Latino students in California – nearly 1.3 million of them English learners – are struggling to achieve academic success at the same level as their white peers. In “State has one of nation’s highest gaps in Hispanic-white reading proficiency,” Sarah Garland reports that only 12 percent of Hispanic fourth-graders in California tested proficient in reading in 2009. Nonprofits, government agencies and parents have all launched campaigns over the years to close the learning gap, but little progress has been made.
To better understand the roots of the Latino learning gap and explore potential solutions, we spoke with Patricia Gándara, co-director of The Civil Rights Project at UCLA and an expert on the Latino achievement gap.
California Watch: Does the Latino learning gap extend beyond the classroom? Just how pervasive of a problem is this?
Patricia Gándara: We have research that shows children as young as 18 months old have significant gaps in their preparation for learning. This is very much tied to poverty and disadvantage. When Latino children enter kindergarten, they are significantly behind their white peers … before they’ve even been to kindergarten! It’s endemic. Sixty percent of Asians have a bachelor’s (degree). Forty percent of whites have at least a bachelor’s. Thirteen percentof Latinos have bachelor’s degrees. Those achievement gaps are enormous and persistent and getting wider over the last three decades. That, to me, is very scary.
CW: It’s obviously a challenge to learn a new language on top of your regular schoolwork, but what other obstacles do English learners in California face?
PG: It’s mostly not a language issue. We know that middle-class kids who come from any place in the world not speaking English usually have about a year’s time that it’s difficult, very challenging, hard. Then they get on to school and often do better than native-born kids. It’s a matter of poverty, disadvantage, immigrant status. Schools that do not prepare kids well, that are isolated. Kids are not exposed to native English speakers. And there’s high mobility among teachers. (They often don’t stay at the schools for long.)
CW: Many readers may be surprised to learn that most English learners are born in the United States.
PG: Absolutely. Across the nation, immigration has been way down. The numbers fluctuate, but it’s clear 80 to 85 percent are born here. They are children of immigrants, but not immigrants themselves. They’re our kids.
CW: What are other misconceptions about English learners?
PG: People think language is the main issue when it’s not. We see a lot of kids who come in the middle of their school years. There’s an assumption that if they don’t know a subject in English, they don’t know it. Nobody checks to see whether they know it in their native language. People who have already taken classes are put into remedial classes. Can you imagine having to learn chemistry when you’re not versed in the language?
CW: What steps can parents or concerned parties take to close this gap?
PG: Let’s talk first about what they shouldn’t do. Don’t try to teach your kids English at home if you don’t speak English well. It’s a really bad idea. Do not listen to people who tell you to do this. You’re not going to have the same level of conversation with your child that you would in a language that you actually have a command of. So you impoverish their vocabulary. Read to kids in your native language. Help them develop of a love of reading in an environment you both feel comfortable in.
Depending on where the parents come from – and the majority of these parents come from Mexico – there’s an assumption that a parent doesn’t have a large voice in what happens in school. They’ve not been made to feel welcome in school generally. (If you are a teacher or administrator), do reach out and let these parents know there is an expectation at the school of “We want you to participate” and “We want to have these conversations with you.” Of course, that means you have to have somebody at the school who can have these conversations. Don’t assume that parents don’t want to participate. It’s cultural. It has to be counteracted. The Parent Institute for Quality Education has done this. They do a whole series talking to parents in their own language, teaching them what it is that parents are expected to do, what they can do right there at the school level, what’s required to graduate and get into college, to become their own advocates. If you’re a parent, go to your principal and request a program like this. There is no way that teachers are going to know things. It’s critical that parents become knowledgeable.
CW: Proposition 227 limited bilingual education in California, but there are exceptions many parents are not aware of. Can you explain?
PG: Parents don’t know about it. Principals don’t know about it. Any child over 10 years old virtually has automatic exemption. The law is for children basically under 10 years of age. If a child is over 10 years old and the school feels it may provide a better program, the child is exempt. Parents – you just need a group of 20 parents – can go demand that they want a class or some classes in a language that their children can understand or that they want the children to be taught bilingually. There’s a waiver, and schools are by law required to have these forms available for the parents. If the school cannot for whatever reason provide for this, they are legally obligated to provide for the child or children to transfer to a school where there is such a class.
CW: What is Project SOL?
PG: It’s a collaboration between the Mexican government and University of California. About eight years ago, we engaged with the Mexican government to use a Mexican curriculum, which we aligned to meet California standards, in math and science. Kids here in California can take biology or chemistry or geometry. If they’re successful in these courses, they get credit for it. We’ve been doing this in four schools around the state. We’ve had more than a thousand course enrollments. It’s online, but kids access it in the classroom. It’s all mediated by a teacher. (Learn more about Project SOL at http://civilrightsproject.ucla.edu/projects/project-sol.)
There are a number of government agencies and organizations dedicated to bilingual education and/or closing the achievement gap. Here are several key players:
California Department of Education
Phone: 916-319-0800 (general), 916-319-0938 (English Learner Support Division)
Write: 1430 N. St.
Sacramento, CA 95814-5901
California Department of Education’s Closing the Achievement Gap initiative
The Civil Rights Project at UCLA
Write: 8370 Math Sciences, Box 951521
Los Angeles, CA 90095-1521
MALDEF (Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund)
Write: 634 S. Spring St.
Los Angeles, CA 90014
Padres Promotores de la Educación
Write: Office of School & Community Partnerships
Santa Ana College
1530 W. 17th St.
Santa Ana, CA 92706
Partnership for 21st Century Skills
Write: 1 Massachusetts Ave., Suite 700
Washington, DC 20001
White House Initiative on Educational Excellence for Hispanics
Write: 400 Maryland Ave. SW
Washington, DC 20202