Hispanic Education Essay

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There has been a radical rise over the last twenty-five years in the number of people that self-identify as “Hispanic” on the U.S. Census and other official forms. Between 1980 and 2005 the Hispanic population nearly tripled, increasing from 14.6 million to 41.9 million. In 2005, Hispanics made up 14.5 percent of the total U.S. population, and the latest projections are that Hispanics will be 24.4 percent of the population in 2050. From meat-packing plants in Nebraska to poultry plants in north Georgia, from central Washington to central Iowa, a new human landscape is being formed in places where Spanish was not heard and salsa was not sold. Public schools set in that landscape are profoundly affected by their new Hispanic students.

At the start, it should be noted that language, culture, and history determine how we categorize and name groups of people. Hispanic connotes someone from a Spanish-speaking background (usually, from a former Spanish colony), while Latino commonly refers to a person from Latin America and does not necessarily exclude indigenous or non-Spanish speaking people. To be inclusive of divergent viewpoints about these words, Hispanic/Latino will serve as a general adjective here, and Hispanic will be used when an official government term is required.

Background Of Hispanic/Latino People

Some Hispanics/Latinos, although certainly not a majority, are not immigrants. Hispanos in New Mexico, and many Hispanics living near the Mexican border in southern Texas, New Mexico, Arizona, and California, are ancient residents of the land their families settled long before the U.S. became a nation. Most Hispanics/Latinos, however, have immigrated to the United States in the last three decades. Although nearly half of all Hispanics/Latinos live in just two states—California and Texas—recent patterns show the greatest percentage increases in states without a history of major immigration, such as North Carolina, Arkansas, Kansas, and Nevada.

Prior educational experiences for each immigrant generation vary. Immigrants come from different nations, and the sociohistorical context of their native country affects how they respond to schooling. The major national origins of Hispanics in 2005 were 64.0 percent Mexican (constituting 9.3 percent of the entire U.S. population), 15.2 percent Caribbean (9.0 percent Puerto Rican, 3.5 percent Cuban, and 2.7 percent Dominican), 7.4 percent Central American (3 percent from El Salvador), 5.5 percent South American (1.7 percent from Colombia), and about 8 percent from elsewhere.

Hispanics in the United States are predominantly in the lower economic groups. In 2004, 29 percent of all Hispanic children (and nearly 50 percent of children in single-mother families) lived below the poverty line. The per capita income for Hispanics was $12,111, which was only 56 percent of the $21,587 per capita income for Whites. Almost 60 percent of Hispanic fourth graders were in public schools in which more than half of the students were eligible for free and reduced-price lunch.

The Spanish language is a primary social factor. According to 2005 data, in three states (Texas, California, and New Mexico), nearly 30 percent of the entire population age five or older speaks Spanish at home; in the United States as a whole, that figure is 12 percent. It is also true that in half of the states, Spanish is spoken at home by less than 5 percent of the people. Only 14 percent of Hispanics speak English poorly or not at all.

The world’s most populous Spanish-speaking country, Mexico, shares a porous 2,000-mile border with the United States, which results in a contentious social situation for Hispanics/Latinos. Since 1990, movements to eliminate bilingual education, make English the official state and national language, and report all undocumented workers exposed a political fault line among Hispanics/Latinos, and between ethnic groups.

The parents of many immigrant children in public schools are afraid of being deported and are aware of prejudice against them, even as they struggle to adapt to a new society. Hispanics/Latinos who have lived here for generations, often in low-income enclaves, also have to deal with cultural stereotypes.

Educational Issues

It is important that educators know where immigrant families and students originate and what pressures to acculturate (or not) they face once they arrive. For example, immigrant children from an urban area such as Mexico City have had educational experiences quite different from those of children from an isolated rural community in the southern Mexican state of Chiapas. Ethnic background and social class also matter: Indigenous people from Guatemala, Mestizos from Nicaragua, and Europeans from Argentina may approach language and schooling differently.

