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Will More Latino Teachers Solve The Latino Achievement Gap In U.S.?

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By: Robyn Gee

Could bolstering the Latino teacher workforce have an impact on the widening achievement gap between Latino students and their white and black peers in America?

According to the Washington Post, more than 21 percent of schoolchildren are Latino, compared to seven percent of teachers, a wider disparity than any other racial or ethnic minority in the U.S. The article cites research that suggests that having more Latino teachers would lead to better attendance, fewer behavioral problems, and better test scores for Latino students.

Traditionally, Latino students in the U.S. struggle to perform academically compared to their white and black peers. Education Week reports that in 2007, 27 percent of Hispanic children lived in poverty compared with 10 percent of white children, which had a trickle down effect. Hispanic children were less likely than their white or black peers to recognize letters of the alphabet, and know how to write their name, or count to 20 or higher.

In response to this problem, Teach for America (TFA) and the Hispanic Scholarship Fund (HSF) have partnered to create a unique scholarship fund geared towards Latino undergraduates who plan on studying science, technology, engineering, or math (STEM). A spokesperson for TFA said that Latino students impacted by Teach for America Corps members are traditionally less proficient in these areas. The hope is that Hispanic college students supported by the fund will decide to apply for Teach for America, and that their future students would benefit from having an expert at the front of the room.

The Washington Post reports that only eight percent of TFA's incoming corps of teachers are Latino, while more than 40 percent of children reached by the organization are Latino.

The question: Will Changing the Numbers Have the Desired Impact on Student Achievement?

Experts say evening out the numbers IS absolutely necessary, but along with that, the challenge is to change the way schools teach Latino students in the first place - both in grade school classrooms and in teacher training programs.

According to Claudia Santa Cruz, spokeswoman for TFA, the recipients of the HSF / TFA scholarship will be encouraged to apply for TFA once they have graduated college, but once they are in the corps, their teacher preparation training will remain the same as everyone else's.

This is precisely what has to change, according to Ofelia Garcia,Professor in the Ph.D. programs of Urban Education and of Hispanic and Luso-Brazilian Literatures and Languages at the Graduate Center of the City University of New York. "We cannot just hire Latino teachers and expect them to do well. You have to prepare Latino teachers differently so that they can address the issues," she said. "The fact that you're a Latino teacher doesn't guarantee that you will understand [Latino students'] issues and the way they perform. There are issue of class and national origin all tied up with ethnicity. We have to hire Latino teachers who really know how to work with these communities."

Garcia said that the huge differences within the Latino community can be sources of prejudice, such as immigration status, place of origin, and class. "Latino teachers that are more recent arrivals have no idea of bilingualism, or the language differences of their students, or how language functions in the US. They stigmatize the bilingualism of the students. Or, they have the knowledge base of what Spanish is like back home. Or, they have the knowledge base of what literate, college people were like back at home," said Garcia. "Now they're coming into contact with Latino communities that they have had no contact with back home. We cannot just match Latino teachers up with Latino students, but we have to help them be critical about their own ideologies."

Alfredo Rodriguez, Alumni Affairs Coordinator at Teach for America in the Bay Area, who went through the teaching corps himself from 2008 - 2010, agrees with Garcia. "Race isn't enough. Because on paper, I don't think that race is always a defining experience for people. The students in the classroom. Not only are they Latino but they're also poor -- some of them -- they grew up in low income communities. But if you bring a Latino who has an affluent background, who's had privilege, and parents who were able to help them out through out their life, that doesn't resonate with the audience they're trying to serve," he said.

The Background: Raising the Bar for Teacher Certifications

Historical and political changes in recent years have made becoming a teacher more difficult, particularly for Latinos who come from under-served communities, according to Garcia. For example, in New York State, the regents began making changes to the teacher certification criteria in 1995. They began requiring an 80 percent pass rate for teacher candidates on their certification exams.

However, universities wanted to protect themselves and thus began requiring that students pass the exam prior to entering the teacher credentialing program. "Higher standards and salaries for teachers were very much needed, but not if universities are going to stop admitting certain candidates because they present a risk of failure. It should just mean we work harder and educate better," said Garcia.

Eventually this preemptive testing practice was declared illegal, but Garcia said the state has not recovered from it. "We need teachers who can meet high standards, but at the college level, you have to be able to develop that. The Latino students who come from the communities we want to serve, and who will do well with our students, they need a lot of support to meet those standards -- if they don't get it, they're excluded," said Garcia.

The Story: From Struggling Student To Helping Struggling Students

In the classroom of Rafael Velazquez, the motto on the wall reads: "Don't give up on yourself or anyone else." Velazquez was born in Mexico and currently teaches 7th grade English Language Development in Hayward, CA. He can attest to the value of having teachers that look like him.

"I didn't come to the states knowing English myself, I was an English learner. Once I was in the university studying for my credential, I saw the importance of building that bridge, and what it could have done for me to have a mentor who had also learned English," he said.

Velazquez said while he was attending the University of California San Diego, he didn't always feel welcome or supported, and thought about giving up on school. "I don't think there are many avenues to get us acclimated to university culture - complete change of lifestyle, culture, and even being surrounded by new kinds of people... Having people that look like you is a very superficial kind of support and sense of empowerment."

When he did have Latino teachers and role models, he noticed a difference. "I felt that they would understand sometimes the types of things that I would be feeling without even mentioning anything -- it was just a sense of comfort," said Velazquez.

In his eyes, the way to encourage more Latinos to go into the field of education, is more than offering them a scholarship to study STEM, but begins by making education seem useful to Latino students. "If we have students think about education as a tool for change, then it becomes more relevant than just fighting to get a paycheck... Especially for people of color who sometimes are living in rough situations, and going to college is alienating and you feel like you're leaving behind people. But if you see education as a way to come back and change things that aren't right in your community... then I think that will motivate way more people to go into education and see the value in it," said Velazquez.

CUNY's Garcia also learned English at a young age. She arrived in the U.S. at the age of 11 from Cuba. "I didn't have one single Latino teacher; there was only instruction in English... When I started teaching, I was the only Latina teacher in a school that was 80 percent Puerto Rican. I started experimenting with bilingual instruction because it didn't make sense to me to teach in a language that students didn't understand, when I was capable of educating them through Spanish, and started also experimenting using Spanish to teach them English," she said.

The Solution: Teaching More Than the English Language Learner

Once students like Garcia and Velazquez have learned English, then what? According to Garcia, ELLs (English Language Learners) tend to be the focus of Latino education. But those who are English proficient and bilingual are falling off the map. "Schools do not recognize any Latino experiences except for the lack of English. If you lack English then you are noticed, if you have English you're supposed to be like everyone else, but you're not," said Garcia.

But everyone agrees that the effects on student achievement from having more Latino teachers could be tremendous. "If one is more secure in own identity, you invest more in your learning and therefore you do better," said Garcia.

"Teachers from all different backgrounds can have a wonderful impact on children, but when they share the background of the students, they can have a greater impact... students can relate to them more," said Santa Cruz.

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