Latina View: Obama Fails the Education Test... By Ignoring Latinos

All I kept thinking this week every time I heard the phrase “Education Nation” bandied about was: What nation are they talking about?

The nation I live in has 50 million Hispanics, compromising 17% of the U.S. population—second in size only to the number of white Americans.
 
And yet when President Barack Obama sat down with the Today show’s Matt Lauer on Monday for a much-ballyhooed, 30-minute interview timed to the two-day Education Nation Summit taking place in New York City, he never once said the word, “Latino.”

Why is this such an alarming oversight? Because, like it or not, given the size of the nation’s Hispanic population (and its continued, rapid-fire growth that will make us the majority in many U.S. cities, including New York, by the end of this decade), as Latinos go, so goes America.

By that calculus, the direction we’re heading in is bleak. Latinos have the highest high school dropout rate—9%— of any group, be it whites, African-Americans or Asian Americans. Only 13% of us have received at least a bachelor’s degree, and, right now, only 28% of college-age Latinos are enrolled in college (versus 45 percent of whites and 34 percent of African-Americans).

In other words, the fastest-growing group of young Americans is also the group least likely to finish high school, and the least likely to get a college degree. Does President Obama really think it possible to build an “Education Nation” on top of such a weak foundation?

Actually, I have no idea what he thinks, because he never addressed these statistics in the NBC interview (and Matt Lauer certainly didn’t ask). Even worse: The topic of Latino educational achievement received, at best, glancing attention during the Education Nation Summit. Even though there were 12 seminars presented over the course of two days, only one attempted to speak to this issue—and it lumped together African-American and Latino students.

You’d think if anyone understood that minority communities are not a one-size-fits-all proposition, it would be our nation’s first African-American president. And yet there was the “Shrinking the Achievement Gap” panel, which posited to explore “what’s impeding progress” for black and Hispanic students.

One of the biggest impediments to progress is the very nature of this panel, which does not give dedicated attention to the unique needs and challenges Latinos face when trying to navigate the U.S. education system—starting with language, an obstacle that does not apply to African-Americans.

Whether it’s a newly-arrived immigrant trying to master a third grade reading level, or a first-generation Latina whose family at home speaks mostly Spanish, developing the level of English-language skill necessary to get ahead remains a formidable proposition for many U.S. Hispanics.

Then there are the cultural expectations that become impediments. Many Latinos are relied on as family caretakers, cooking dinner for siblings, taking Abuelita to doctor appointments, while their parents work, meaning homework may not always get done, classes may not always be attended. And for children whose parents are undocumented, the stress and instability of the situation can make dreams of higher education seem little more than fantasy.

In addition, roughly 16% of Latinos live below the poverty line. Statistics repeatedly show a negative correlation between economic status and standardized test scores, but poor Hispanics are particularly vulnerable to abandoning their educations, because they face the added cultural pressure to provide financial support for their often large extended families.

Latinas fare even worse than their male counterparts. According to a 2009 survey conducted by the National Women’s Law Center and the Mexican American Legal Defense Fund, 98% of Latinas want to graduate high school—but 41% end up either taking longer than 4 years to finish or dropping out altogether. This is particularly alarming because, if Latinos are the largest driving force in American society, it is Hispanic women who hold the key: Research has found that a mother’s education level is one of the biggest predictors of educational attainment for the next generation.

Among the gender-specific problems impacting education achievement cited by the young Hispanic women surveyed were negative stereotypes of Latinas as “submissive underachievers,” as well as a lack of role models. That lack of role models was apparent at the summit, where not a single person on the list of keynote speakers (which included Harlem Children’s Zone CEO Geoffrey Canada, President of MIT Susan Hockfield, and retired U.S. Army General Colin Powell) was Latino.

Certainly the first step in helping Latinos thrive academically should have been inviting them to be part of the conversation—especially a conversation as important as this one, which will shape America’s standing for the rest of the century. President Obama made the mistake of ignoring us this time around. It is not a mistake he can afford to make again.

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