Do School Leadership Ranks Reflect District Demographics?

This recent story in the Sun-Sentinel about concerns a Palm Beach County Latino group raised has reminded me of an important facet of covering education: school boards and administrator ranks.

According to the story, the Hispanic Education Coalition of Palm Beach County believes that a lack of Latino representation on the school board and in school leadership positions is negatively affecting student achievement. The coalition is calling for “a new superintendent with a “proven” record of minority student improvement, along with more Hispanics serving as teachers, principals, senior administrators and school board members.”

The group pointed out that “there are no Hispanics among the seven board members, the 24 senior district administrators, or the 21 educators promoted to the principal ranks this summer.”

In a district that is 28 percent Latino, only 7 percent of principals and administrators and 9 percent of teachers are Latino, noted reporter Marc Freeman.

Do the school boards and leadership ranks in your district reflect the student population? Have they kept up with changing demographics? If not, are any community groups raising concerns about representation?

The Great Recession’s Impact on Latino Children

Earlier this week, we looked at the pressures placed on children of undocumented immigrants. Today, the topic is the financial toll the Great Recession has put on Latino children.

According to a new report from the Pew Hispanic Center, more Latino children are living in poverty in the U.S. than ever before — the first time that non-white children make up the largest group of poor children in the country. In 2010, 6.1 million Latino children were living in poverty, an increase the report attributes to a combination of high birth rates, rising numbers and the rocky economy.

Among the report’s findings:

  • About two-thirds of poor Latino children have immigrant parents. However, 86 percent of the children are U.S. citizens.
  • The poverty rate for Latino children has increased more than the rates for other groups. Between 2007 and 2010, the rate for Latino children went up 6.4 percent, while the rate for black children rose 4.6 percent during the same period. The rate for white children went up 2.3 percent.
  • The poverty rate for the children of immigrant parents is a grim 40 percent — the highest since 1994.
  • Children whose parents have a high school diploma or less fared the worst. About 82 percent of poor Latino children of immigrants have parents with a high school education or less. About 73 percent of  the children of native-born parents with a high school education or less were living in poverty.
  • Only 8.7% of Latino children in families with a college-educated parent were impoverished.
  • Latino children living in poverty were less likely to be living in a single-mother household and less likely to be in families with an unemployed parent.
Financial straits are often one of the top reasons that Latino students drop out of school or fail to go on to college, so do these findings presage a grim future for Latino education? Are your districts seeing an increase in the number of students leaving school early to help support their families or forgoing college because of their family’s financial problems?
Talking to school counselors and administrators  about what they are seeing and hearing could lead to a good story about the impact of the Great Recession on one of the group’s most affected: Latino students.

“In the Shadows” with the Youngest Children

Monica beat me to it today with a post on the latest issue of the Harvard Educational Review, which focuses on how immigration status affects children. I’d also like to discuss this article, concentrating on the impact in the earliest years of these students’ lives.  This article makes a few important points about how undocumented status can exacerbate two issues that hinder cognitive development in young children: poverty and social capital.

Research on a cohort study of low-income families who were recruited to participate after they had a child born at one of New York City’s public hospitals showed disparities in cognitive development as early as two and three  years of age between the children of citizen/lawful immigrants and those of undocumented immigrants, even when other socioeconomic factors were accounted for.  The researchers traced the difference to greater economic hardship and fewer social supports for the undocumented parents, which resulted in longer work hours and less chance for children to access toys, books or center-based child care. These problems exist within many low-income families of all ethnicities and immigration statuses, but this research found they were especially concentrated among undocumented immigrants, many of whose children were U.S. citizens by birth.
The research is also a new book, Immigrants Raising Citizens, and New America Foundation’s Maggie Severns recently reviewed it for the Washington Monthly. The review gives useful background as to how the study evolved–at first, researcher Hirokazu Yoshikawa intended to study the survival strategies employed by immigrants of all statuses working low-wage jobs. But they observed immigration status was the factor that drove many families’ decision-making, and adjusted the research accordingly.

