01/29/2013 03:54 pm ET Updated Mar 31, 2013

Obama's Second-term Education Agenda: Where Do Latinos Fit in?

Amidst all of the election-year sniping, education reform never became a major issue in the 2012 presidential campaign. Even though both candidates released their competing proposals, the closest education came to center stage was a couple of sharp exchanges during the debates, quickly forgotten.

This is unfortunate, because the evidence on educational attainment, as demonstrated by recently released reports, including the important TIMSS and PIRLSS reading and math assessments, continues to show the extent to which America struggles in this area. Indeed, for all the debate over deficit reduction and national security, improving educational quality is one of the most critical challenges facing the U.S. if it hopes to maintain its international advantage in competitiveness and innovation.

While reform is reliably controversial, both left and right seem to agree that the Obama administration has introduced some important initiatives during its first term -- most notably, the Race to the Top program that incentivizes state-level reforms while leaving states flexibility in implementation. There is also the School Improvement Grants program, which focuses on improving low-performing schools, and the Supportive School Discipline Initiative, which begins to reform school disciplinary practices that disproportionately send minority students into the criminal justice system -- a dynamic known as the "school-to-prison pipeline."

It is in this context that Latinos, in particular, should take interest in what the administration plans for the second term. In 2012, Latinos voted nearly 3 to 1 in favor of President Obama, despite their generalized disappointment over the stagnation of immigration reform legislation. And while immigration reform was a cornerstone of the president's proposed agenda, Latinos should be at least as concerned, if not more, with the direction of educational policies that seek to shrink the so-called "achievement gap" between white and minority students.

This gap is large, and by many measurements growing. In nearly every educational indicator, Latinos (like African Americans) perform worse on average than white students. Nationwide, Latinos have a 31 percent dropout rate, a full 9 percent worse than average. They score consistently below average on the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) exams, and only 47.2 percent graduate from college, compared to 63 percent nationally. In some states, the numbers are even worse -- in Minnesota, there is a 33 percent gap between the white and Latino high school graduation rates, and the District of Colombia had the second biggest gap, of 30 percent.

While the achievement gap is a problem in itself, it is also a key driver of economic inequality, and thus, a major threat to U.S. economic performance. American innovation and productivity -- and, by extension, competitiveness in the global economy -- has a lot to do with its human capital. According to Pew, a record 23 percent of the nation's 55 million K-12 students are now Latino. Given those numbers, it becomes clear that it is simply not possible for the U.S. to maintain its long-term human capital advantage with such a large chunk of its future workforce under-educated and under-prepared.

The question is, then, what fundamentally drives this gap. While some states, like Florida, have implemented school reforms that saw improvements in Latino educational performance, it seems increasingly likely that the problem may run much deeper. A number of researchers and reformers are arguing that it is primarily socio-economic factors -- particularly, the influence of poverty -- that negatively impact students' ability to learn. If true, it has serious implications -- namely, that reform approaches that fail to address systemic poverty will be largely ineffective.

For instance, the most recent TIMSS-PIRLS report points to poverty rates as the most significant driver of inequality in achievement results across the U.S. Not only that, but schools with higher numbers of low income students also performed worse compared with international averages -- while at the same time, the scores of the highest performers get even better.

This wouldn't come as a surprise to readers of Paul Tough's new book, How Children Succeed: Grit, Curiosity, and the Hidden Power of Character, which argues that the stressors of poverty -- inadequate nutrition and housing, abuse or lack of emotional support, and parental divorce or incarceration, among others -- lead to the stunted development of the skills and character necessary for educational success. Tough argues persuasively that it is not IQ or traditional "cognitive" ability that predicts academic success, but rather character traits such as self-discipline, curiosity, resilience, and optimism -- precisely the traits that a childhood in poverty makes it hard to come by.

As education expert Thomas Toch points out in his review of How Children Succeed, the educational reform camp has been split between two sides: those that focus on poverty, and those that focus on school reforms. In the U.S., the latter camp has largely dominated, including within the Obama Administration, leading to a focus on teacher training and state-level governance. This is not necessarily an issue that breaks down along traditional ideological lines, as conservative commentators like Charles Murray have also focused on the breakdown of traditional organizations -- particularly family and the church -- that can give struggling kids the support they need.

What does this all mean for Latinos? If President Obama is truly interested in improving their situation, he cannot only focus on immigration reform, nor on school reform. As Tough says, while "the education debate usually focuses on issues inside the classroom, these don't accurately represent the biggest obstacles to academic success that poor children often face."