Smile Politely

Stand and Deliver, on effective intervention programs

Here are some statistics: in 2006, Latinos constituted 19% of America’s school-age population; by 2025, 25% of students will be Latino; today, 48% of students in California are Latino. And here are some alarming trends: The vast majority of Latino students live in poor and dangerous neighborhoods, and are raised by parents who are the least-educated of any ethnic group, and speak little or no English.

Here’s a current book that addresses this situation: The Latino Education Crisis: The Consequences of Failed Social Policies by Patricia Gandara, a professor of education at UCLA and Frances Contreras, an assistant professor of education at the University of Washington.


And what a nice job it does. If the authors complain about our current educational system, they nevertheless — as they draw on extensive demographic data and gripping case studies — outline a policy agenda that can take us in a new direction.

I admit it. My “conservative” impulses often kick in when I listen to various debates about education in America. I frequently want to respond to them by saying that we need to simply tell students “just do your homework,” and “you get the grade you earn.” One of my favorite moments in the idealized and silly film Dangerous Minds is when the teacher furiously writes “I choose to die,” on the chalkboard, and then demands that her class identify the most powerful verb in that sentences. I got it wrong, thinking at first that it was “die,” but one of her students got it right. It is indeed, the verb “choose.” Right on, teacher. School success ultimately comes down to the choices students make. So I am inclined to believe.

Yet even the defining current conservative legislation, No Child Left Behind, concedes the significance of institutions and teachers and parents, to a student’s success. Even so, I often expect to hear, or not hear, the same points that most frustrate me in discussions of education: that it is the system that is flawed, not today’s students’ approach to education; that the solution is always (and I mean always) to direct more money into the system. (Graduate students, for example, typically earn small salaries, yet here at the University of Illinois, for example, consistently rank as teachers rated excellent by their students. If the issue is money, then how do you explain that?). What we never hear discussed (and I mean never) is the link between a child’s effort in school, and that child’s educational success.

And in some respects, The Latino Education Crisis repeats this pattern. The authors open their study by tracing the history of affirmative action. It’s a useful history for anyone unaware of just how profoundly recent legislation and court cases have eclipsed past gains. Their analysis rightly suggests these trends undermine the efforts of Latino/a students. At the same time, however, they too often offer up students as helpless victims of hostile society.

And Gandara and Contreras’s discussion of standardized tests proves predictable, and hence, less compelling. Here the authors suggest the students are victims of a slanted (because it is written in English) standardized test. But if this is a significant issue, how do you explain, for example, the typical Korean or Chinese graduate student’s remarkable achievement on the GRE, given that his or her score is considerably impeded by the fact she or he is still learning English?

Despite such limitations, however, The Latino Education Crisis beats a very different drum.

The chapter entitled “American Schools and the Latino Student Experience” reproduces, well, the everyday experiences of the typical Latino student. We learn of students’ inclination to work part-time rather than engage in extracurricular activities — because this choice aligns with the values of their hard-working parents, and allows them to contribute financially to their struggling families. In fact, this is the opposite of not working hard enough.

An excellent chapter, “Is Language the Problem?” attempts to accurately assess the extent to which ESL issues affect student achievement. Though not conclusive, it suggests the effect is significant. But this chapter, in fact, is more compelling for inverting the English-only paradigm by asking us to consider that “other developed nations typically view the command of multiple languages as essential to a well-rounded and economically productive education,” and then wonders why we don’t.

Among the book’s most informative chapters is “The Cost and Effectiveness of Intervention.” This chapter refreshingly acknowledges that expenses incurred by additional educational programs might frustrate American taxpayers — even if they are successful, and especially if they are not. Hence, Gandara and Contreras are always careful to detail the costs of every program they analyze. Their analysis of Project GRAD delivers encouraging news that “costly” programs, if implemented effectively, do indeed work.

In fact, it is with their pattern of following the cost of various programs with the long-term benefit to American society, that the authors most effectively contribute to the education debate. Another representative example is their discussion of the RAND Corporation’s analysis of the costs and benefits of doubling the college completion rate of Latino students. Its calculation of an initial investment of $6.5 billion is immediately met by a figure of the $13 billion in benefits this would provide American society, in terms of, among other things, taxpayer returns.

By 2025, one in four students in American public school systems will be Latino. While we need to act now (given current statistics), we might also think that we have about fifteen years to reverse tragic trends. We have a little more than a decade to put in place a system to better track them to earn the high school and college degrees that will lead to good jobs. Time to hit the books.

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