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Bridging the Educational Gap

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Latino families have the highest workplace participation rates in the country. In most recent years, they have worked more hours per week than other Americans. Their median family income is higher than that of black families, but only because they tend to have more adults working in each household. The largest single barrier to getting ahead in America for Latino families is education.

All the measurements point to a people willing to work, and work hard. But fewer Latinos finish high school; of the group that finishes fewer make the jump to college; and of those that begin college, fewer earn a four year degree than other Americans. In the short term, it means fewer Latinos making the jump into a secure place in the middle class. Over the long haul it means something far scarier: less accumulation of wealth, less ability to transfer wealth between the generations, and in decades to come, a significant part of the population under-performing economically.

That ugly future for Latinos in America will mean more for the country with each succeeding decade, as their presence moves from a little more than one in seven to about one in three by mid-century. I have been visiting public schools as a reporter for many years, and as a parent for the past 17 years. I have been perplexed through all those years by the inability of our kids to move ahead. I have long since come to the conclusion that parts of the blame belongs in a lot of different places.

Urban School Systems:

Latino students are heavily concentrated in some of the biggest school districts in the United States: LA Unified, New York City, Chicago, Houston, Miami-Dade. To a degree, geography is destiny. In the older cities like Chicago and New York, Latino kids tend to attend schools that are heavily segregated and in the oldest poorest neighborhoods. These kids walk out the front door of some of the worst housing in their cities, and head to some of the oldest active school buildings in their cities. Concentrated poverty yields a student body that needs more of everything and simply doesn't have it: the children come from homes where parents tend to have few years of schooling, where there are few books, and few opportunities for language enrichment beyond watching television.

Seniority Rules:

In the school districts that educate a big chunk of the Latino population, the best, most experienced, most talented teachers can use their years of service to bid out of the worst schools. Heavily Latino schools tend to have, on average, fewer experienced teachers, even though the schools have some of the hardest and most challenging work to do in American education. It's a terrible mismatch.

School Financing:

Outside the big urban districts, Latino school kids are clustered in places where one of the chief funding sources for education is property taxes. Think of it - we as a country have decided that the kids who come from homes where English is less likely spoken (or spoken well), where adults have short school careers, where kids are already lagging in standardized testing in the early grades of elementary school, will have their educations paid for by the meager taxes paid on low-cost housing. How much smarter babies in high income families were to choose to be born to mothers who live in very expensive homes!

Bridging the Culture Gap:

Latino parents who got much of their education in another country, or were not successful students during their own childhoods, are not rushing to the local public schools to turn them around. They have told me they don't feel welcome in the school building. They've talked of feeling awkward and out of place. Their own educational deficits end up having a heavy impact in the lives of their own kids. As a country, we haven't yet figured out how to break that cycle. We haven't solved the riddle of how to turn the desire in Latino families for their own children to do better into policy. We are far from figuring out how to make sure the lack of school success in the 1980s and 1990s doesn't turn into underfunded Social Security checks in the 2030s.

This week's edition of Destination Casa Blanca looked at all these questions and more; specifically about Obama Administration initiatives in education, uniform national standards, whether or not education is underfunded, charter schools, and the depressing numbers for Latinos in colleges and universities.

Though the guests came from different ideological perspectives, the discussion wasn't as divisive as it would have been in earlier decades. Left, right, and center share more agreement than you might realize about what has to happen in education, especially when it comes to lifting up low-performing schools and doing better by the lowest-performing students. It was a somber, and still hopeful discussion, and I urge you to listen to excerpts.

This is a time of breathtaking experimentation in American schools. The hard thing for me to handle is what happens to individual age cohorts when one new approach or another doesn't pan out. So, the experiment didn't work - do you get to be in 5th grade again? Do you take the risk of falling behind peers elsewhere when a standardized test is coming down the pike that may bring heavy judgment down on your teachers and their bosses? For a long time, we haven't had a culture of education in this country that simply states, from the beginning, the unremarkable proposition that not every kid learns every discipline at the same speed and with the same proficiency. We have long organized elementary and secondary education around the idea that unless an eighth grader masters eighth grade math, eighth grade reading, and eighth grade science, they will either be in the eighth grade next year, or the ninth. There's very little room for individual response to individual needs in that approach. Granted, it would be hard to place a boy or girl at the age of most eighth graders in sixth grade English, ninth grade math, and seventh grade science; even if testing told us that would be the most appropriate way to respond to a kid's individual strengths and weaknesses.

So what we get instead is a system that operates by the conceit that most kids, most of the time, master most of the subject matter for most grades so that most students finish high school around the same age - no matter what they really know. Professors who teach young undergrads have been telling me for years that they have been trying to teach a demanding syllabus in classes for freshmen and sophomores to students simply not prepared for the rigors of college work.

So what's the right response? Relax college standards? Keep them high and push accountability back down onto the high schools? Let high school be as long as it needs to be to educate young adults to tough standards, even if it means not graduating with your peers? As a public school kid, married to a public school kid, who has raised a family of public school kids, I find the answers that have been given me for many years now are unsatisfactory. The answers just don't match the realities faced by more than 40 million students between kindergarten and the end of high school.

We should be running around like the school building is on fire, because it is. And the consequences stretch out from today for decades to come.