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May 1, 1994
Vol. 51
No. 8

Improving the Achievement of Hispanic Students

Compared to blacks or whites, Hispanics enter school later, leave school earlier, and are less likely to complete high school and enter or complete college. They remain the most undereducated major segment of the U.S. population,” asserts the National Council of La Raza (De La Rosa and Maw 1990). To those who say that the answer is simply, “Get tough,” the research replies, “It doesn't work with this group.” For example, while efforts to increase course requirements correlate somewhat with better academic achievement among many groups, they have had no measurable positive effect on Hispanic students (General Accounting Office 1989).
The ever-growing presence of Hispanic students is a phenomenon that has already dramatically affected our school systems, in larger urban areas more than any other. Indeed, to use the adjectives “explosive” or “overwhelming” is not hyperbolic.

Students with Roots in Latin America

Already 1 in 12 persons living in this country can trace his or her origins to Latin America. Since 1980, this population has increased at a rate five times that of non-Hispanic whites, African Americans, and Asians combined.
Not surprisingly, these statistics are mirrored in our schools. Already 1 in 10 eighth graders is Hispanic, and demographic projections indicate a nearly 3 percent increase in their numbers for the rest of the 1990s, more than doubling the increase among African Americans during this same period, while non-Hispanic white youth will actually see their numbers decline by almost 4 percent (Hodgkinson 1992).
Even though the 1973 Supreme Court case Lau v. Nichos directed schools to “provide an education comprehensible to limited-English-proficient (LEP) students,” administrators without a thorough knowledge of the particular needs of Hispanics have found themselves scrambling to provide curriculums and programs.
At every grade level, a higher percentage of Hispanic children lags behind their modal grade than either non-Hispanic whites or blacks. By the 12th grade, about 48 percent are so categorized. Three out of four 8th graders cannot pass a test of simple mathematical operations using decimals or fractions. Hispanics are consistently less likely to be placed in programs for the gifted than any other ethnic group.
In addition, their SAT scores are significantly below the average. This statistic is all the more distressing when one considers that since 1975, other minorities have made greater strides in improving their subtest scores. In 1991, Mexican-American students scored on the average 45 points below the national average on the math section (Hodgkinson 1992, De La Rosa and Maw 1990, National Center for Education Statistics 1992).
Lucas, Henze, and Donato (1990) have noted that much of the research conducted on “effective schooling” for Hispanics has largely ignored the difficulties they face outside school. For example, Hispanic 8th graders are almost twice as likely as African Americans to be approached by drug dealers, and are only somewhat less likely to have something stolen from them.
Further, few Hispanic teachers are available as role models. The ratio of white non-Hispanic students to white non-Hispanic teachers is 17:1; for African Americans the ratio stands at 40:1. For Hispanics, however, this student-to-teacher ratio soars to 64:1 (Hodgkinson 1992).
Nonetheless, the disastrously high dropout rate among Hispanic youth must rank as the most troubling dynamic of this population. Since 1972, the percentage of white non-Hispanics who drop out of school fell by almost 4 percent, and the African-American dropout rate improved some 8 percent. In 1972, 34 percent of Hispanics dropped out before graduation; by 1991 this statistic had risen to 35 percent. What are we to do, and where should we start?

