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School Matters: California Must Raise Latino Student Achievement

New America Media, Commentary, Ted Lempert Posted: Jan 22, 2010

Children Nows recently released 2010 California Report Card: Setting the Agenda for Children assigned the state a D for K-12 education. As we all knowwhether as parents, students, teachers or employers--a D is unacceptable and should be met with a clear plan for intervention and improvement.

In tackling the numerous challenges facing the states educational system, California must urgently address the substantial and pervasive achievement disparities that exist between white and Latino students. Failure to narrow the achievement gap hurts Latinos and is bad for California. With an economy that is increasingly reliant upon an educated workforce, Californias inability to close the achievement gap threatens the states future economic stability. This is a problem that must be addressed now because as the states Latino population continues to grow, so too does the need to resolve the racial and ethnic disparities within the states educational system.

Just 15 years ago, Latino students represented only 37 percent of all public school children. Now they constitute 49 percent of Californias 6.3 million public school children and, if current trends continue, they will soon represent slightly over half. Currently, 53 percent of Californias children under 6 and 52 percent of all infants born in California are Latino. As Californias Latino population continues to rise, the academic achievement of Latino students has significant implications for the states civic and economic future.

Educational disparities are evident early and persist throughout a childs education. Early learning opportunities are important to childrens successful transition to schooling. Yet, in California only 51 percent of Latinos participate in center-based Early Care and Education programs compared to 65 percent of whites and 71 percent of Asians. Moreover, Latinos are less likely to participate in high-quality preschool programs. Reading by the end of third grade is a key indicator of future academic success, yet by fourth grade only 49 percent of Latino students are meeting state standards for reading compared to 78 percent of white students. Eighth grade enrollment in Algebra, Californias standard for math, also shows Latinos lagging behind with nearly one-quarter (22 percent) of Latino eighth graders still enrolled in general math compared to only 11 percent of white eighth graders. Moreover, only 33 percent of Latino students enrolled in algebra are meeting the states achievement standards compared to 56 percent of whites. These findings demonstrate the persistence of the achievement gap and the need for increased school readiness and early identification of those who are falling behind.

The consequences of the disparities are visible in a dropout rate for Latinos that is nearly double that for white students, a fact California can neither afford nor ignore. More than 98,000 high school students, or nearly 20 percent of each class, drops out of high school. And with one quarter (24 percent) of Latinos dropping out before graduating, California cannot significantly reduce the number of dropouts without raising the achievement of Latino students. Because a high school graduate earns an additional $290,000 and pays $100,000 more in federal, state and local taxes over a lifetime than a high school dropout, each class of 120,000 dropouts costs California $46.4 billion in total economic losses. In addition, without raising the academic achievement of Latinos, California is likely to continue to struggle with labor force demands. Recent reports suggest that by 2025, when 41 percent of all jobs will require a bachelors degree or higher and only 35 percent of Californians will have a college degree, California will face a shortage of 1 million college graduates.

California has been successful in improving Latino students achievement. However, these efforts have not narrowed the achievement gap. As Latino student achievement improved so too has the achievement of other students.

There is no easy solution. Narrowing the achievement gap and improving Californias K-12 education system is undoubtedly complex and without a singular solution. However, California should prioritize school readiness and early intervention, which have been shown to be more effective and less costly. With this goal in mind, California must work to remove barriers, such as cost and transportation, which limit Latino childrens access to early learning opportunities. In doing so, California will increase the likelihood that Latino children are entering school ready to learn, thereby improving their chances of reading at grade level by the end of third grade. Moreover, California must leverage its comprehensive information system to promote the early detection of and intervention among students most at risk of falling behind.

Californians cannot be complacent about the state of our K-12 system. The unraveling of Californias premiere education system did not happen overnight and will not be restored quickly. But as continued budget cuts further threaten schools, policymakers must prioritize public education and provide California with a long-term education improvement plan. With the overwhelming cost of the state's dropout crisis and a looming workforce shortage of college graduates, California must aggressively address the disparities in educational outcomes for children. California's civic and economic outlook for tomorrow is dependent upon the education we are providing to our children today.

Ted Lempert is president of Children Now, an Oakland-based advocacy nonprofit.

Related Articles:

Living the Education Gap as a San Jose Teacher

SCHOOL MATTERS: Some Latino Students Choose Family Over College

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