Why Don’t Latinos Do As Well In School?

The answer seems obvious to me, but others find it hard to accept:

In front of a group of student leaders at Alhambra High School, Assistant Principal Grace Love spoke in February about the school’s recent gains on state tests.

Alhambra, she said, had narrowed the gap in test scores between Asian and Latino students. Overall, Latino test takers had improved their composite scores on state tests faster than any other group over the last four years.

Robin Zhou, an 18-year-old columnist for the Moor, the school newspaper, listened skeptically. He had trouble seeing any reason to celebrate.

To him, the real news in Love’s statistics wasn’t the small gains she was pointing out, but rather the wide gulf that still existed between Asians and Latinos.

The composite scores for Asians at Alhambra High were still far above those of Latinos. According to Love’s presentation, 57% of Asian ninth-graders passed the state’s English Language Arts standards test, but only 28% of Latino ninth-graders passed. It was even worse in algebra, with only 12% of Latinos passing the test as compared to 49% of Asians.

To Zhou, the data raised a question: “Why was the gap there in the first place?”

With the next round of state tests looming, Zhou decided to examine the subject in his newspaper column. He said he did so out of a desire to get people to focus on solutions. That’s not what happened — at least not at first.

That there are gaps in test scores among racial and ethnic groups is an uncomfortable truth in modern day education.

The achievement gap, as racial disparities in test scores are known in education circles, exists at schools throughout the nation. It also exists across class lines.

Examining the issue requires traversing a political and cultural minefield. Every possible explanation is likely to offend, which may be why the subject rarely provokes the kind of discussion that might eventually lead to change.

Using test scores as a measure, Latino students are “not pulling their weight,” the article said.

Zhou then went on to try to explain the gap. The first reason, he wrote, was largely cultural, in that Asian parents were more likely to “push their children to move toward academic success, while many Hispanic parents are well-meaning but less active.”

The editors and reporters in the room crowded around co-editor-in-chief Lena Chen to read the draft. They understood that Zhou’s article touched on dangerous ground; they agreed that he needed to tone down his language, even though many of them thought he had made some valid points and had thoroughly researched the subject.

“My first reaction? Robin’s gonna get beat up,” recalled Sara Martinez, a 16-year-old Latina, who was the only non-Asian student to read the article that day.

The paper’s advisor, Mark Padilla, agreed that the story could use some qualifying. But he reminded the editors that this was a column, and therefore offered more leeway. It was important, he reminded them, for journalists not to shy away from sensitive but important subjects.

Different Expectations

Researchers who study the issue of racial disparities in academic performance say that even they have to be careful how they present data.

Laurence Steinberg, a psychology professor at Temple University in Philadelphia, and his colleagues wanted to look at factors, including race, that affected student achievement several years ago. “We were nervous about how people would react, that we’d be accused of being prejudiced,” he said. “There’s nothing nice you can say about this that’s going to make people feel good.”

Steinberg and his colleagues found that even after economics were controlled for, Asian and Asian American students performed better on tests than any other racial group. Latinos and African Americans performed the least well.

Steinberg’s research further suggested that an “attitudinal profile” influenced academic success, and that Asians tended to have the most students that fit the profile.

The first variable wasn’t parental involvement, as Zhou concluded, but something more subtle: parental expectation. Steinberg asked students what was the worst grade they could get without their parents getting angry. For Asian children, it was a B-plus; for Latino and African American children, it was a C.

Another factor was that Asian children in the study were more likely to associate with peers who valued high marks in school, whereas Latino and African American students were more likely to have friends who put less stock in good grades.

Steinberg found two other differences that seemed linked to success. Asian children were much more likely to attribute their grades to hard work rather than aptitude. They also were more likely to believe that doing poorly in school would harm their chances for success in life.

“If you have these four things, it doesn’t matter what ethnic group you’re from, you’ll do well in school,” Steinberg said. “It’s just more common among Asian kids and less common among black and Latino kids.”

Pedro Noguera, a sociologist at the Metropolitan Center for Urban Education at New York University, believes class plays more of a role than Steinberg does. He points to a mostly Asian high school in San Francisco with a high dropout rate. “They’re not dropping out because they’re not sufficiently Chinese, but mainly because their parents put an emphasis on work.”

Noguera also suggested that Latino parents may be less adept at navigating the American school system and advocating on their children’s behalf.

“It’s not that they don’t value education,” Noguera said. “They’re putting too much trust in the schools. That’s a big mistake.”

Noguera wasn’t surprised to hear that Zhou’s article created a stir. “If Asian and Latino students are not communicating with each other, or if there were already strained relations,” he said, “then there was no context for a thoughtful discussion, and the article merely served as a catalyst for more conflict.”

