It was after a faculty meeting a few years ago that one of my colleagues came up to me in the parking lot and said, “Ray. You speak so well.”
I responded, “Uh. O.K.” She continued to talk and, in her mind, expand the compliment while silently, in my mind, I wondered, “Why do you sound so surprised?”
I thanked her and used the growing traffic as an excuse to end her monologue. As the year went on, I got to know this colleague better and despite what I believe to be her sincere intention, I still count her compliment as a reality check. No matter how many college degrees we earn, how successfully we lead in our careers, how articulate we are in one or more languages, we can still be treated like the indios tourists admire condescendingly from tour buses near Cancún: “How charming.”
It’s our cultural charm that has allowed Latino students, and their families, to accept inferior educational services for decades. We remain, in many ways, like the indigenous beggars who hold out their hands for whatever benevolence the wealthy release in their favor.
In Chicago, many Latino students remain like those beggars, waiting with anticipatory thanks for any handout that will get us through the academic year. Our city’s educational reform movement has failed the Latino community. While many schools in African American neighborhoods have been torn down, rebuilt, remodeled, renamed, restructured, or re-imagined for success, schools in Latino communities remain insignificantly changed. The African American community—by all means—deserves better schools. And they should not sacrifice their gains—by any means. What we as Latinos must learn from our African American counterparts, however, is we must speak up and—above all—remain united in a cause.
What educational leaders must significantly recognize to improve the poor quality of Latino education is—the poor quality of Latino education is not significantly recognized.
On May 12, Time.com published an article titled “The Education Crisis No One Is Talking About" (link at the bottom).The problem with the article is that it misleads the conversation by de-emphasizing the low-quality of educational settings many Latinos face—overcrowded schools, limited school choice, deficit-based educators—and emphasizes the same ol’ argument that they’re (we’re) all English-language learners. No wonder people are surprised when one of us can speak well. While the article may stir some coffee talk, it does little to highlight the deeper, widespread educational problems in our communities. The biggest obstacle not recognized in the article is the deficit-based view we confront every day. I faced it with my colleague in the parking lot.
In Chicago, we face it when we look for a high school in a Latino community with the words “college prep” in the name. Not one exists. We face it when 2010 U.S. Census data tells us that in Chicago's 26th Street neighborhood there are at least 10,000 young people between the ages of 10 and 14 (link at the bottom). With only two high schools that cannot hold all of them and many others bus rides far away, our young people are
destined to drop out.
The other disadvantage not mentioned in the article is that, in general, we are a population too nice to work with. Quedamos bien. Regularly.
Our music, art, cuisine, and soap-operatic history make us pleasant company. If our humility overtakes us, we are powerless. Our organized revolts do not compare in number or impact to those of the African American community. We can organize around immigration reform but
even that is losing its momentum. Furthermore, these efforts just contribute to the notion that we’re all recent immigrants that should be grateful we are here. We’ve been here. We’re staying. Lots of us know English.
Another problem not mentioned in the Time article is the ill-founded view of cultural capital. Some teachers think they’re giving Latino students the knowledge they need to make it in America. Students have to read the “classics,” know all the Greek gods (Roman, too), and regurgitate Constitutional amendments in chronological order. All of this is done too many times without looking at any national standards. Will all of this help low-income Latino students compete with affluent students whose future is guaranteed? Not if it is unconnected to what the ACT has identified as the essentials for college readiness. Like it or not, ACT controls whether or not our students get into college. No. We, as teachers, can control that.
What our students need are educators who believe students can learn the College Readiness Standards—and educators who can teach these standards. That means teachers have to know their content as evidenced by more than our self-imposed expertise. Our communities need teachers who believe our students can analyze, synthesize, and evaluate. That means our teachers must be able to do this as well. We need educators who believe the cultural capital our students need is grounded in today’s ever-changing reality of ideas, not in their own educational experiences in a context from another time, another place. This means we need teachers who can look beyond their personal bias against standards and realize that standards can be used to engage students with real-world tasks that make them question and change social structures.
I remember another conversation with a colleague who said he didn’t teach the ACT’s College Readiness Standards and looked down on me because I did. When I asked him how he would explain his reasoning to me if my own children were in his class, he couldn’t. If any teacher looks at the ACT College Readiness Standards (I mean really looks at them not just says he did) and says he won’t teach them, that teacher doesn’t belong in education—especially not in the Latino community. We’ve had too many people make decisions for us. What the obstinate educators may really be hiding behind their opposition is their own ignorance: “I don’t know this stuff” or “I don’t know how to teach it.” In that case, they better learn because our students deserve someone who does.
We need to take our high-quality real-world projects and connect them to national standards. But there's a caveat. At one high school where I
taught briefly, we had over 50% of the students in honors and college-prep English classes and all of these students came from a middle school
where over 70% of the students met or exceeded writing standards on the ISAT. But the writing curriculum--created by our literacy coaches--was still deficit based. We were given curriculum maps that started writing instruction with lowest English College Readiness Standards about subject-verb agreement and prepositions. One of the worksheets had students identify prepositions like this: Fish swim (above / below) the water. Circle one.
We need to align our work with national standards in challenging ways. If we do not, we are limiting our students’ opportunities nationally.
What I realized after teaching at one of Chicago’s top selective-enrollment schools for four years is that magnet-school students are not always gifted. They are, however, always confident. Many people have told them they can succeed. So when their intellect struggles, their confidence kicks in. Low-income Latino students can learn this survival technique, too.
As educators, we need an asset-based view of our students so we can look beyond language issues, migration patterns, poverty. We need to
believe our Latino students can succeed with a college-prep curriculum and include this belief in a high school’s name—just like Chicago’s Hope College Prep, Brooks College Prep, King College Prep, North Lawndale College Prep, UIC College Prep, Westinghouse College Prep, Jones College Prep, Payton College Prep, Northside College Prep. None of these is in a Latino neighborhood.
Most of all, we need to stop being so condescendingly surprised when Latino students succeed. We can speak well; write well; think. And we should speak up more.
Originally published May 31, 2011 on Ray's first blog.
Links referenced above:
Time.com’s “The Education Crisis No One Is Talking About” http://www.time.com/time/nation/article/0,8599,2070930,00.html?xid=fbshare2010
U.S. Census data on Chicago’s Little Village neighborhood http://factfinder.census.gov/servlet/QTTable?_bm=y&-geo_id=86000US60623&-qr_name=DEC_2000_SF1_U_DP1&-ds_name=DEC_2000_SF1_U&-_lang=en&-_sse=on
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