Equity & Diversity

Latinos’ School Success: A Work in Progress

By The Editors — June 01, 2012 6 min read
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When it comes to educational challenges, the nation’s 12.1 million Hispanic schoolchildren face plenty: language, poverty, lower-than-average graduation rates for high school and college, and, more recently, a wave of laws targeting illegal immigrants that has made school seem like less of a safe haven for Hispanic students in some states.

Yet, as numerous researchers and policymakers point out, the economic health of the nation is tied inextricably to the educational success of this growing population. It’s a matter of demographics. Latino children are the fastest-growing of the four largest racial or ethnic groups in U.S. schools. If the United States is to meet its education goals for staying economically competitive, its schools and colleges are going to have to do better by young Hispanics.

With that in mind, Education Week‘s Diplomas Count 2012 takes a closer look at the state of schooling for this population of students, the challenges they face, and the lessons learned from some of the schools, districts, organizations, and communities that work closely with Latino students.

This portrait is presented in tandem with the latest original graduation-rate analysis from the Editorial Projects in Education Research Center. It finds that the graduation rate for America’s public schools stands at 73.4 percent for the class of 2009, the most recent year for which data are available. That’s 1.7 percentage points higher than the previous year—and a 7-point rise over the decade before.

The research center calculates graduation rates for the nation, the states, and every public school district in the country using the Cumulative Promotion Index method and statistics from the U.S. Department of Education’s Common Core of Data.

Among the major population groups in the nation’s schools, the largest one-year gain in the graduation rate was among Latino students. According to a special analysis conducted by the EPE Research Center for Diplomas Count, the graduation rate for Latino students grew by an impressive 5.5 percentage points from the class of 2008 to the class of 2009, rising to 63 percent. By comparison, the percentage of African-American students graduating increased by 1.7 percentage points, to 59 percent, while the graduation rates for Asian-American and Native American students dropped slightly for the 2009 class.

But Latinos’ 63 percent graduation rate is still far short of the national average—and farther still from non-Hispanic white students’ average graduation rate. And, despite some success in recent years at narrowing the gap separating them from white students on national tests of reading, mathematics, and science, Latino students’ performance on those tests also falls below the national average.

The factors behind the educational disparities dogging this population are complex. As this report explains, Hispanic students trail their non-Hispanic white counterparts in educational access as early as preschool. They are the least likely of the four largest population groups to enroll their 3- and 4-year-old children in preschool, according to an original analysis of data from the U.S. Census Bureau’s American Community Survey.

Poverty also plays a role in Hispanic students’ educational prospects, as it does for other traditionally disadvantaged groups, such as African-American children. As noted in a special analysis by the EPE Research Center, Latinos attend school in districts that are, on average, larger, poorer, and more racially and ethnically isolated than those that white students attend.

Cultural Constraints

Hispanic or Latino?

The 2010 U.S. Census defined “Hispanic or Latino” as referring to a person of Cuban, Mexican, Puerto Rican, South or Central American, or other Spanish culture or origin regardless of race, but it also allowed people to check off separate boxes if they preferred to identify themselves as simply “Cuban,” “Puerto Rican,” or “Mexican, Mexican-American, Chicano.” A survey published in April 2012 by the Pew Hispanic Center found that most respondents (51 percent) in this broad population category prefer to identify themselves by their families’ countries of origin rather than use either term. Diplomas Count identifies countries of origin or heritage in writing about particular students and their families.

Cultural factors are in the mix, too. National statistics show that Hispanic students are less likely than white or African-American students to borrow money for college. Experts say that reluctance is due partly to a lack of familiarity with the financial-aid process and partly to cultural norms.

The influence of culture on Latinos’ educational attainment may be especially apparent among young Hispanic women, some of whom are expected to stay close to their families and help care for younger siblings rather than go away to college.

“It’s kind of like you’re born with responsibility,” Celina Cardenas, a district community-relations coordinator in the 37,000-student Richardson school district outside of Dallas, says of the Hispanic girls she mentors.