‘Another Attack’

As Landeros’ mother read through Zhou’s column, she thought: “Here’s another attack on my people. Here’s another person stepping on our neck.”

She knew that average test scores for Latino students at Alhambra High School were lower than average test scores for Asian students. But she hated how Latino students were hit with a constant stream of news reports about how badly they performed in school. That wasn’t making things better, just lowering expectations.

Linda Landeros was proud of the letter her daughter sent to the school newspaper. It was published April 12.

“As if it weren’t enough to worry about academics, the entire Latino student body apparently also has to worry about racial profiling by our school newspaper,” Anastasia Landeros wrote.

“My issue is not with the ‘facts’ that are present, but with the facts that are missing regarding a community and a culture he apparently has no knowledge of,” she wrote. The article was “inflammatory” in singling out one ethnic group based on a stereotype.

“It would be wrong to write, ‘Because of Asian drivers, insurance rates in Alhambra are high,’ ” Anastasia wrote. “Wouldn’t the article be seen as a one-sided, non-researched piece?”

Food for Thought

It was obvious that Zhou’s article polarized students and parents. But it also got them thinking and talking about race, culture and achievement at Alhambra High.

Several Latino students said they were nervous when they walked into Advanced Placement classes and saw a sea of Asians. But this turned to disappointment when some teachers seemed to expect less from them.

“When we answer a question wrong, they say, ‘It’s OK. You’re really trying hard,’ ” said Perla Trejo, 17. “It’s like, OK, but what’s the answer?” Trejo said teachers don’t treat Asian students the same way in her class.

Saul Pineda, 16, said he almost quit one of his AP classes last summer because it was difficult and he felt uncomfortable. But now that the article has come out, he said, “I want to try harder.”

“Mostly just to prove them wrong,” Trejo added.

Russell Lee-Sung, 41, who was principal of the school at the time, says he felt torn about the turmoil Zhou’s article sparked.

Lee-Sung had not only thought about the issues raised in Zhou’s column, he had lived them. Lee-Sung’s father, who is half Mexican, grew up poor in Texas. His mother was born in China and grew up wealthy.

In his own home, he had seen cultural differences in attitudes toward education. His father, he said, “was very encouraging about what [grades] I got. If I tried my best, that would be fine.

“My mom, on the other hand, said, ‘You need to get good grades. You need to go to a good school.’ If I came home with all A’s and a B, she’d question me. ‘What’s the problem?’ ”

But it would be a mistake to say his father cared less about his schoolwork, Lee-Sung said. “They both valued education,” he said. “They just communicated in different ways.”

Lee-Sung knows the subject is difficult to discuss. “This is one of those issues in education that is so taboo to talk about,” he said.

But talking about it was what he had to do in the weeks after Zhou’s column. He said more than 30 parents contacted him. Some commended Zhou for bringing up a point that needed to be addressed. But most were critical of the student, the newspaper advisor and even the principal.

Lee-Sung tried to use the controversy as a teaching tool. He held several discussions with the school staff. He created an “Action Planning Committee” of parents, students, teachers and administrators.

Lee-Sung also invited students who were upset by the article to the first of several “student committee” meetings so they could meet Zhou and other newspaper staffers.

At the meeting, students had a lot of questions for Zhou: Why had he used such offensive language? Why was he stereotyping people? What business did he have talking about the Latino community when he was not Latino?

Zhou told them he was trying to be straightforward with his words. He explained that he grew up in Echo Park, with mostly Latino friends and that his baby-sitter was Latina.

Some students weren’t satisfied, and one Latina student said the conversation didn’t make her feel any better about the article.

But near the end of the first meeting, which lasted about an hour and a half, the students started coming up with ways to close the gap, Lee-Sung said. Their questions were trying to clarify, not accuse.

Suggestions included holding periodic student-moderated dialogues on topics including students’ relationships with teachers and administrators, and cultural assemblies to discuss historical differences, not just food and dancing.

At the second meeting a few weeks later, more solutions were proposed.

The school should expand a program, which has benefited mostly Latino students, that prepares students to attend a four-year university and take some AP and honors classes. Latino students should be encouraged to join more after-school clubs and to take more AP and honors classes.

In the May 10 issue of the school newspaper, Zhou wrote a letter about what he had learned from the experience. “I realize that pointing out a disparity between two of the major student groups on campus has the potential to divide us, to turn students against classmates and neighbors against each other,” he wrote.

He went on to offer “my deepest regrets to those who have been hurt,” saying that “it was not my intent to make anyone feel they are inferior or unable to succeed, but rather to address an issue in desperate need of attention.”

He didn’t apologize for the points he made in his article.

A Lasting Change?

It remains to be seen whether the controversy will result in lasting change.

