful discussion; I urge you to listen to excerpts at

This is a time of breathtaking experimentation in American schools. The hard thing for me to handle is what happens to individual age cohorts when one new approach or another doesn’t pan out. So, the experiment didn’t work; do you get to be in 5th grade again? Do you take the risk of falling behind peers elsewhere when a standardized test is coming down the pike that may bring heavy judgment down on your teachers and their bosses?

For a long time, we haven’t had a culture of education in this country that simply states from the beginning the unremarkable proposition that not every kid learns every discipline at the same speed and with the same proficiency. We have long organized elementary and secondary education around the idea that unless an eighth grader masters eighth grade math, eighth grade reading and eighth grade science, they will either be in the eighth grade next year, or the ninth. There’s very little room for individual response to individual needs in that approach. Granted, it would be hard to place a boy or girl at the age of most eighth graders in sixth grade English, ninth grade math, and seventh grade science, even if testing told us that would be the most appropriate way to respond to a kid’s individual strengths and weaknesses.

So what we get instead is a system that operates by the conceit that most kids, most of the time, master most of the subject matter for most grades, so that most students finish high school around the same age — no matter what they really know. Professors who teach young undergrads have been telling me for years that they have been trying to teach a demanding syllabus in classes for freshmen and sophomores to students simply not prepared for the rigors of college work.

So what’s the right response? Relax college standards? Keep them high and push accountability back down onto the high schools? Let high school be as long as it needs to in order to educate young adults to tough standards, even if it means not graduating with your peers?

As a public school kid, married to a public school kid, who has raised a family of public school kids, I find the answers that have been given me for many years now are unsatisfactory. The answers just don’t match the realities faced by more than 40 million students between kindergarten and the end of high school.

We should be running around like the school building is on fire, because it is. And the consequences stretch out from today for decades to come.

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