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Education Expert Calls For More Latino Teachers And Greater Parent Involvement

Although Latinos are poised to become the largest ethnic minority group in the country, they also remain one of the most educationally disadvantaged groups in the United States.


August 7, 2000
Copyright © 2000 All Rights Reserved.

    unlike other ethnic groups who have experienced lower drop out rates in the last 25 years, among Latinos, the number has remained steady at between 30 to 35 percent.

    --U.S. Department of Education

According to the U.S. Department of Education, about a third of Latinos do not have a high school diploma. Less than 13 percent have bachelors or other advanced degrees. And unlike other ethnic groups who have experienced lower drop out rates in the last 25 years, among Latinos, the number has remained steady at between 30 to 35 percent.

Hispanic children continue to attend public schools that are ethnically and economically segregated. According to one study, 75 percent of Latino students attended schools where the majority of the students were African American and Latino. Other studies indicate that students who attend intensely segregated minority schools are 11 times as likely to be enrolled in a school with high poverty rates compared to a student who attends a school where the Latino and black population is fewer.

These statistics worry Valerie Martinez-Ebers, who researches the consequences of educational policy reforms for low-income, minority children.

Martinez-Ebers, associate professor and director of the Washington Internship Program at Texas Christian University is one of a few tenured Latina political scientists in the country.

She spoke to about training teachers to work with Latino students, how Latinos can change the educational system through local politics, and the need to close the educational gap. Why is it that the educational system is still failing Latino children? Or is it that the Latino community is failing to be more active in their child's school?

Martinez-Ebers: It is very complicated. I am sure that both reasons are very valid. The school boards, the administrators and teachers, unless they are Latino they truthfully just don’t even think of these things. They are trying to teach the students the best they can, but they have to balance their budgets. They are trying to improve the overall quality of education and make schools more accountable.

You can be a very good parent and not be involved in your child’s school. Part of it is the passiveness. How do standardized tests that determine whether a student graduates from high school, like the TAAS in Texas, affect Latinos?

Martinez-Ebers: The best data that is available, essentially MALDEF (Mexican American Legal Defense Educational Fund, has the results of the test scores for the different states by school districts that are designated, I want to say, intensely minority. Their data doesn’t focus on Latinos, but it clearly shows that for minority children who are at risk in the first place, it is the stress that comes with taking the test. It is the realization that, 'well, I’m pulled about staying in school in the first place and now they are going to make me take this test and tell me that I am not any good anyway.' The dropout rate has statistically significantly gone up since the test.

For years, we have known about high drop out rates among Latino students. Why is it that the numbers continue to go up?

Martinez-Ebers: I don’t know if the numbers are going up, but they are not going down. When you look at the data, if it looks like the numbers are going up, part of it is the surge of Latino students. The overall rate stays about the same and I think it is because there are just so many students. You also have to distinguish between students who were born here in the United States, first generation vs. second generation or immigrants. What is really scary to me is that Latino students who are second generation are as likely to drop out and that is really scary to me. Educators have also argued that instructional materials don't speak to the experiences of students. I taught for a year and remember one of the questions in a practice test was, ‘What shape is a bagel?’ The student turned to me and asked, ‘What’s a bagel?’

Martinez-Ebers: Absolutely. There is another question they had the first year that asked about a cup and a saucer. When would most students their age, this generation, have ever used a cup and a saucer. People who write the test, that would be another area where we need to have Latino representation too. The Educational Testing Service does a pretty good job now with the college entrance exams.

Texas does its own test (TAAS). There are other states that use the Stanford test or the Iowa Basic skills. Those have gotten a little bit better. But Texas doesn’t use those test. If we used the Stanford or the Iowa achievement test, then the performance of our state could be compared to other states. The other interesting statistic is that 75 percent of students who are considered Limited English Proficient are Latino.

Martinez-Ebers: It is the lack of education of their parents. I don’t think it is because their parents don’t care, they are good parents, they are just not comfortable in an educational environment. They don’t have the parent involvement that they could have had if their parents were more involved or more educated.

Then you have administrators, teachers, school board members, that in most school districts are primarily Anglo, even though, particularly in big cities, the population in the city is increasingly Latino. Then we have the language problem. Then we have this new surge of accountability, which means they try to put all the students in the same kind of mold. They can’t all take the same test. You put all those factors together and that maybe explains there really aren’t a simple explanations. Do you think people do not realize that politics play a big role in what gets done in schools?

