March 20, 2009

School Matters: Putting an Accent on Latino Students’ Needs

By Carolyn Goossen
New America Media

Editor’s Note: In his education speech last week, Obama urged a renewed focus on public education reform, and spoke of how Latino students are “dropping out faster than just about everyone else.” However, he and his administration so far have yet to tackle the issue of English learners in this country, says Patricia Gándara, a professor of education at UCLA, and co-author of “The Latino Education Crisis: The Consequences of Failed Social Policies.” Gándara spoke to NAM education editor Carolyn Ji Jong Goossen about the new administration’s education agenda, and the challenges of educating English Language Learners.

Question: Was there anything in Obama’s education speech this week that really stood out for you in the context of educating Latino kids?

Gándara: No, nothing stood out with respect to Latino students’ education. I have no doubt about Obama’s sincere intentions. But the speech was a speech that could have been given by the last administration. It was about more accountability, merit pay.

Merit pay for teachers—nobody has figured out how to do this without more division. There was no specific proposal for what to do about the massive dropout problem. The solution sounded like it was going to be more charter schools, and I understand that (Secretary of Education) Arne Duncan has already said this is not a solution. I would have liked it if there had been some mention of how accountability has shortchanged so many kids, including English Language Learners and their teachers.

Q: The economic stimulus bill signed into law $100 billion for education. Will that find its way to Latino students?

Gándara: One big hole is that nowhere in the stimulus package is there anything focused on English Language Learners. These students make up 10 percent of all the kids in the country, and they perform at lower levels than just about anyone else.

I’ve been working with a group of academics across the country that has been doing research (on English Language Learners). We are trying to outline to the Obama Administration how they may want to target some of this money for English learners —everything from good high quality preschool that respects students’ home language and culture, to much better training for teachers.

Q: What is the best way of getting more Latino teachers?

Gándara: I think that there are two avenues. One is focusing on people who’ve demonstrated an interest in teaching and who have been aides in classrooms, which has proven to be effective.

Then there are also a lot of undergraduates who have never been counseled into teaching. This is especially true in the most selective colleges, like in the UC system.

Q: Do you think Sec. Duncan will prioritize the issues facing Latino students?

Gándara: It’s really early to make judgments. I’ve been hearing that he’s a great guy, sensitive, and thoughtful. But I’ve also been hearing language coming from him that sounds like (former education secretary Margaret) Spellings: more accountability, higher standards, increasing the number of charter schools.

He’s been in Chicago, so he has seen the issues facing Latino and black students, but so far we haven’t heard anything that sounds different.

Q: The stimulus bill requires all states to take steps to tackle inequities in access to top teaching talent for poor and minority children. Will this lead to better teachers for Latino students?

Gándara: I don’t know how they are going to do it, but I think that the redistribution of teachers is an absolutely critical issue. The Gates Foundation has made this their new strategy. They’ve put aside their small-school strategy because it’s insufficient, and they are going to focus on redistribution of teachers, merit pay, and greater professional development of teachers. There are reasons we that we don’t send our best teachers to the kids who need them the most. It’s hard to do.

Q: What kind of federal strategies do you hope to see under Duncan?

Gándara: I hope they stop saying “everyone proficient by 2014.” I hope they look at how the accountability system has really punished people and find more ways to support people instead. They are pushing money out the door right now and that’s nice, but after a-year-and-a-half, when that money disappears, what happens? I’d like to see a long-term plan for how we will invest in schools.

In terms of English language learners, we have to take the yoke of tests off these kids and stop punishing teachers just because they teach these kids. Their schools are disproportionately being threatened with closure because the students cannot perform on tests they don’t understand.

Q: California is 47th out of 50 in per-student funding. Is it critical or how the money is spent?

Gándara: My sense is that, yes, it’s important to look at how you spend your money, because if you aren’t thoughtful you can waste the funds, so I’m not a proponent of just more money.

But I feel so strongly that in this country we have put the entire job of addressing inequalities of our societies on our schools. We provide very little social support for low-income families. We say schools are somehow supposed to equalize society, take kids with no Medicare, no social services, and help them onto college. And it’s just not possible. People have got to face up to this.

Q: Do you think the Dream Act, which helps immigrant students pursuing higher education, will be passed under this new administration?

Gándara: I am banking on it. I’m not hopeful that in the next year we will have any discussion about immigration reform, which we badly need. But I’m hopeful that the Dream Act will get tacked on to another bill. We are talking about a pittance, not much money. It’s not that many kids! It’s the cream of the crop, kids who have gone through so many hurdles.

Q: Pres. Barack Obama vowed that by 2020, the United States would lead the world in college graduation rates. What kind of college-specific reforms would help Latino students?

Gándara: We need more college access programs. They don’t solve it all. But one of the reasons why they are limited in their impact is that they are small. I think that they should systematically occur in all schools.

We need more counselors in those schools to guide and monitor those kids and work with them, and provide support for them to get remedial education while they move forward, not wait until they are behind. We need to figure out how to make it real for these kids that a college education, or a really good career education, is there for you if you are wiling to invest your own efforts.

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