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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?

Latino families have the highest workplace participation rates in the country. In most recent years, they have worked more hours per week than other Americans. Their median family income is higher than that of Black families, but only because they tend to have more adults working in each household. The largest single barrier to getting ahead in America for Latino families is education.

All the measurements point to a people willing to work, and work hard. But, fewer Latinos finish high school, of the group that finishes, fewer make the jump to college and of those that begin college, fewer earn a four year degree than other Americans. In the short term, it means fewer Latinos making the jump into a secure place in the middle class. Over the long haul, it means something far scarier: less accumulation of wealth, less ability to transfer wealth between generations and in decades to come, a significant part of the population under-performing economically.

That ugly future for Latinos in America will mean more for the country with each succeeding decade as their presence moves from a little more than one in seven to about one in three by midcentury. I have been visiting public schools as a reporter for many years and as a parent for the past 17 years. I have been perplexed through all those years by the inability of our kids to move ahead. I have long since come to the conclusion that parts of  blame belong in a lot of different places.

Latino students are heavily concentrated in some of the biggest school districts in the United States, including LA Unified, New York City, Chicago, Houston and Miami-Dade. To a degree, geography is destiny. In older cities, like Chicago and New York, Latino kids tend to attend schools that are heavily segregated and in the oldest, poorest neighborhoods. These kids walk out the front door of some of the worst housing in their cities and head to some of the oldest active school buildings in their cities. Concentrated poverty yields a student body that needs more of everything and simply doesn’t have it: the children come from homes where parents tend to have few years of schooling, where there are few books and few opportunities for language enrichment beyond watching television.

In school districts that educate a big chunk of the Latino population, the best, most experienced, most talented teachers can use their years of service to bid out of the worst schools. Heavily Latino schools tend to have, on average, fewer experienced teachers, even though the schools have some of the hardest and most challenging work to do in American education. It’s a terrible mismatch.

Outside the big urban districts, Latino school kids are clustered in places where one of the chief funding sources for education is property taxes.  We as a country have decided, the kids who come from homes where English is less likely spoken, or spoken well, where adults have short school careers, where kids are already lagging in standardized testing in the early grades of elementary school,  will have their educations paid for by  meager taxes paid on low-cost housing. How much smarter babies in high income families were to choose to be born to mothers who live in very expensive homes.

Latino parents who acquired much of their education in another country, or were not successful students during their own childhoods, are not rushing to local public schools to turn them around. They have told me they don’t feel welcome in the school building. They’ve talked of feeling awkward and out of place. Their own educational deficits end up having a heavy impact in the lives of their own kids. As a country, we haven’t yet figured out how to break the cycle. We haven’t solved the riddle of how to turn desire in Latino families for their children to do better into policy. We are far from figuring out how to make sure lack of school success in the 1980s and 1990s doesn’t turn into underfunded Social Security checks in the 2030s.

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