Despite Sotomayor Nomination, Latino Academic Gap Still Huge

06/27/2009 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

President Obama's nomination of Judge Sonia Sotomayor to the Supreme Court is inviting glossy-eyed "only in America" commentary domestically and throughout the world. But as the likely confirmation storm gathers force, biography will surely be pitted against ideology. To her opponents Judge Sotomayor's judicial philosophy -- particularly her flirtation with identity politics -- raises red flags of judicial activism and the impulse to legislate from the bench. To her supporters, the President above all, biography trumps everything else.

The President's choice embodies a powerful life history of triumph over considerable adversity: a child of Puerto Rican working class immigrants, Judge Sotomayor went from the housing projects in the Bronx where she grew up, via Catholic School, and the most exclusive of Ivies (Princeton and Yale Law School) into the pinnacle of American legal power. While many are celebrating her journey - above all Latinos for whom her story captures the dreams and ambitions of America's largest yet still strangely invisible minority, the nomination should also be a cause for concern. Plotting Judge's Sotomayor journey against the realities of most Latinos and Latinas reveals just how much the Obama administration will need to do to bring the promise of the American Dream to the vast majority of the over 46 million Latinos (now 15 percent of the population and projected to reach thirty percent by 2050).

Although some Latinos, especially Latinas, are successfully navigating the American educational system, the majority are struggling academically and leaving schools without acquiring the skills necessary to function in the new unforgiving global economy. Nationwide Latinos represent nearly 25 percent of public school students in kindergarten through 12th grade. They have the highest high school dropout rates and the lowest college attendance rates of all racial/ethnic groups. Many will face lives at or below the poverty level laboring at the lowest echelons of our increasingly competitive economy.

The majority of Latinos face disadvantage and poverty. Child Trends reports [PDF] that at the dawn of the 21th century, Latino children were more likely than other group of children to live in very poor neighborhoods: "Sixty-one percent of poor Hispanic children lived in neighborhoods with a high concentration of poor residents (a neighborhood where at least 40 percent of the residents are poor), compared to 56 percent of white children and 53 percent of black children."

While there was some improvement in Latino poverty rates in the first half of this decade, the recent economic collapse is reversing most of those modest gains. The most recent data [PDF] show that almost 30 percent of all Latino children are growing up in poverty. And according to the National Center for Children in Poverty [PDF], 9.5 million children (or over 60 percent of all Latino children) live in low-income households.

Latinos and Latinas are struggling in schools. If we envision academic trajectories as a pipeline whose flow begins in preschool to prepare students to be carried through successive stages of education, resulting in high school and post-secondary studies, we would expect that a smooth, proportional current of students would arrive at each level, regardless of their demographic background. But this is not the case. At all educational levels, Latino students are lagging behind their white and other peers. National studies reveal an academic gap emerging as early as kindergarten and increasing systematically through graduate education. On average, Latinos achieve below their white and Asian peers upon entering school and this discrepancy widens over time.

By the 12th grade, Latino students average only an 8th grade reading level and are more likely to drop out of high school than all other groups. National Center for Education Statistics reports that 22.1 percent of 16- to 24- year old Latinos were high school dropouts, compared to 5.8 percent for whites and 10.7 percent for African Americans. School dropout rates and high school completion rates are correlated. In 2006, only 63.2 percent of Latinos between the ages of 25 through 29 had completed high school, compared to 93.4 percent of whites and 86.3 percent of. Further, 23.9 percent of Latinos had less than a ninth-grade education compared with only 3.5 percent of whites.

Although the Latino/white achievement gap (as well as the black/white gap) narrowed during the 1970's and 80's, it began to widen again during the 1990s. It persists today. Considering a variety of outcomes, Latinos perform poorly throughout their school years and are under-represented among students who earn college degrees. Based on 2000 U.S. Census data, of 100 Latino students who enter elementary school, 46 graduate from high school; 26 go onto college, of which 9 enroll in four-year college and 17 enroll in a community college; of the 17 only 1 transfers to a four-year college (notably of the 26 who enrolled in college, only 8 completed their four-year degree and 2 earned a graduate or professional degree. Any surprise, then, that according to the Times Judge Sotomayor found herself almost entirely without Latina peers at Princeton?

Multiple indicators across the developmental trajectory suggest that Latinos are at a significant educational disadvantage from the time they enter kindergarten all the way to college. Future projections foreshadow negative trends unless the Administration develops significant new interventions. These interventions will ideally be based on an empirical and conceptual understanding of the factors that impede progress. A constellation of variables aligns to undermine Latino academic progress -- including poverty, segregation, parental education, language, documentation status, school factors (including segregation by language, race and poverty), English language learning, teacher preparation and expectations, individual socio-emotional and student engagement factors, generational factors, and social supports among others.

Judge Sotomayor's biography is all the more inspiring considering the odds she faced. After celebrating her biography and debating her ideology let us turn this moment into a reflection of the work ahead so that the more than 16 million Latina and Latino children have a fair chance to follow her path.

Marcelo M. Suárez-Orozco and Carola Suárez-Orozco, co-founders of the Harvard Immigration Projects, are co-Directors of Immigration Studies at NYU. Their most recent book, Learning a New Land: Immigrant Students in American Society won the Virginia and Warren Stone Prize, awarded annually by Harvard University Press for an Outstanding Book on Education and Society.