Commentary: To improve education, help Hispanic students

If President Obama really wants to raise U.S. education standards, he should focus on the 50-million strong U.S. Hispanic population — we are by far the worst-performing ethnic group in American schools.

Consider some of these alarming figures released by the White House in recent days:

One of every four American children today is Hispanic, but less than half of U.S. Hispanic children are enrolled in early childhood education programs, which are considered a key to children’s future performance in school.

Only about 50 percent of Hispanic students earn their high school diplomas on time.

Only 13 percent of U.S. Hispanic students earn a Bachelor’s degree, compared with 17 percent of Afro-American students, 31 percent of White Non-Hispanic students, and 50 percent of Asian students. Only 4 percent of U.S. Hispanic students earn a Master’s degree.

To his credit, President Obama is beginning to pay some serious attention to this problem, recognizing that it will affect not only Hispanics, but all Americans.

One of every four children aged 10 or younger in U.S. schools is Hispanic. This means that Hispanics —.already the biggest U.S. minority group — will soon be a key factor in deciding whether the U.S. workforce will remain competitive in the global economy.

Why are Hispanic kids lagging behind? It may have to do with lack of information about college financing possibilities in immigrant communities where few went to college, or with the fact that few Hispanic students get extra-curricular tutoring for SAT exams, or with scant bilingual education or remedial schooling funds to help children with non English-speaking parents.

Instead of using immigrants’ Spanish-speaking abilities to America’s advantage by raising bilingual children, like most European countries do, many U.S. schools are discouraging young children from speaking Spanish, without giving them any after-hour tools to improve their English, math and science skills.

In a town-hall meeting on Hispanic education aired by the Univision network earlier this week, Obama said he is increasing funds for Hispanics’ early childhood education programs, and that he is trying to improve the quality of teachers through economic incentives with his Race to the Top education reform program.

In addition, he said the government has increased Pell Grants for college education by $800 a year from what students were getting two years ago, and that has made these grants available to millions of more students.

But when I asked Obama in a March 22 interview what the U.S. government can do to help U.S. Hispanics and Latin American kids improve their education standards, he mentioned something that may be more important than any government program: the need to put education at the center or our personal, family and national agenda, much like they do in Asia.

“There is also an attitudinal change that has to take place in the United States, as well as in countries in Latin America, where we start recognizing that — you know what? — the competition is getting fierce!” Obama told me. “The Chinese, South Koreans, India, they are hungry for education.

“And in a knowledge-based economy, it’s not enough that we have natural raw materials, it is not enough that we have talented people. Our kids have to apply themselves to learn technology, math, science. Otherwise, they are going to fall behind,” he added.

My opinion: Obama’s focus on Hispanic education this week is commendable. But if it’s going to be a one-week issue — like most on the White House agenda — it’s not going to help much.

In China, Singapore and other Asian countries that get the highest scores in international standardized student tests, I found a generalized obsession of families with their children’s education.

People there are convinced that their children’s future depends on how well they do in school. In South Korea, an average middle-class family invests up to 30 percent of its income on education.

We could use some of Asian families’ obsession with education. Improving Hispanics’ education standards will require a massive crusade to create a family culture of education by the government, big corporations and foundations — much like the campaign that helped America reduce cigarette consumption. Anything short of that will be just another weekly White House talking point.


Andres Oppenheimer is a Miami Herald syndicated columnist and a member of The Miami Herald team that won the 1987 Pulitzer Prize. He also won the 1999 Maria Moors Cabot Award, the 2001 King of Spain prize, and the 2005 Emmy Suncoast award. He is the author of Castro's Final Hour; Bordering on Chaos, on Mexico's crisis; Cronicas de heroes y bandidos, Ojos vendados, Cuentos Chinos and most recently of Saving the Americas. E-mail Andres at Live chat with Oppenheimer every Thursday at 1 p.m. at The Miami Herald.

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