Immigrants also enter different communities. Going to school in a large, relatively homogeneous Hispanic neighborhood (e.g., in New York’s Spanish Harlem or Chicago’s Pilsen) is a different matter than attending school in a more heterogeneous and less Hispanic area (e.g., in metro Atlanta or rural Alabama). And there remain many thousands of migrant students whose schooling histories are frequently fragmented and poorly documented.

Three educational conditions of Hispanics/Latinos are highlighted here: School segregation, school achievement, and school attainment. Residential segregation has resulted in school segregation (or “resegregation,” according to some analyses). Nearly two thirds (65 percent) of all Hispanic students live in big cities. In the ten largest public school districts in this country, four of every ten students are Hispanic. In 2003, nearly one third of Hispanic students attended schools that had greater than 75 percent Hispanic enrollment, and more than half attended schools that were over 50 percent Hispanic.

Standardized test scores from the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) in reading, mathematics, and science in 1999 offer a mixed view of Hispanic students’ school achievement. Hispanic students’ scores have improved over the last several decades in all three areas, but the gap between them and White students did not narrow, and their scores still are significantly lower than those of White students.

Another fundamental measure of success for Hispanics or any other group of children is the level of school attainment and the rate of school attrition (the dropout rate). In 2003, the proportion of Hispanic/Latino eighteen to twenty-four-year-olds who had a high school diploma or the equivalent was 64 percent, compared to 84 percent of Blacks and 92 percent of Whites. Hispanic/Latino students had a dropout rate of 23.5 percent, while the rate was 10.9 percent for Blacks and 6.3 percent for Whites.

Important Initiatives

Given the complex economic, linguistic, political, and educational contexts of life for Hispanics/Latinos, how can educators help to lower the dropout rate and raise student achievement? What do educators need to know and do?

Language Learning

At every level—classroom, school, district, state, and nation—language is both a pedagogical and a policy issue. Prior to several influential court decisions, schools could essentially offer little or no accommodation for nonnative English speakers; now, laws require that schools provide services to new English learners. Given that mandate, however, there are numerous possible arrangements for Hispanic children to learn English—and their school subjects.

When nonnative speakers of English begin their schooling, “transitional” language programs move them as quickly as possible into English-only classes. In most cases, Spanish speakers take a class each day in English for Speakers of Other Languages (ESOL). One major problem with such classes is that there is no unified ESOL curriculum in many states and school districts, and there is a great divergence in the availability of pedagogical resources. On a positive note, most states now require that prospective teachers—in some states, all teachers—take courses in how to teach children who are new English learners.

Bilingual education programs teach students in their native language and in English. “Weak” bilingual programs push students as quickly as possible into fully mainstreamed classrooms. “Strong” programs focus on the maintenance of students’ native language, along with learning English. One approach to bringing bilingual education into the regular classroom is through “sheltered instruction,” where students in subjects such as social studies learn the content through a combination of Spanish and English.

Dual-language immersion programs are an “enrichment” version of bilingual education, where all students in a school learn English and a second language (in the case of heavily Hispanic/Latino schools, it would be Spanish). Strong bilingual and dual immersion programs see language not as a “barrier,” but as a resource that can benefit all students and the school.

Curriculum And Instruction

In terms of curriculum, one major issue is whether to augment traditional textbooks with material that may be more meaningful to Hispanic/Latino students. Some educators are dubious about the value of a special “month” for different ethnic groups and are working to incorporate multicultural perspectives throughout the curriculum. Some would introduce elements of Hispanic/Latino cultures in content areas such as mathematics and science, and not only in language arts and social studies, as is most common.

There is also debate over how to assess new Hispanic/Latino students who are nonnative speakers of English. Some schools have opted for initial testing in Spanish, to determine students’ literacy and mathematics skills in their first language. Schools also set policies (or accept practices) about grading, classroom-based testing, and standardized testing at the end of each year. The issue is how to assess students’ learning meaningfully, and not make judgments about academic ability based on someone’s English-language capability.