Severns notes some compelling comparisons, such as the contrast between two youngsters, one whose mother has immigration papers, the other without:

Three-year-old Lucio is the son of two undocumented Mexican immigrants. His mother, Alfreda, takes care of Lucio and some neighbors’ children during the day, and works the overnight shift at a Mexican restaurant in Brooklyn on the weekends. She is committed to her son’s learning, but she is often exhausted, sometimes even nodding off during job interviews. She also has little social support from friends or relatives.

Compare Lucio to Alberto, whose documented Dominican mother has a unionized (though still low-wage) job and a reliable social network. Alberto enjoys more toys, social interactions, and other stimulating experiences that enable his brain to grow. At the end of thirty-six months, his cognitive skills are three standard deviations above Lucio’s.

However, Severns says the book is long on anecdote and shorter on quantitative data. (Full disclosure: I have yet to read the book myself.) From the review, it appears to be a very localized ethnography. I already wonder if a similar study in Chicago would show different results. The review notes that while Dominicans in New York have an established neighborhood and social networks, Mexicans are scattered and less likely to access social capital. Here in Chicago, the situation is quite  different–there are large, well-known Mexican neighborhoods in the city and suburbs of all economic levels, and while there are few Dominicans and they are scattered, they are more likely to be well-educated and live in the suburbs.

Undocumented Immigrants: Students “in the Shadows”

Let’s start with some truisms: Not all Latinos are immigrants, and not all immigrants are undocumented. Many Latino families have been in the country for generations; many others entered the country and live here legally.

But coverage of Latino education issues would not be complete without covering issues related to immigration status. As we’ve noted here before, outside pressures play a major role in student achievement and help explain why the achievement gap seems so intransigent.

study published last week in the Harvard Educational Review points out the problems faced by children of undocumented immigrants and how those might affect school performance.

“Growing up in the Shadows” is a first-of-its-kind study synthesizing research that tracked undocumented children from birth to college and entry into the job market. It should be required reading for anyone covering communities and education and offers a grim look at the hurdles and concerns faced by undocumented children.

The numbers alone make this an important issue to examine: About 5.5 million children have parents who are in the country illegally; one in ten children live in mixed-status families (meaning at least one family member is undocumented); and about 79 percent of the children of undocumented parents are citizens (about four million).

Those children are “at risk of lower educational performance, economic stagnation, blocked mobility and ambiguous belonging” because of the family’s immigration status, researchers concluded. They grow up in an atmosphere of “fear and vigilance,” with parents who are less likely to be involved in schools.

“The threat of deportation results in lower levels of enrollment of citizen-children in programs they are eligible for, including child-care subsidies, public preschool, and food stamps, and lowered interactions and engagement with public institutions, such as schools,” the study concluded.

The children’s academic and social growth is also hampered by their parents’ working conditions, the researchers said, noting that many undocumented immigrants work twelve-hour days, six days a week under unsafe working conditions.

Although undocumented parents value education as much as other parents, the study notes that those families face other obstacles to education. Many are separated for long periods of time, and often go through a tumultuous reunification process. Children may often live in fear of being separated from their parents in the event of deportation.

Teenagers face an especially difficult set of problems, since legal status can create obstacles to typical coming-of-age rituals such as getting a driver’s license or applying to college. Many undocumented students do not find out their true legal status until they hit adolescence, making a fragile time of life even shakier.

Study: Connection to Heritage Improves School Achievement

A new study from the University of Missouri School of Education bolsters the belief that maintaining  native language fluency and a connection to one’s roots can help improve achievement in school.

The study,  “Culture Predicts Mexican-Americans’ College Self-Efficacy and College Performance,” concluded that Mexican-American students who maintain their ethnic roots and language have higher grade point averages than those raised in English-only environments. The paper was published in the journal Culture and College Outcomes.

“It’s a simple correlation, but living and learning within your cultural heritage is a benefit,” David Aguayo, one of the authors of the study told the MU News Bureau. “It could be speaking the language in school, eating certain foods, or interacting with other people who share your heritage. The stress level of being in a new culture will decrease if these students have a support system in school, while they are adjusting to other cultures.”

