After years of steady immigration and high birth rates, Hispanics have become the fastest growing ethnic group in U.S. public schools, making up more than one in five kindergarten students. But the children of Latino immigrants are struggling to keep up with other students by nearly every measure, underperforming their white, Asian and sometimes black peers when it comes to SAT scores, math and reading skills, and high school and college graduation rates. The stubborn achievement gap paints a bleak future for the U.S. economy and education system and suggests U.S. schools at every level are failing miserably when it comes to teaching Hispanics regardless of their English-language skills or economic backgrounds, education advocates said.
"Closing racial gaps is no longer only a moral imperative for the nation, but it's also an economic imperative given the demographic changes," said Vanessa Cárdenas, vice president of Progress 2050, the immigration research arm of the Center for American Progress in Washington, D.C. "By the time our kids are entering into kindergarten they are already behind and it's not like non-Hispanic kids are waiting around for them to catch up. As they advance, every year the gap becomes bigger."
President Barack Obama will visit Miami Wednesday to host an immigration town-hall style meeting at Florida International University, which graduates more Hispanic students than any other higher education institution in the country. The nationally televised event hosted by Miami-based Telemundo comes as more Hispanic students are entering college, partly because of Obama's immigration policies that have allowed young illegal immigrants brought to the United States as children to obtain temporary legal status. Obama has said integrating immigrants into U.S. society is crucial to the nation's economic future.
But every measurement used to assess student achievement suggests U.S. schools are not prepared to teach a growing population of Latino children. Hispanics are graduating from high school at lower rates than whites and Asians. In many states, Hispanics are also graduating at lower rates than black students, who have historically faced numerous education challenges in the U.S. Since 1990, Hispanics have dropped out at much higher rates than any other ethnic group.
Hispanics who make it to college also lag behind their peers, according to U.S. Department of Education data. Whites earn 74 percent of all associate degrees, compared with blacks at 11 percent and Hispanics at 9 percent. At the bachelors level, whites make up 77 percent of all graduates, while blacks are at 9 percent and Hispanics at 6 percent. Masters and doctoral degrees are also disproportionately awarded to white students, with only 5 percent of all masters degrees going to Hispanics, compared with blacks, who earn 9 percent of all masters degrees.
The achievement gap isn't limited to families of recent immigrants. Even students from Hispanic families who have lived in the United States for several generations are likely to struggle in school, especially if their parents are low-income and obtained little education themselves. That means if schools can't figure out how to help Latino students now, future Hispanic students are unlikely to do any better.
"If you don’t capture these kids at that point when the families have high aspirations and they are still hopeful, when the families still believe it can happen, if that doesn’t materialize, by the third generation we see the kids performing at lower levels than the second generation," said Patricia Gándara, a research professor of education at the University of California, Los Angeles and a commissioner on Obama's Advisory Commission on Educational Excellence for Hispanics.
There are now more Hispanics than ever in U.S. schools and their numbers are projected to keep growing. In at least 17 states, Latinos already make up at least 20 percent of the public school kindergarten population, an increase from only eight states with similar ethnic makeups in 2000, according to the Pew Research Center, which tracks national demographic trends. The demographic shift has spread beyond California, Florida and New York to states with historically few Hispanic immigrants, including Nebraska, Idaho and Washington. In 2012, one-in-four children born in the U.S. were Hispanic. By 2060, Hispanics are expected to make up more than 30 percent of the U.S. population.
The problem starts long before Hispanic students need to consider post-graduation plans. The achievement gap between Hispanic and white fourth-graders taking mathematics exams has largely remained unchanged since 1990 at 21 points, according to the National Center for Education Statistics. The achievement gap is larger when it comes to reading comprehension, with white students tending to perform better than their Hispanic fourth-grade peers by roughly 26 points.
Economic and language barriers are significant hurdles for educators hoping to help Latino students succeed in school. Hispanics are more likely than white students to come from low-income families and communities. They are also more likely to grow up in homes associated with below average academic performance, meaning they are often raised by single parents with limited access to quality day care. Some Hispanic students are foreign born, while others born in the United States are only exposed to limited English before entering public school. Mexican American students made up about two thirds of Hispanic eighth-graders in public schools nationally in 2009.
"Latino students and other students of color are less likely than their white peers to have access to resources including facilities, adequate instructional time, appropriately trained teachers, professional development opportunities for teachers and administrators to help them address students' needs, and appropriate assessments to gauge their learning and academic progress," said Megan Hopkins, an assistant professor of education at Penn State whose research focuses on bilingual education policy. "This is especially true for Latino students who are also English language learners."
A small, but growing number of education researchers are urging U.S. public school administrators to rethink the way they approach Hispanic students. Latinos, they said, should be praised for being bilingual, an important trait in the increasingly global economy, and teachers should use the students unique cultural and linguistic skills to help them gain necessary reading and math skills.
"Teachers often put children of poverty all in one basket and speak of them along the lines of, 'how do we help these students rise above their families and achieve?'" said Bryant Jensen, an assistant professor of education at Brigham Young University in Utah whose research centers on Latino education. "But these kids come with a host of developmental advantages in terms of how well they can cooperate with others, how well they can regulate their emotions in the classrooms, and these skills that are really important for the 21st century are undervalued by teachers."
While schools are continuing to see new waves of Hispanic students, Latino teachers represent less than 8 percent of all U.S. educators. Advocates for Hispanic students said schools need more bilingual teachers and educators who understand the diverse Latino community. "It’s about thinking through the details of how to engage the community," said Estela Bensimon, co-director of the Center for Urban Education at the University of Southern California.
Teachers who can't speak Spanish also have a harder time building relationships with some Hispanics parents. That dialogue is crucial to helping Latino students achieve, said Marybeth Gasman, director of the Penn Center for Minority Serving Institutions. "There are other teachers that are culturally insensitive and don’t see Latinos as learners," she said. "Having teachers that represent the diversity of the nation is vital."
Bilingual education has long been a controversial issue across the United States, with some educators calling for total English immersion and others suggesting that Latino students learn math, civics and reading in both Spanish and English. In Arizona, for example, activists have sued the state for failing to teach Hispanic students with limited English skills at the same level as their peers.
"English language acquisition is an issue in the early childhood years because even the native born Latinos, many of them will have immigrant parents, so they might not be exposed to English until they get into the public school system," said Richard Fry, a senior researcher at the Pew Research Center.
At the same time, college preparation needs to start earlier for Hispanic students, who might not be as culturally immersed in the higher education tradition as their peers, said Luis Pedraja, provost and vice president for academic affairs at Antioch University in Los Angeles, where roughly 9 percent of the student body is Latino.
"There is very little support to the families on how to provide the guidance so the college student will be successful," he said. "I have worked with some Latino kids who can't see themselves doing anything but cleaning houses or working in the fields because that’s what their parents did and I think it's essential that they are given role models so they can dream beyond those limitations."
Pedraja said his efforts to help more Hispanics graduate from college stems from his personal experience growing up in a low-income neighborhood in Miami with Hispanic immigrant parents. "My parents had no clue how to support me going to college," he said. "They hired an accountant to fill out the FAFSA forms."