Another Perspective

No Education Silver Bullets

The Hispanic achievement gap can't simply be closed by more universal Pre-K or less immigration.

By 11.16.09

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The Latino teens graduating from the Animo Leadership High School just outside Los Angeles probably aren't familiar with the arguments for expanding Head Start and pre-kindergarten programs offered by advocates such as Nobel Laureate James Heckman. And the Latino middle-schoolers being prepared for high school and college success by the KIPP Summit Academy in the working class San Francisco suburb of San Lorenzo aren't up to speed on attempt to link academic achievement and immigration trends offered the Manhattan Institute's Heather Mac Donald and other immigration restrictionists.

But their respective successes disprove the silver bullets offered by each side for solving the nation's academic achievement gaps between white and minority students. The students also affirm the hard but necessary job of improving America's public schools at every stage.

Animo is one of 18 schools operated by Green Dot Schools, founded by Rock-the-Vote impresario Steve Barr in 2000 in response to complaints from Latino parents about the low academic quality of local traditional schools. First-generation Latinos make up much of the student population. Yet 89 percent of the Latino freshmen in the Animo Leadership's original Class of 2007 made it to 12th grade, according to the U.S. Department of Education. The nearby Los Angeles Unified School district promoted just 41 percent of its Latino freshmen during that period. Other Green Dot schools experience similar results and send 80 percent of their students onto college.

KIPP Summit, part of the famed KIPP chain of urban charters, also culls many of its students from a growing population of first- and second-generation Latinos. Yet the students take to the school's demanding rules, attentive-yet-strict instructors and school days that don't end until five at night. On average, 5th-grade Latinos scored 765 points on the state's standardized tests in 2006-2007, more than 100 points above the average score of their peers statewide.

Pre-K advocates and anti-immigrationists pay little regard to such evidence. Instead, they are now latching on to an analysis of cognitive development among Latino toddlers conducted by researchers published last month in Maternal and Child Health.

Poor Latino children, according to the study, are born with more-robust birth-weights and suffer lower mortality rates than white children or black children of any socioeconomic status. Yet by age two, Latino kids scored several points lower on the Blakely Scale, a test of motor and cognitive skills development than their white peers. The possible causes for this disparity: The "lower school attainment of Mexican-American mothers" and the larger family sizes of Latino families compared to that of whites and blacks.

Pre-K advocates, already comforted by President Barack Obama's decision to spend $11 billion in stimulus funds on Head Start and other programs, tout the Maternal study as a justification for even higher spending levels. Preschool California, an Oakland, Calif., activist group, for example, prominently displayed a report about the study on its Web site. Another advocate, Eugene Garza of Arizona State University, opines that "It seems like what might be the most helpful with Latino kids is early intervention."

Anti-immigrationists find that the study bolsters one of their underlying conceits: That legal and undocumented immigrants from Latin America, already likely to be less-educated than native-born Americans, are even less-equipped for life in the states than earlier generations of émigrés. They avidly offered their usual prescriptions of further immigration restrictions and more-stringent enforcement of current rules.

"Our de facto immigration policy is currently weighted to a population that appears to require massive additional government education spending -- even before formal schooling begins -- to be made academically competitive," declares Mac Donald in a recent column in National Review Online. "It's time to acknowledge that many students never will be college material."

But the Maternal study itself sides with neither group. Although the study does lean slightly towards expanding Pre-K options, it also notes that the impact of early childhood illnesses may have a greater effect than either family size or the mother's educational background. The fact that the study is based on data from the second of two tiny cohorts in a relatively recent U.S. Department of Education study, the Early Childhood Longitudinal Study, hardly offers any long-term information on student academic progress over time.

In any case, the solutions offered by both sides are as solid as smoke from a fired gun.

There is sparse evidence that Head Start and other Pre-K programs may improve student achievement during the early years. The most-cited studies touting the programs, the Carolina Abecedarian Project and the Perry Preschool Project, have both been widely criticized for the use of non-standard research techniques such as combining I.Q. scores of four different cohorts.

Even among more rigorous studies that show the effectiveness of Pre-K, the gains go poof once children enter woefully-performing elementary schools. University of California, Berkeley Professor Bruce Fuller, lead researcher on the study and a Pre-K advocate, admitted in the San Francisco Chronicle that the "benefits of Head Start are less impressive."

What anti-immigrationists offer as silver bullets is as useful as their cures for improving America's global economic competitiveness. Three decades of results from the Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study, the global test of academic performance, shows that American children of every race and ethnicity are lagging behind their peers. The Maternal study also notes that black toddlers from poor families in the study, almost all of whom are likely to be native-born, also test several points lower on the same test.

Immigration restrictionists also can't prove that today's émigrés are less-academically prepared than earlier generations; it's only in the 1990s that education statistics have become reliable enough for research. More importantly, the traditional manufacturing-based economies of the last century didn't require possession of a diploma, much less high levels of education.

The real problem with the achievement gap lies not with the lack of early childhood education or more-liberalized immigration policies. It mostly starts and ends with the woes that pervade America's traditional K-12 public schools. This includes the lack of high-quality academic instruction and atrocious management of teacher performance.

Three decades of research shows that the quality of teaching might be a more-important influence on student performance than socioeconomic background. Ninety percent of the lowest-achieving 3rd-graders in the Dallas school district passed the 7th grade math test after being taught by three consecutive highly-effective teachers, according to a 2003 study by researchers Sitha Babu and Robert Mendro.

But most American teachers aren't adequately competent to teach reading, math, history or science. Just 13 percent of education schools surveyed by the National Council on Teacher Quality had high quality math instruction programs. Thanks to state policies and the influence of the National Education Association and the American Federation of Teachers, school districts can't easily weed out laggard instructors.

More Pre-K classes aren't the solution. Vain attempts to end immigration also won't do the trick. The focus should be improving teacher quality; offering more-rigorous curricula; ending lifetime tenure; and offering alternatives such as charters and vouchers that make students, parents and teachers equal partners in education decision-making. These and other solutions can help all of America's children -- including Latinos -- succeed in school and in life.

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About the Author

RiShawn Biddle the editor of Dropout Nation , is co-author of A Byte at the Apple: Rethinking Education Data for the Post-NCLB EraHe can be followed at Twitter.com/dropoutnation.