School Experience

Numerous ethnographic accounts paint a nuanced portrait of Hispanic/Latino students’ lives in various corners of our country, from urban Boston to rural Georgia to the Mexican border. One goal of these books is to examine Hispanic students’ school engagement and disengagement. With high dropout rates for Hispanic/Latino students and the need to increase their academic achievement, it is vital to document how these students can become more engaged in school life.

Hispanic/Latino students sometimes lack the requisite social and academic networks in school. Students need positive peers and a sense of belonging; they need to develop a “school identity.” Students create this sort of identity when they find a niche in academic and extracurricular programs. There is solid evidence that girls are more likely than boys to engage in academics and to establish positive peer networks, so educators may need to examine motivational strategies for boys and girls.

Connecting Families, Schools, And Communities

Collective values are important in Hispanic/Latino families, and work is strongly emphasized. To be bién educado, “well educated,” is a matter of knowing how to act for the collective good, and not just of amassing a certain number of years in school. Still, it is apparent from the ethnographic studies and other research that Hispanic/Latino students and parents aspire to advance educationally—at least toward a high school diploma and often higher. However, certain national groups express expectations far below their aspirations. Because of parents’ limited educational advancement or success (Hispanic/Latino parents’ education levels are still far below those of White and African American parents), and many families’ disconnection with school, students may not place priority on excelling at schoolwork and attaining good grades, the building blocks of school success.

Developing parental involvement can prove difficult, for many reasons. Immigrant Hispanic/Latino parents usually come to the United States with a cultural background of respecting and not questioning teachers. They may fear deportation and, particularly for recent immigrant women, limited English skills may make them reticent to attend school functions. In spite of these obstacles, there are many stirring examples of how to get families and the community deeply involved in school life.

Enhancing the education of Hispanic/Latino students depends on the quality of teaching, which turns on teachers’ openness to learning. Because of how teachers are assigned (the most recent graduates of teacher preparation programs usually are placed in the most difficult school environments) and the shortage of teachers in certain inner-city areas and in growing school districts, there can be problems with teachers teaching out of their fields or lacking sufficient prior educational interaction with students from diverse ethnic groups. Changes in placement policies and mentoring practices can mitigate these “qualification” problems, but the “quality” of actual instruction depends on how teachers communicate with and engage Hispanic/Latino students and family members in classroom and school life. All such changes require improved teacher preparation and ongoing professional development.

Hispanic/Latino children and adolescents have a strong cultural foundation on which to build academic engagement. They tend to be fluently bilingual, live in tightly bound family systems, respect adult authority, and maintain a strong work ethic. Any course of action that is intended to improve how they are educated should begin from a stance of respect for students’ academic and social strengths; be carried out as part of a whole-school collaboration that increases students’ access to rich, multilingual learning; and end up with deeper connections to teachers and school programs.


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  2. Delgado-Gaitán, C. (2001). The power of community: Mobilizing for family and schooling. Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield.
  3. Flores-González, N. (2002). School kids/street kids: Identity development in Latino students. New York: Teachers College Press.
  4. García, E. (2001). Hispanic education in the United States. Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield.
  5. Gibson, M. A., Gándara, P., & Koyama, J. P. (Eds.). (2004). School connections: U.S. Mexican youth, peers, and school achievement. New York: Teachers College Press.
  6. Montero-Sieburth, M., & Villaruel, F. A. (Eds.). (2000). Making invisible Latino adolescents visible. New York: Falmer.
  7. Pugach, M. C. (1998). On the border of opportunity: Education, community, and language at the U.S.-Mexico line. Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum.
  8. Stanton-Salazar, R. D. (2001). Manufacturing hope and despair: The school and kin support networks of U.S.Mexican youth. New York: Teachers College Press.
  9. Valdés, G. (1996). Con respeto: Bridging the distances between culturally diverse families and schools. New York: Teachers College Press.

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