Equity & Diversity

Report Probes Educational Challenges Facing Latinas

‘Alarming’ Dropout Rates Attributed to Factors Including Stereotyping
By Catherine Gewertz — August 27, 2009 4 min read
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A potent mix of barriers—including family care-taking responsibilities, poor academic preparation, and gender stereotyping—leads Latina students to drop out of high school at “alarming” rates, a report released today concludes.

The study says the dismal graduation rates threaten the future stability of the fastest-growing group of female students in the nation. For the report, which paints a picture of the difficulties Latina students face as they try to complete high school, the National Women’s Law Center and the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund conducted surveys, focus groups, and interviews nationwide with young Latinas and adults who work with them.

Lara Kaufmann, a senior counsel for the law center and a co-author of the study, said the organizations decided to focus on high school issues facing Latinas after a 2007 report by the law center about girls’ graduation rates showed particularly high dropout rates for Latinas.

“We really wanted to bring the voices of Latinas into the dialogue about high school graduation,” she said.

Numbers tell a disheartening story about Latinas in public school. The report’s authors, citing a graduation-rate analysis by the Editorial Projects in Education Research Center in the 2009 edition of Education Week’s Diplomas Count report, note that 59 percent of Hispanic females graduate from high school on time with a standard diploma, compared with 78 percent of non-Hispanic white females.

Black and Native American females, and black, Hispanic, and Native American males, graduate on time even less often.

Latinas without high school diplomas are more likely than their male counterparts to be unemployed, and earn lower wages when they do work, the report says.

Low Expectations

Researchers on the project found a big gap between Latinas’ educational goals and their optimism about reaching them. Eighty percent of the students, for instance, said they wanted to complete college, but one-third said they did not expect to do so.

Reasons for that outlook included factors that affect Latinos of both genders, such as poor academic preparation, limited English proficiency, instability created by immigration status, and low levels of parental involvement in school, the report says. But Latinas described challenges unique to their blend of ethnicity and gender.

Stereotypes of Latinas as “submissive underachievers and caretakers” can fuel their own low expectations, the report says, as well as those of adults at school and in their own families. One worker in an after-school program said the parents of a girl with six siblings were encouraging her to “be a dental tech or [do] something with hair.” She couldn’t go to college, the girl explained to the after-school worker, because her parents could afford to send only the boys in the family.

A Latina college student said her experience in high school wasn’t exactly encouraging.

“Generally, academic expectations are lower,” she said. “You are supposed to get married and have kids and not set high academic goals for yourself. For example, at one point when I told a teacher I was heading away to college, he said he gave me two years before I was married and pregnant.”

Discrimination “both subtle and blatant” can lead Latinas to feel unwelcome at school, the report says, and they tend to be “steered away from—or opt out of—career and technical training programs in fields that lead to higher wages, but which are more commonly chosen by males.”

Family Duties

A middle school counselor told the researchers that she tried to persuade an 8th grader to take a welding program, but that the girl wouldn’t do it because she didn’t want to risk the discomfort of being the one female in the program, only to enter the field and “earn bunk” because she was the only woman.

Family care-giving responsibilities also complicate the education of Latinas. With the nation’s highest teenage birthrate—half of Latinas younger than age 20 have given birth—as well as familial expectations that they will care for older relatives and younger siblings, Latinas miss school more often than their brothers, leading to poor academic performance and disengagement from school, the study says.

Latina students also undermine their educational outcomes by not getting involved in sports and other school activities as much as their Latino peers, the researchers found. Students who are involved in such activities are more likely to avoid risky behaviors and stay in school.

The organizations suggest a long list of steps policymakers can take to address the problems of Latinas in finishing high school, including providing better child care and early-childhood and mentoring programs, comprehensive sex education, family-outreach programs, and college-readiness initiatives.

Josef Lukan, a policy analyst who focuses on high school issues at the National Council of La Raza, a Washington-based advocacy group for Hispanics, said his organization, like the report’s co-authors, hopes the new federal emphasis on data systems in education will produce improved ways to track subgroups of students, such as Latinas, who face distinctive struggles.

“It would allow us to determine more-targeted approaches to helping these students,” he said.

A version of this article appeared in the September 02, 2009 edition of Education Week as Report Probes Educational Challenges Facing Latinas

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