“Doing something on your own may not sit very comfortably with them because they may not want to let anyone down,” she says of Latinas’ common educational plight.

Against that backdrop, the strict immigration laws taking hold in such states as Alabama, Arizona, Georgia, Indiana, South Carolina, and Utah are the latest challenge for this critical student population, education observers and Hispanic advocates say. The laws have prompted legal challenges—including a case over the Arizona law awaiting a decision by the U.S. Supreme Court.

This report takes a look at the impact on schools of the toughest of those laws—Alabama’s—in Foley, a rural town near the Gulf Shores resort area. Alabama’s law contains a provision, now on hold, that requires districts to ask new students for proof of citizenship or lawful immigration status. In Foley, the law led to an initial exodus of Latino students. While many Latino families have begun to trickle back into the schools, educators there say the fear and disruption created by the law have exacted a toll on Latino children’s learning—among immigrants and nonimmigrants alike.


While the anti-illegal-immigration laws have attracted national attention, immigrant students constitute a modest fraction of the school-going Latino population in the United States Based on American Community Survey data, the EPE Research Center estimates that more than 90 percent of Latinos under 18 in this country were born in the United States.

The fact is that Hispanic students are an incredibly diverse group, representing a mix of socioeconomic and language backgrounds. Diplomas Count 2012 highlights that diversity with a series of student profiles and statistical portraits on the six largest Hispanic heritage groups represented in K-12 schools: Cubans, Dominicans, Guatemalans, Mexicans, Puerto Ricans, and Salvadorans. They show that the percentages of adults ages 25 to 64 in those communities with less than a high school diploma range from 15.6 percent for people of Cuban descent to more than 54 percent for those of Guatemalan heritage.

While statistics on the educational status of Hispanic students may be alternately sobering and encouraging, this report also shares lessons from educators who are serving this population with better-than-average success.

The 347,000-student Miami-Dade County school system, with its long record of serving newcomers from both Latin America and the West Indies, is one example. More than half the district’s students speak Spanish at home. Yet the achievement gaps between Latino and white students in Miami are smaller than in many other big-city districts.

The EPE Research Center separately identifies 38 Latino-majority districts that are beating the odds—in other words, producing graduation rates higher than would be expected, based on how they stack up on 10 statistical measures, including poverty, size, location, and structural features. The 9,700-student Lompoc Unified School District in Southern California tops the list, with a graduation rate of 89 percent for its class of 2009 Latino students.


Education Week and the EPE Research Center would like to thank the following individuals for their assistance: Kate Dando, director, communications, Council of Chief State School Officers • Paul Ferrari, communications manager, Council of Chief State School Officers • Kate Nielson, policy analyst, education division, National Governors Association • Anne-Marie Nuñez, assistant professor, University of Texas at San Antonio • Jennifer Dounay Zinth, senior policy analyst, Education Commission of the States

Board of Trustees, Editorial Projects in Education

Larry Berger, CEO, Wireless Generation Inc. • Gina Burkhardt, executive vice president, American Institutes for Research • Chris Curran, co-founder and managing partner, Education Growth Partners • Virginia B. Edwards, president and editor-in-chief, EPE and Education Week (ex officio) • Pearl R. Kane, associate professor of education, Teachers College, Columbia University, and director, Klingenstein Center • Mike Lawrence, chief reputation officer and executive vice president, Cone Communications Inc. • Caroline Little, president, Newspaper Association of America • Barbara Newton, president, Sunset Publishing • Lester Strong, CEO, Experience Corps • Marla Ucelli-Kashyap (chair), assistant to the president for educational issues, American Federation of Teachers • Jerry D. Weast, founder and CEO, Partnership for Deliberate Excellence • Ronald A. Wolk, chair emeritus (ex officio) • Jessie Woolley-Wilson, CEO and president, DreamBox Learning


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