New Mexico’s Latino Education Task Force wants to do something about the shocking disparity between Latino and white student achievement in the state. A new joint investigation initiated by the task force and Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund aims to produce evidence of significant barriers to student success due to unequal treatment of the Latino, black, and Native American students who comprise 70% of the state’s K-12 students. As reported by the task force, these students fall well behind their white counterparts:
“While just 49 percent of Hispanic eighth graders are proficient in reading, white students are at 72 percent, according to the New Mexico Public Education Department. Also, about 69 percent of white third-graders are proficient in reading, while just 48 percent of Hispanic students are.”
The plan is to then bring a lawsuit against the state that will force state legislators to address these inequalities and remedy the situation, because the “achievement gap” is damaging not only to individual students, but also to the state and nation as a whole.
An Old Story
Damaging as it is, the achievement gap is not new, nor has it gone unrecognized. President Obama’s 2011 “Winning the Future: Improving Education for the Latino Community” report explained that “Overall, Latinos have the lowest education attainment level of any group in the U.S.” Last year’s National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) report, “Achievement Gaps,” showed that very little progress has been made in the past two decades to ensure equal education for Latino students in the United States.
New Mexico, with its higher population of Latinos, is the epicenter of this problem. Raul González, who is the director of the legislative affairs at the Latino civil rights organization National Council of La Raza, explained in The Christian Science Monitor that the achievement gap is especially apparent for those students who are non-native English speakers and readers:
“Among these students, 77 percent are eligible for reduced-price meals at school, a proxy for poverty, which tends to correlate with lower test scores. And large portions of them (37 percent in 4th grade and 21 percent in 8th grade) are designated as English-language learners (ELLs), who by definition are not fully proficient in reading English. With ELLs , there has been a long history of neglect of their education. Folks have had to go to court over and over to get schools to provide these kids with opportunities.”
This problem is not limited to New Mexico, either. In Connecticut, research and advocacy group ConnCan’s C.E.O. Patrick Riccards, whose From Patrick’s Desk blog addresses educational inequality and other problems plaguing public schools, reported that recent assessment scores showed that the state
“saw only incremental progress in closing our worst-in-the-nation achievement gaps, with some gaps, including those for ELL students, actually widening. Based on the gains of recent years, it will take between 40 and 60 years to close most of the state’s elementary school achievement gaps. At our current pace, it would take nearly 200 years to close Connecticut‘s 10th grade Latino/Hispanic achievement gap. And it would take nearly 300 years to close our 10th grade African-American achievement gap.”
How Can We Achieve Equal Education for Latinos?
There have been many suggestions for different solutions to the Latino achievement gap. In New York, for example, some believe that the “stop and frisk” policy of local police departments must end because it has a negative impact on black and Latino learning and high school completion. For example, Udi Ofer reported in The New York Times in July that
“The N.Y.P.D. arrested or ticketed more than 15 students each day in public schools during the first three months of 2012. More than 96 percent of the arrests were of black or Latino students. About 18 percent of the arrests were of students between the ages of 11 and 14. Disorderly conduct, a catchall category that could encompass all kinds of typical misbehavior, accounted for 71 percent of all summonses.”
No more than 10% of these incidents resulted in arrests; all this searching and frisking only resulted in disruptions and distractions during the school day for students who desperately need to have an unbroken educational experience. This solution focuses on socio-political factors that can be adjusted to better support Latino students.
By contrast, many advocates for improved Latino education and student success hail technology as a way to raise Latino academic success to a more equal position with that of whites. At the Congressional Hispanic Caucus Institute’s Education Policy Summit in May centered on the “Keeping the Promise: Latino Education and the Emerging Role of Technology.” Yet Elliane Ramos’s recent article on NBC Latino counters the notion that technology is the cure-all for Latino education. She notes that while many groups believe that providing Latino students with computers and expanded access to broadband services will end the digital divide that they believe is the root cause of the Latino achievement gap, technology cannot be the “silver bullet that will help bridge the gap between Latino and white students. One of the reasons for this is that the “digital divide” will require a far more extensive financial investment than has yet been suggested. She also cites the importance of family and culture in supporting student academic progress. Without this, students will continue to perform poorly no matter how much technology is employed.
The common thread through all of the proposed solutions remains unspoken: Latino communities suffer from a deeply ingrained prejudice that leads to underfunding, the poor economics of urban areas, attacks on immigration, and many dangerous and faulty assumptions about the abilities and value of American Latinos. This is very similar to problems in the black community, which suffers from the same set of obstacles. To bridge the gap between the widely divergent achievement levels of Latino and black students and their white counterparts, the solutions need to come not just in the form of educational methodology. They also need to be part of a much larger reform of racial and ethnic relationships within the United States itself. While we must immediately begin to introduce new education policies to help Latino students, only when we put our differences behind us can we start to build a society that starts and ends with equality.