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Hispanics Must Embrace Entrepreneurship and Innovation to Improve Education

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By now, we all know the numbers. When it comes to education, Hispanics in the U.S are in trouble. There is a clear and persistent achievement gap between the educational performance of white and Latino students -- white graduation rates outpace that of Latinos by nearly 12 percent. Nearly 15 percent of all Latinos drop out before completing high school. In lower-income districts like the District of Columbia, the graduation gap is 30 percent between white and Latino students.

The fact that this gap persists despite more than a decade of earnest education reforms indicates that perhaps reform is not enough. A broader approach is needed, one that takes into account the discrepancies in early childhood development and which includes poverty alleviation policies, as well as a renewed focus on students and the emerging technologies that can offer them new opportunities and skills.

A broader approach is critical because our education is not just a Hispanic tragedy. An entire generation is leaving school with fewer skills and less capacity to find a good job and move up the economic and social ladder. As Ron Packard, founder of K12 Inc., argues in his new book, Education Transformation, "failing to educate a subsector of our populations means that subsector will be denied the opportunities presented by the dynamic twenty-first-century economy."

And this lack of opportunity has dire implications for the economic health of the whole country. Human capital is the foundation for high productivity, entrepreneurship and innovation, and, ultimately, sustainable economic growth.

While traditional education reforms to incorporate greater flexibility and higher standards into the system are still necessary, they are not sufficient. Even more important is to restore the student at the center of system, and refocus on improving learning. This means generating more data-driven systems so we know what works, promoting collaborative knowledge creation, extending the available time for learning, and allowing students and teachers to experiment and develop personalized methods.

According to Eugenio Severin, Chilean entrepreneur and former chief of the staff to his country's minister of education, this is where new technologies can play a role in dramatically improving education quality. The founder of the collaborative teacher training platform Docente al Dia, Severin made his case arguing that blended learning programs can both improve "traditional" teacher skills and expand access to education resources at lower costs.

A corollary to his argument about technology is the need for a broader subset of the community to become engaged in reform. The formal political process and government bureaucracies can no longer be the only conduit for dissatisfaction with the education system, because innovation will probably not come from these quarters. Instead, change will come from the engagement of more entrepreneurs, business and philanthropic interests, and the participation of Hispanic parents.

The debate needs to expand to these broader spheres in order to lead to raised awareness of the problems and generate fresh solutions. The challenges are too big and the stakes too high, and the obstacles exist on too many levels, for the rest of society to not get involved. As the recent Brookings report "Investment in Global Education: A Strategic Imperative for Business" argues, "While governments and international aid donors must be pushed to do more, new actors are clearly needed to advance the status of education."

As the Brookings report suggests, the private sector has an important role to play. Private programs will be able to provide adult education, improve professional training, and provide young students with better career information.

Other minority communities facing such achievement gaps have made progress and can teach Hispanics valuable lessons. There are a number of African American leaders that provide examples of social entrepreneurship, developing new institutions and launching initiatives fighting to improve education. We Hispanics should follow that lead, and develop leadership from outside the system.

There has already been some progress in this area. There is Alex Hernandez at the Charter School Growth Fund, Ximena Hartsock, who collaborated with Michelle Rhee on StudentsFirst, and Julio Fuentes, the President and CEO of the Hispanic Council for Reform and Educational Options. There is Fernando Zulueta, the CEO of Academica Corp, Florida's largest charter school management group.

But much more can -- and must -- be done. When it comes to dropout rates, and reconnecting adults with educational opportunities, technology has a critical role to play. Especially for those working, often full time and with families, the promise of distance and blended learning options may be the only path toward higher education for the more than 85 percent of Latino adults without a bachelors degree.

In other areas too -- including language acquisition and technical education -- Hispanic entrepreneurs could make a significant impact. But right now the role of the Hispanic community in this sort of innovation is at a crossroads. For the sake of our economic future -- and that of our children -- we must recommit to finding new ways to improve our education system.