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Challenges and Opportunities Facing Hispanics in America Today

Hispanics are the fastest-growing ethnic minority in the United States today. The number of Hispanic students in the nation's public schools nearly doubled from 1990 to 2006, making up 60 percent of the total growth in public school enrollments over that period. There are now approximately 10 million Hispanic students in the nation's public schools. They make up about one-in-five public school students in the United States (Pew Hispanic Center, 2008). While the majority of Hispanic students live in "traditional" Hispanic states, the populations of Hispanics in "nontraditional" Midwest and Southeast states is rising (NCLR 2007). Despite their growing numbers and evolving geographical presence, many Hispanics are faced with financial difficulties, which some scholars, activists and policymakers attribute to the lack of educational attainment and access to resources (Pew Hispanic Center, 2003).

According to the Pew Hispanic Center, the dropout rate of Hispanic youth between age 16 and 19 grew dramatically from 1990 to 2000. One-third of Hispanic students perform below grade level while more than 50 percent of Hispanic dropouts have less than a 10th-grade education. The dropout rate for Hispanics between age 16 and 19 who have poor English language skills is 59 percent, and nearly 40 percent of immigrant Mexicans are high school dropouts (Pew Hispanic Center, 2003; U.S. Senate HELP Committee, 2002). This contributes significantly to Hispanic dropout in educational institutions, leaving Hispanics with high unemployment rates and low-paying jobs.

The broad gap in the higher education achievement between Hispanic students and Caucasian students is another factor contributing to the financial difficulties that Hispanics face today in the U.S. Only 16 percent of Hispanics hold a bachelor’s degree, while 37 percent of Caucasians hold a bachelor’s degree. Among the best-prepared college students at nonselective colleges and universities, 81 percent of Caucasian students completed a bachelor’s degree compared to 57 percent of Hispanics with a bachelor’s degree (Pew Hispanic Center, 2004). A study indicates that the completion of high school education and improved preparation for postsecondary institutions are the keys to increasing the number of Hispanics with a bachelor’s degree in the U.S. (Pew Hispanic Center 2003).

Despite the high rate of high school dropout and the low figure of higher education completed by the Hispanic population in the U.S., the Pew Hispanic Center emphasizes that the education profile of foreign-born Hispanics has improved remarkably during the past 30 years. The rate of high school and college education completed by both Hispanic immigrants and Hispanic natives has increased notably, as the rate of Hispanic immigrants and Hispanic natives with primary or less-than-primary education decreased dramatically from 1970 to 2000 (Pew Hispanic Center, 2002). For example, Hispanics with secondary education increased from 18 percent to 41 percent, while Hispanics with college education almost doubled from 9 percent to 18 percent from 1970 to 2000. In addition, longitudinal research conducted on some 25,000 youth from 1988 to 2000 shows that highly qualified Hispanic students enroll at our nation’s top universities and colleges at the same rate as the Caucasian students when the resources and the preparation for higher education were provided (National Educational Longitudinal Survey). Therefore, it is evident that sufficient educational attainment can provide Hispanics a pathway to financial stability and economic success.

Unfortunately, many Hispanic children are predisposed to a likelihood of low achievement from a very young age. According to the National Council of La Raza, only 39 percent of Hispanic three- to five- year-olds enroll in center-based preschool education, compared to 59 percent of Caucasians and 66 percent of African Americans. In the subsection of this age group that falls below the poverty line, 36 percent of Hispanics are enrolled in preprimary programs, as opposed to 45 percent of Caucasians and 65 percent of African Americans (NCLR 2008).

Once in high school, Hispanics are less likely to take advanced courses in math and science than Caucasians. Even among Hispanic students who have graduated high school, only 31 percent take advanced math courses, compared to 47 percent of Caucasians. Fifty-six percent have taken advanced science courses, compared to 64 percent of Caucasian students (NCLR 2008).

The AFT recognizes the significance of Hispanic students in public schools as the Hispanic population continues to grow in the U.S. To improve the quality of education for Hispanic students, educational institutions have to promote more academically rigorous coursework for Hispanic students from a young age and reinforce dropout prevention programs. The AFT emphasizes the importance of promoting research-based information on effective instruction for linguistically and culturally diverse students and stronger professional development programs for teachers on effective instruction for English language learners.

There is a strong urgency for the U.S. education system to provide Hispanics with the educational resources and the support they need to move forward in their educational attainment and ensure economic success in the long run. Bilingual education programs are a proven way to transition English-language learners to English, while also teaching students substantive content in Spanish. When taught by qualified teachers proficient in both languages as well as the content area, bilingual education has proven to be a very effective means of educating young ELL students.

An increased quality of education for Hispanic-American students should be a priority, not only to provide equity and a more level playing field for Hispanic-Americans, but because investing in the intellectual potential of young Hispanic-Americans will utilize a widely untapped human resource in the United States. With the appropriate resources allocated, a would-be high school dropout could instead become a groundbreaking economist, a disease-curing doctor or a knowledge-imparting educator.

Classroom Resources

Policy Brief: Closing the Achievement Gap: Focus on Latino Students, American Federation of Teachers

Statistical Brief on Hispanic-American Public Education, National Council of La Raza

Our Nation on the Fault Line: Hispanic American Education, U.S. Department of Education

Hispanic Youth Dropping Out of U.S. Schools: Measuring the Challenge, Pew Hispanic Center

Latino Youth Finishing College: The Role of Selective Pathways, Pew Hispanic Center

The Improving Educational Profile of Latino Immigrants, Pew Hispanic Center