Advice Based on Research

  1. Place value on the students' languages and cultures. Teachers and staff should attempt to gain a rudimentary command of the Spanish language. In addition, they should not punish students for using their native language in contexts where English is not expressly called for.At the very least, teachers should become knowledgeable about the various Hispanic cultures. Let us not forget that although “Hispanic” is a convenient label for many of us, most Hispanics consider themselves first and foremost Mexicans, Puerto Ricans, Colombians, and so forth. A child from a Mexican family learns certain customs utterly unknown in a Cuban family, and vice versa.While touring a largely Hispanic school in the Pilsen neighborhood of Chicago, I noticed that the teachers had set aside a separate space, bright and ample, for cultural projects. At that moment, a team of middle school students was constructing out of clay a model of the ancient Aztec city of Tenochtitlán (present-day Mexico City). They had been encouraged to study the architecture and raison d'être of its structures, temple worship, and historical significance in the light of Spain's eventual conquest of the region.
  2. Set high expectations for language-minority students. Educators can, for example, enable students to exit ESL programs quickly, offer bilingual advanced and honors courses, ask colleges to send Hispanic recruiters, and invite Hispanic graduates to return to school to encourage their peers. Further, they should not assume that these students' language barriers make it difficult, if not impossible, for them to succeed. Keep the standards high for them, and they will respond in kind.
  3. Design staff development to help teachers and other staff serve language-minority students more effectively. Target programs that address the cultural dynamics of this population and teach strategies shown to be successful with Hispanic students. Many common and harmful mistakes could easily be avoided if staff members were simply made aware of the cultural dynamics Hispanic children are raised with.For instance, I have overheard several teachers absolutely infuriated with their Hispanic students because whenever they were admonished, they would look down at the floor and not at the authority figure addressing them. For us, not looking at someone is a sign of disrespect; however, in most Hispanic cultures, looking at someone directly while being corrected is a sign of defiance!
  4. Design counseling programs that give special attention to language-minority students. Obviously, counselors who speak Spanish can more effectively address problems originating in the home. Further, counselors should investigate grants, endowments, and other financial aid available to Hispanic high school graduates for college study.
  5. Encourage parents of language-minority students to become involved in their children's education. There are numerous ways to accomplish this: offer ESL class to the parents, hold monthly parents' nights, schedule neighborhood meetings, and arrange parent-teacher conferences for the morning hours. This final suggestion is crucial at a time when most U.S. households have both dad and mom working outside the home. This is all the more true among the poor, who are often subject to working the least desirable shifts.In addition, our whole concept of “family” in the Hispanic culture needs to be revised. The nuclear family, now so much a part of our mind-set, is very alien to Hispanics. For them, cousins and grandparents are as much “family” as are siblings and parents; frequently, all live in the same household. Padrinos (godparents) play as great a role in the upbringing of children as do parents. School files should contain the names, addresses, and phone numbers not only of the biological parents but also of these “spiritual” parents, the padrinos, so that invitations to school meetings and functions can be sent to these extended family members.
  6. Build a strong commitment among school staff members to empower language-minority students through education. Lucas, Henze, and Donato (1990) call this action “the most fundamental ... and the most difficult to describe in concrete terms.” It is largely demonstrated in those intangible but powerful “investments” that caring teachers make, like tutoring a student during lunch or calling at night to see how a student is getting along with classmates.It can include more, however. When students see that their teachers and administrators are aware of the social and political pressures their parents face, and are actively engaged in helping “the system” assist their families, they too become invested in the process of education.

Tools for Bridging the Gap

Other suggestions for improving the educational performance of Hispanic students come from the Hispanic Policy Development Project, Inc., of New York. Reporting on the study, Nicolau and Ramos (1990) claim that the keys are “strong personal outreach, nonjudgmental communication, and the ability to convey respect for the parents' feelings and concerns.” Such communication, they acknowledge, takes lots of time, “perseverance,” and “creativity.” Finally, Nicolau and Ramos maintain that “all the programs that lacked the support of teachers and principals failed to increase Hispanic parent involvement.”
What these researchers mean by a “personal outreach” is not sending letters. It is phone calls, home visits, and personal greetings by principals and/or teachers at the school door. It must be remembered that new immigrants are often distrustful of “institutions.”
Before coming to this largely Hispanic area, I taught at an upper-middle class high school, where the parents were impressed by sharp presentations and five-year development plans. My experience of Hispanic parents, however, is that they much prefer getting to know the teacher and principals personally, sitting down with them, and sharing their struggles and their dreams. The more humanized and warm the environment, the more they respond. At one school in the study, for example, the principal and teachers invited all the parents to a McDonald's and waited on them!
Being nonjudgmental and respectful of their concerns involves giving families the tools to bridge the gap between their native culture and our own. Too often, administrators imply that Hispanic parents must discard everything that is not “true-blue American.” When a parent asks a question that appears “stupid,” remember that these newcomers may not be aware of even the most rudimentary elements of our educational systems. How could they be?

Time for a New Approach

Admittedly, little systematic research on Hispanic students exists, and what does is not empirical in nature. Clearly, however, what we're currently doing is not working.
Considering the unique challenges—and the wonderful potential—that Hispanic students bring to our nation's schools, we must break free of our preconceived notions, prejudices, and jingoistic demands and respond energetically and positively. Our fastest growing student population certainly isn't going to go away. By extending our best efforts to these children and youth, we all stand to benefit.
References

De La Rosa, D., and C. E. Maw. (1990). Hispanic Education: A Statistical Portrait 1990. Washington, D.C.: National Council of La Raza.

General Accounting Office. (1989). “The Effect of Education Reform on Student Achievement.” Urban Education 26: 160–175.

Hodgkinson, H. L. (1992). A Demographic Look at Tomorrow. Washington, D.C.: Institute For Educational Leadership, Inc.

Lucas, T., R. Henze, and R. Donato. (1990). “Promoting the Success of Latino Language-Minority Students: An Exploratory Study of Six High Schools.” Harvard Educational Review 60: 315–340.

National Center for Education Statistics. (1992). Digest of Education Statistics 1992. (DHHS Publication No. NCES 92-097). Washington, D.C.: U.S. Government Printing Office.

Nicolau, S., and C. L. Ramos. (1990). Together Is Better: Building Strong Relationships Between Schools and Hispanic Parents. New York: Hispanic Policy Development Foundation. (ERIC Document Reproduction Service No. ED 325 543).

Christopher K. Howe has been a contributor to Educational Leadership.

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