There are nearly 50 million students in our nation’s public school system, 8.5 million of whom are Latino. We are the fastest growing population in the United States, and a young population, yet sadly we are among the least educated. If current trends continue, the United States will be home to a growing population of undereducated Latinos—an undesirable outcome with great economic and social consequences for our nation.
The greatest impact will likely occur in the West and Southwest where Latinos reside in large numbers, and in states with rapidly growing Latino populations such as Georgia, Kentucky, Tennessee, and the Carolinas. In fact, a new report by the Pew Hispanic Center suggests that by the year 2050 Latinos will comprise 30 percent of the U.S. population. It also estimates that the percentage of Hispanic children under the age of 17 will increase from 20 percent to 35 percent within the same time frame.
These projections can and should impact the formulation of federal education policy today. Education is and will continue to be a primary issue of concern for Latino families who want more for their children and consider it key to obtaining the American dream. To ensure today’s Latino students and future generations receive the high-quality education they deserve and their parents expect, education leaders must better integrate public school reform with the realities of our nation’s changing demographics.
Creating a stronger education system to better serve these children demands that we rethink the way in which education is delivered in America. The No Child Left Behind Act, which is up for reauthorization by Congress this year, is in many ways getting us closer to achieving this goal. It is certainly the place to start.
NCLB has increased national awareness surrounding the huge inequities that exist in the funding, quality, and delivery of education, particularly for minority and poor students. It has furthered the standards-based framework for education reform by promoting high expectations and accountability for student learning. And the law highlights the need for targeted interventions and choice options to provide students with additional academic supports, and acknowledges that additional funds are required to make these resources available to the students who need them most.
The law has had a significant impact on Latino children across the country regardless of performance level, English language proficiency, or nationality. Most importantly, it has publicized the long-standing white-Hispanic achievement gap and shockingly low rate of Latino high school completion. Nationally, 17-year-old Latinos are performing at the same reading and math levels as white 13-year-olds, and only about half of our Latino high school students graduate with a high school diploma in four years compared to 78 percent of white students.
NCLB has also had a profound impact on the education of English language learners, a group long overlooked in mainstream education debates. The law has succeeded in drawing the greatest attention ever to this growing population, now numbering approximately 5.5 million students, nearly 80 percent of whom speak Spanish as their first language. Today, three-fourths of all limited English proficient students in preschool through fifth grade, and half of these students in grades six through 12, are second and third generation citizens.
These statistics highlight the systemic failure of our public school system to properly address the needs of Latino students and English language learners over the last several decades. But preventing similar results for future students will require us to also go further than No Child Left Behind. It will mean training and hiring bilingual or multilingual teachers and staff, building cultural competency among school employees, understanding family expectations for learning, conducting ongoing and meaningful parent outreach, and remaining flexible to shifting student populations so that appropriate curriculum, assessments, interventions, and innovations can be implemented.
Failure to take immediate action to improve public schooling for Latinos will be detrimental. There isn’t much time to reverse course. Latinos are and will continue to be a significant force in every aspect of American life. Admittedly, constructing a 21st century education system that properly supports Latinos and other minorities, poor children, English language learners, and children with disabilities will require greater commitment and financial investments from federal, state, and local leaders. But continuing on the existing path is not an option.
With the next administration entering office in January alongside a new Congress, now is the time to develop education proposals that proactively acknowledge the pending transition of American demographics. Here are five principles for the next president and Congress to act upon—principles that are at the core of the No Child Left Behind Act and that must be reaffirmed to improve educational quality and experiences for Latino children:
High Expectations: NCLB is based on the principle that all students should have the opportunity to learn to high levels. It does not have different expectations for Latinos or other minority students, poor students, or students with limited English proficiency or disabilities. Whatever our historical flaws, our nation today refuses to accept that the color of a child’s skin, the neighborhood they live in, or their family circumstances are indicators of a child’s potential or predictors of their academic success.
Accountability: Because NCLB expects the most from all students, it is able to do what no other federal education law has managed to do thus far—demand equal and quality attention to the academic needs and performance of minority and poor students. The law’s accountability system has placed significant attention on Hispanic students, especially English language learners, and holds teachers and schools accountable for their academic achievement.
Knowledge: Most importantly, NCLB requires schools and states to collect and report student-level performance data for each student group, including Latinos and English language learners. This makes it possible to assess achievement for Latino student populations and English language learners, and identify trends. It also identifies which Latino students, in which grades, and in which schools, are not doing well. This is critical because it helps teachers and schools decide what types of strategies are necessary to help these students improve academically.
Intervention: NCLB also outlines intervention strategies to help strengthen schools that are continually low-performing. And it provides low-income families with children in these schools the option of moving their children to higher performing schools or placing them in free tutoring programs.
Support: The No Child Left Behind Act established an unprecedented federal commitment to the funding of public education and reaffirmed a federal path to delivering greater resources to low-income schools and districts. In the first year after enactment of the law, federal funding increased by billions of dollars, though in subsequent years funding from Congress fell woefully short for states to implement the requirements of NCLB.
Indeed, NCLB is not perfect and has resulted in some unintended consequences. More can be done well before the next president and the next Congress enter Washington to ensure that every child truly receives a high quality education and is prepared for lifelong success. Currently under consideration are several congressional proposals that seek to clarify existing law, close loopholes, and ensure that the intent of NCLB is upheld to better support Latinos and other minorities, poor children, children with disabilities, and English language learners.
Yet failure to reauthorize the law would prevent us from addressing some of these weaknesses. Latino students deserve a high quality education and NCLB has proven to be a huge step in the right direction. Timely reauthorization of this law is critical to build on its successes. Latino families are watching the debate and lending their continued support to the reform of our education system so that it works better for all children.