An Education Agenda for Latino Students

Eight ideas from Melissa Lazarín that the federal government can implement to improve education for Hispanic children.

Students move between classes at Dodge City High School in Dodge City, Kansas, where 70 percent of the school's students are Hispanic. (AP/Orlin Wagner)
Students move between classes at Dodge City High School in Dodge City, Kansas, where 70 percent of the school's students are Hispanic. (AP/Orlin Wagner)

The strength of our nation’s schools and America’s place in the global economy will be impossible to evaluate in the coming years without focusing on the educational outcomes of Latino students. One in five—approximately 10 million—public school students are Latino. And the proportion of Hispanic school-aged children is expected to grow by 166 percent by 2050, quickly outpacing the 4 percent expected growth of non-Hispanic children. Yet Latinos are among the least likely to enter kindergarten ready to learn and least likely to graduate from high school.

Federal policymakers have a lot of work to do in improving education for Latinos. Here are eight ideas they can start with:

1. Make accountability work for English language learners

Nearly half—45 percent—of all Latino students are English language learners. The No Child Left Behind Act has not only helped to illuminate the large gaps between ELLs and their peers; it has compelled schools to implement strategies to reduce those gaps.

Yet holding schools accountable for the academic progress of ELLs has been met with some resistance due to the lack of valid academic assessments for this population. The 1994 Improving America’s Schools Act first required states to develop appropriate academic assessments for ELLs, but they are still sorely lacking nearly 15 years later.

Instead of potentially excluding half of the Latino student population from statewide accountability systems, the federal government should direct examinations into how to accelerate the development of these assessments. States need dollars and technical assistance to support these efforts, and their progress in developing these assessments needs to be better tracked and enforced.

2. Expand learning time

Lengthening the school day, week, or year can help students who are at risk of falling behind stay on track; expanded learning time gives students additional time to master academic content and provides teachers with an opportunity to better meet individual student needs. Additional time on task is invaluable in furthering English language learners’ and recently arrived immigrant students’ academic content and English proficiency skills. The recently introduced Time for Innovation Matters in Education Act, S. 3431, which provides federal support for state initiatives to expand learning time in high-poverty schools, will ensure that more Latinos benefit from this innovative school-wide reform.

3. Boost high school graduation rates

Only about half—58 percent—of Latinos graduate from high school. Schools will need to make measurable improvements in Latino college-readiness in the subjects of math, reading, and science, as well as increase the proportion of students who graduate with those core academic skills. A necessary first step will be to establish a common definition for calculating graduation rates and linking them to statewide accountability systems across race/ethnicity, language proficiency, income, and other characteristics.

4. Target resources and reforms to struggling high schools

Approximately 2,000 high schools—roughly 18 percent of all secondary schools—produce half of the nation’s dropouts. And 39 percent of all Latino students attend these schools. These statistics, while sobering, indicate that the dropout crisis is, in some ways, locatable, and that resources and reforms can be effectively targeted to the high schools that are struggling the most. The Graduation Promise Act, drafted with this framework in mind and introduced in both the House and Senate in 2007, would target dollars and supports to many of these struggling high schools that enroll a sizeable proportion of Latino students.

5. Pass the DREAM Act

Every year, 65,000 undocumented immigrant students who were brought to the United States as children graduate from high school. Many graduate at the top of their class, yet higher education remains an elusive opportunity. Due to their status, they lack access to loans, federal grants, most private scholarships, and they typically have to pay out-of-state tuition rates regardless of how long they have resided in a state.

A large number of undocumented immigrant students drop out of high school due to the lack of opportunities after high school, exacerbating an already significant dropout crisis. Contrary to common public opinion, these young people have few, if any, opportunities to legalize their status. If passed, the DREAM Act would remove some of the barriers to higher education for these individuals and provide a path to citizenship if they graduate from high school and pursue at least two years of higher education or military service.

6. Ensure that federal Title I dollars are distributed efficiently and fairly

Federal Title I dollars make up a small proportion of K-12 funding, but many poor districts and schools rely heavily on this additional support, and distribution of such dollars must be both fair and efficient. Unfortunately, the Title I formula does not treat states equitably. For example, the federal government sent two states with similar tax efforts, but very different per pupil investments—Massachusetts and California—$2,310 and $1,280 respectively for each Title I eligible student in the 2003-04 school year.

Title I formula grants distributed based on state tax effort and the numbers of low-income students would better ensure that federal dollars are distributed where they are needed the most. So, too, would continued increases in the funding for the Education Finance Incentive Grants, which reward states that equitably allocate state and local dollars, and are the most highly targeted of all the federal funding formulas under Title I.

7. Increase the supply of highly effective teachers

Research by Education Trust shows that Latino, black, and poor students in Texas are “less likely to be assigned to teachers who know their subject matter, less likely to be in classrooms with experienced teachers and less likely to attend schools with a stable teaching force.” Other researchers across the country have also documented this pattern. The reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act is an opportunity to rethink the way teachers are compensated. Those who are willing to teach in struggling schools and deliver positive results, for example, should get paid more.

8. Invest in early childhood care and education

The positive and lasting benefits of early care and education are well documented. Yet only 49 percent of Latino children—compared to 60 to 62 percent of white, African American, Asia, and American Indian children—are enrolled in center-based early childhood care and education programs, which include day care centers, Head Start, preschool/prekindergarten, and nursery school. Greater federal investment in early care and education programs can help increase access for all children from birth to age five, improve the quality of all early care and education programs, and ensure that existing federal preprimary programs, such as Head Start and Even Start, work effectively in coordination.

These policy changes are essential for Latinos’ academic success but would have broad benefits for all students. Some Asian-American students face similar language and immigrant-integration barriers, and African-American students suffer from many of the missed educational opportunities that Latinos experience.

Given our country’s changing demographics, the robustness of America’s public school system will increasingly depend on the academic performance of Latino students and other minorities. Seemingly lofty at first glance, the above policy recommendations have become necessary in the mission to strengthen American schools.

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Melissa Lazarín

Senior Policy Adviser