Driven in part by massive demographic shifts in the U.S. population, education and social behavioral research has increasingly attended to the growing diversity of the student population. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, Latinos accounted for more than 50% of the U.S. population growth between 2010 and 2020. While the country’s white population is shrinking, the Latino population grew by 23% in the last decade and now makes up almost 19% of the U.S. population. Although the raw numbers are worthy of attention, the change rate—and what it means for how schools and other systems serve students—may be even more important, especially given that the K12 education system is not built to accommodate such rapid demographic shifts.
NCES data show that, although there has been overall progress in improving high school graduation rates, the nation’s Latino student dropout rate is 65% higher than White students and almost 40% higher than Black students. Only 20% of Latinos aged 25 to 29 have obtained a college degree—the lowest degree attainment rate of any racial/ethnic subgroup. Growing evidence shows that the disparities in college participation among Latino and first-generation college students may become even more pronounced as the COVID-19 pandemic continues to rage.
Since 2015, with the support of two IES-funded NCER grants, my team of colleagues and I have led work designed to challenge and innovate how schools support the positive development and college access and success for Latino students from immigrant families. Our Juntos Project was designed to create a new intervention model working directly with teachers, school leaders, and parents of Latino middle school students. The goal of the project was to address common challenges confronting immigrant families as they navigate the U.S. education system, to use effective strategies for recognizing and transforming teacher bias, and to create a school climate that centers equity leadership and builds authentic family-school partnerships—all with the promise to improve academic and school success for Latino students. The second project, Project LEAPS (Latino Education After Public School), which is currently underway, extends the model we developed in Juntos by working with teachers, parents, and school counselors to support the postsecondary readiness (and ultimately the college access and success) of Latino students as they transition from middle school to high school.
Through this work, we continue to learn important lessons about how to be disruptive given that current approaches have too often failed to make a lasting impact on nurturing the academic success and positive behavioral health of Latino students. Here are a few of those lessons:
Parents are the most important teachers in a child’s life. As much as education researchers and professionals attend to the role educators play in student life, our approach is designed to capitalize on the strengths of Latino families and the deep cultural value of familismo, which prioritizes dedication, connectedness, and loyalty to family, as essential targets of our intervention. Notwithstanding the influence of adult agents inside the education system, parents (that is, all of the adults in a child’s life who play a major role in raising them) play the most important and sustained role in raising healthy children. Although the education system frequently frames parents and home environments as “the problem” when considering the challenges of underserved students, data from the NCES National Household Education Survey show that parents of students of color are as likely or more likely to be engaged in their children’s education (for example, checking on homework completion, monitoring school performance) than their white peers. This is especially true for Latino parents, including those who are Spanish speaking and those who have low educational attainment themselves.
Move from a deficit framing to an asset framing. Undoubtedly, many Latino students and their families experience challenges as they navigate the education system. However, many of these challenges are not of their making. The fact that we can mark disparities in educational outcomes and access to higher education by race/ethnicity, poverty, rurality and other factors should be a source of outrage. None of these demographic characteristics should be correlated with school success or can legitimately be described as causal. The true causes stem from deeply rooted inequities embedded in the education system. One way to shift away from a student or family deficit framing is to focus on a more interesting question: What makes students, families, schools, and communities thrive in the face of difficult circumstances? The answers to this question can help us leverage assets that too often go untapped in service of student success.
Attend to within-group variation. Like other racial/ethnic groups, Latinos are not monolithic. Comparative designs in which outcomes for Latino students are contrasted with White students or students from other groups often contribute little to nuanced understandings about how variables linked to these group identifications might explain differences in outcomes. Ample research shows that within-group variation among Latinos on factors such as country of origin, nativity, generational history, language, time in U.S. residency, context of reception for immigrants, and acculturation level are more important in understanding the nature of risk and protection around academic and social behavioral adjustment than are between-group differences. In designing intervention programs for the families and students we serve, our goals are to understand these sources of variation and carefully attend to them in our development work.
This year, Inside IES Research is publishing a series of interviews (see here and here) showcasing a diverse group of IES-funded education researchers and fellows that are making significant contributions to education research, policy, and practice. As part of our Hispanic Heritage Month blog series, we are focusing on Hispanic researchers and fellows, as well as researchers that focus on the education of Hispanic students.
Charles Martinez (@c_martinez) is the dean of the College of Education at the University of Texas at Austin, a professor in the Department of Educational Psychology, and the founding director of the Texas Center for Equity Promotion. He is a first-generation college graduate and a third-generation Mexican American. His Project LEAPS co-investigators are Heather McClure, University of Oregon, and Elma Lorenzo-Blanco, University of Texas at Austin.
This guest blog was produced by Katina Stapleton (Katina.Stapleton@ed.gov), co-Chair of the IES Diversity and Inclusion Council.