The Importance of Covering English Language Learners

If the theme of the last couple of weeks seems to be English Language Learners, it might be because the topic continues to be a rich source for story ideas and a magnet for controversy. Just this week, the Florida Board of Education approved rule changes for that  growing group of students and a study questioned whether the state of California is misidentifying significant numbers of students as English Language Learners.

In Florida, the rules approved by the state board will allow parents of students considered English language learners to withdraw their children from an English learner program, regardless of their proficiency level. The student would be transferred to a regular class taught by an ESL-qualified teacher, according to this Associated Press story.

The changes were criticized by advocacy groups and the state’s teachers union, who worry that schools will not provide sufficient language  instruction for English Language Learners.

On the other side of the country, a study by the Center for Latino Policy Research at UC Berkeley suggests that California school districts are “misidentifying large numbers of entering kindergarten students as English learners.” The culprits according to the study are a home language survey and the California English Language Development Test, a proficiency test which identifies students who need help with English.

The study showed that the home language survey overidentifies the number of students who need to take the proficiency test. The vast majority of children (94 percent) who take the proficiency test are then deemed to lack English language proficiency.

“Being identified to take the CELDT almost guarantees a student’s classification as EL,” the study concluded. It goes on to note: “EL misidentification is important because it means that these students are not receiving the language support and education that is appropriate to their language skills.”

The researchers questioned the survey and test itself, as well as the way both are administered, noting that many test administrators were English-only people who did not have experience with test administration or English learners.

"Given the large number of English learners in California schools, it is critical for California to be at the forefront of developing the most accurate and effective system for identifying and assessing English learners," the study said. "English learners are one of the most vulnerable sectors of California's student population."

The same could be said for English Language Learners and schools nationwide. In California, 1.6 million students are classified as ELL; in Florida, the number last year was about 243,078.

The developments in both states point out how important it is for education writers to be examining issues related to English Language Learners and looking carefully at how schools classify and educate those students.


Are Schools Doing Enough for Non-English Speaking Parents?

In a recent column about the role of parental involvement in school, Los Angeles Times columnist Steve Lopez took issue with a local school board’s practice of conducting meetings in Spanish, a concession to its predominantly Latino population.

His initial reaction: ” Holding on to your native language is terrific. But parents who make no effort to learn English are limiting their own job prospects, hindering their ability to monitor their children’s education and giving their kids an extra burden if they enter school with limited English.”

The comments stirred up considerable public reaction, leading to this September 17 follow-up, in which Lopez examines the language issue more closely.

While acknowledging the difficulties of learning a new language, particularly for low-income families struggling just to survive, Lopez notes: “It’s undeniable that language barriers — and perhaps to an even greater extent, economic disadvantages — are major factors in the abysmal test scores and graduation rates in California and other states. Starting school without English can be a disorienting hardship for the student, a drag on classmates and a great burden on the teacher.”

Lopez seems to perpetuate the idea that Latino immigrants are not trying to learn English. But as someone who came to the United States as a child, I saw firsthand how hard my parents and other family members worked to master English. I’ve also seen that effort when writing stories about Latino education issues and have interviewed parents taking English classes at night or teaching themselves the language. Research, including this Pew Hispanic Center report, has also shown that Latino immigrants are learning English at the same rate as earlier generations of immigrants.

But the bigger question for education reporters might be what schools are doing to reach out to non-English speaking parents and encourage their involvement.

Are there free or low-cost English classes for parents, as I saw in one Boston-area school? Do schools send home paperwork and flyers translated into Spanish? Are school meetings and open houses conducted in both Spanish and English? How do teachers and school administrators treat parents who don’t speak English?

At the next school board meeting, PTA gathering, or open house, try tagging along with non-English speaking parents, and view the experience from their perspective. The resulting story could offer insight into the obstacles faced by immigrant parents. If your district offers English classes for parents, try following some parents through the process for a look at the issue through their eyes.

Are Schools Doing Enough to Prepare for Latino Population Growth?