Martinez-Ebers: Absolutely. Education in the United States is somewhat unique from other countries because education is controlled by the local community. United States is the only country that does that. When you go to England, Switzerland or any of the other Western Democratic countries, it is all controlled by a central government.

With education you could get involved at the local level. Look at the turnout level for the people who get elected to the school board, you have less than 20 percent of people voting. So many of the school elections could be changed with 60 to 70 more votes. In 20 years, 30 percent of the children in public schools will be Latino. Do you think that the educational system will be ready for this?

Martinez-Ebers: Oh no. That is exactly why the educational system needs to get on board. It is imperative that we start recruiting minority teachers, Latino teachers. We need better teacher training –- they’ve got to have the education, specialization in urban education, teaching children in inner cities. States that talk about cutting back bilingual education, like California did, scare me to death. You are talking about 75 percent of the LEP (Limited English Proficient) children are Latino now. Can you imagine what it is going to happen to them? Is it fair to then say that initiatives, like the one in California to end bilingual education, are more of a political issue than educational one?

Martinez-Ebers: It was a political issue. California is different than Texas because in California they have this referendum that when the public gets fired up and a millionaire or two who can spend a lot of money to get them all scared, they can change the way their state goes. Ron Unz.

Martinez-Ebers: Yes. In Texas, fortunately, I think in this case, that can’t happen. But it is still state legislatures who can make that decision in Texas. In Texas they meet once every two years. They are only there for 120 days. The men and women who are down there in Austin are not professional legislatures. They don’t know that much about the policies. They totally rely on what their staff tells them, or what the interest groups that pressure them tell them.

The last major times when the education law in the state of Texas was written, they actually passed the budget before they wrote the education law. In other words they decided how much money they could spend on programs before they had even looked at or evaluated programs. To say how much you can spend before you even know what the need is or what the problems are is kind of working backwards towards the problem. Bilingual education has been one of the main issues politicians in Texas and California have focused on with two different approaches.

Martinez-Ebers: What they would do in Texas and what they have already started to do is they go from bilingual education, which is this emersion thing, to what they call English as a Second Language, which is where it is a real quick fix that won’t cost us much money. As soon as you get the students you test them and find out what their language abilities are and then you put them in this very intensive period where they are supposed to get the English, and if they don’t do well, too bad. They then put them in the regular classrooms.

More and more, they are going to ESL here in Texas, which I guess if you had really good trained teachers and they had the right kind of materials you could learn a language quickly in a concentrated environment. ESL as it is taught in our state, most of the teachers are not certified and they are not native speakers. What happens is that more of them get further and further behind as they shift from bilingual to ESL instruction. Is it possible for many of these Latino students to end up in special education classes?

Martinez-Ebers: Oh yes, and that is the other thing that happens. The other part of the Latino profile is the high numbers of Latino students who are put in remedial classes or special ed, or they are put in vocational tracks and they don’t get the college prep classes. Statistics show that more than 90 percent of the teachers teaching Latino children are white, despite evidence showing that Latino teachers teaching Latino students correlates to less students in remedial class and more in advanced placement.

Martinez-Ebers: I think of their understanding of their background and culture and where they come from. If we are going to have tracking and the politics say we are going to, I think that the decisions are better [if Latino teachers are teaching Latino students], that’s what it shows.

The expectations of Latino teachers are going to be higher for the children. And people perform according to how they are expected to perform. If the teacher thinks you are stupid, well then, it is more likely you become a rebellious student and you don’t put out the effort. If issues like the lack of qualified teachers, lack of involvement from Latino parents in local politics and their child's school, what are the consequences?

Martinez-Ebers: We already have a gap in our educational status. The gap is just going to get bigger and the implications of that gap are quite serious when you talk about the economy of the United States. If you want a healthy, prosperous economy, you need an educated workforce. And Latinos are going to be the biggest part of the workforce. If the United States wants to continue its status, it has got to have a workforce that is educated. It won’t be just Latinos who lose a lot. It has horrific implications for the economy of the United States if you don’t have a trained workforce. We will be the workforce. We are the future. 

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