This week’s sobering news that the SAT scores of  U.S. students are dropping probably did not surprise anyone who has worked as a teacher in recent years. If my classroom experience has revealed anything to me, it is that the education system in this country is in serious trouble–and that students are not getting the type of education they deserve and need.

It’s not for lack of effort or commitment on the part of educators. The vast majority of teachers put in long hours, exhaustive work and much personal investment into creating lesson plans, working with students, dealing with parents and grading papers. But they are often fighting confusing school policies, lack of resources, problems the students carry from outside school and pressure to focus on standardized tests.

Those issues are amplified when it comes to teaching the growing population of Latino students who are just learning English, have just arrived in the country,  serve as the translators for immigrant parents or who face hostility because of their national origin.

My questions for education reporters: Are your school districts preparing teachers for that student population? Are there professional development courses geared toward the best practices for teaching in multicultural classrooms? Are the schools looking at textbook purchases with an eye for diversity? For example, do history textbooks in a predominantly Latino district cover the history of Latinos in the country and in Latin America? Are those topics covered in the class curriculum?

I’m currently taking a graduate course examining issues and trends in literacy education. Among the best practices noted for improving reading comprehension are the importance of “authentic reading”–reading that applies directly to the lives of students- and the application of  “prior knowledge”–making sure students have a foundation in which to make connections to newly taught material.

But take a look at some of the suggested reading in a curriculum map put together by Common Core, which creates maps based on the Common Core State Standards. In one 8th grade Language Arts unit called “Looking Back on America,” the list includes works by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, Maya Angelou, John Adams, Langston Hughes and numerous readings about the women’s suffrage movement. It is certainly filled with worthy and educational reading, but noticeably scarce are works by Latino authors or about Latino history.

The suggested readings for a ninth grade unit about Literary Nonfiction also includes a diverse group of authors, including Eudora Welty, Virginia Woolf, Abraham Lincoln, James Baldwin, and Martin Luther King, Jr., but no Latino authors.

Is this happening in your district? If so, what effect is that having on student learning?

SAT Scores Decline for All Test-Takers, Particularly Latinos

The press release from the College Board announcing SAT scores for 2011 begins with good news:  43 percent of test-takers met college readiness benchmarks, and 2011 test-takers were the most diverse group in history.

Keep reading the report, however, and you’ll get the real meat of the findings — and the not-so-good news.

More students, including more minority, first-generation college-goers, and ELL’s, may be taking the SAT, but scores are dropping for all test-takers. The scores declined 6 points for reading; 4 points for math and 8 points for writing.

According to Fair Test, a non-profit organization that monitors testing, the numbers are even more alarming for Latino students. Scores for Mexican or Mexican-Americans dropped by 9 points; Puerto Rican students saw a 17-point decrease, and other Latinos reported a drop of 14 points.

Even the College Board’s lead statistic contains disturbing news. If 43 percent of test-takers are college ready, doesn’t that mean the majority are not?

The report presents a good opportunity for education reporters to examine possible reasons behind the decline. Is it, as Fair Test contends, evidence of the failure of No Child Left Behind? Is it because schools are not adapting quickly or effectively to the growing number of English Language Learners?

NCLR Report Calls for Better Preschool Quality and Access

The National Council of La Raza (NCLR) recently released a report calling for new policies to increase preschool quality and access for Latino families. The report cited recent research from the University of California, Berkeley, which showed that in  2009 while 70 percent of white and 69 percent of African-American children attended preschool, only 48 percent of Latino children were enrolled.

NCLR’s report identifies two major barriers that hinder early learning in Latino children: the shortage of preschool programs that are designed to take advantage of the latest research on language acquisition and the lack of access Latino families have to center-based preschools (due to both limited numbers of facilities and lack of knowledge of where they are and how to enroll).

To reduce these barriers, the report recommends that the federal government require states to benchmark stages of English-language acquisition and provide better training for early childhood educators. To improve access, NCLR advocates establishing capital subsidies to build more preschools and partnering with community-based organizations to get the word out to parents.