Most of the key students have graduated. Zhou left for Stanford University. Landeros is studying at East Los Angeles College. Lee-Sung accepted a job as principal of Walnut High School.

But Lee-Sung still has hope.

By the end of the school year, more Latino students had applied for AP classes, though he couldn’t say how many. Students founded a chapter of the Mexican American student group MEChA. And Latino parents formed an organization to support their children.

When the state released scores from the spring 2005 standardized testing, the percentages of Latino students passing the English Language Arts exam and all but one of the math tests had improved from last year. Lee-Sung thinks the awareness spurred by Zhou’s article played a role.

“I think some students who may have had the thought that nobody cares and nobody looks at these scores realized that people do look at them,” he said.

“I would imagine for some students, there was a sense of pride. ‘Know what? I don’t want people to think this way about me, and I’ll work harder on the test than in the past.’ ”

Linda Landeros says she and her daughter are still angry about the article. But she acknowledges that it may have spurred her daughter on as well. Near the end of the school year, Anastasia Landeros wasn’t doing well in her high-school math class.

Her mother brought up Zhou’s column, saying, “See, he’s right in this article.”

The daughter blew up, but her mother’s taunt made her pull up her grade.

Zhou is philosophical about what happened. “You can’t expect to write something like this without taking a few lumps,” he said. But, he added, “If nothing happened, I’d be feeling even worse.”

The article is long, but well worth the read. Please find the time to read it in its entirety.

A couple of comments here. First, whether Zhou’s findings are true or not, creating an environment where honest dialogue is punished primarily hurts Latinos, not those who made the findings. This is one of the main problems I have with those who adhere to the politically correct culture and blindly rebuke those who make any negative comment tied to race or culture. Doing so only limits the conversation, and in doing so, sidesteps addressing the problem head on, all at the Latinos expense.

Secondly, Zhou’s findings are very reasonable. For those of you that don’t know, Echo Park, where Zhou grew up, is a predominantly Mexican area, and an area that has a large amount of poverty and gang activity, in other words, Zhou knows poverty and Mexican culture, and probably knows it well. In addition, Zhou – or Steinberg the psychology professor – is not the only one to come to these conclusions. These conclusions are repeated by minorities themselves (myself included), whether it is economist Thomas Sowell, Walter Williams, or the up and coming Roland G. Fryer Jr over at Harvard. Furthermore, it is not just some economists who believe this, but some sociologists have also started coming to the same conclusions. Granted, this does not necessarily prove Zhou’s conclusions, but they do show that a wide range of people hold his conclusions. In fact, I personally find the cultural argument the strongest of all explanations on why minorities don’t do as well in school as Asians and other highly educated minorities. Granted, there are several other reasons all mixed in, but I believe the large bulk of the responsibility falls on cultural differences, specifically our value for education, and more importantly, how we transfer that message to our children. You may disagree, and that is fine, personal experience and cultural differences are difficult to quantify objectively, but even if you disagree, if your true goal is to help Latinos and not simply to blindly follow misguided orgullo, you should help to create an environment where these issues can be discussed honestly and openly, it will not only help find the solution, but more importantly, it will benefit those who with each generation, are repeatedly missing out on the American dream.

Ironically, without knowing more than what I read in the article, it is clear to me that it was Zhou who helped Latinos here, and it was the Latinos who rebuked him that harmed Latinos, not the other way around.

11 Responses to “Why Don’t Latinos Do As Well In School?”


  • Interesting food for thought in this article. I kept looking for the mention of language proficiency and parent education levels and how that plays a role in performance.
    Who are the Latinos and Asians being profiled in this article? Are they a mix of all children at varying levels of English language proficiency or are they all at the same level? Did they all start kindergarten in the US at the same level? That really makes a difference.
    I teach at a school that is predominately Latino. (94% or so) In my second grade class of 20 students, 18 of my 20 are English Learners. The 18 English Learners are not all on the same playing field though. Aside from their academic abilities, their language proficiency is varied. I have 2 who have recently come from Mexico, others who were born in the US but didn’t start to speak English until kindergarten and then some who have been speaking Spanish and English since they started speaking. This definitely plays a role in academic success. Research shows that it takes 5-7 years to become proficient in English at an academic level. That is one of the problems.
    Does parent expectation have a role? I hate to say it but I think it does to a degree. I have done many, many parent conferences. I can’t even tell you how many times the parents waited patiently for me to get through the academic portion so they could ask me about their child’s behavior. That is the most important issue for many of the parents at my school – not academics. Not to say that they don’t care about academics but it plays a big role.
    Parent education also plays a role in student achievement. What are the parent education levels of the kids in the article? At my school, the average parent education level is 2nd grade!!!How far can parents realistically help their kids with homework if they don’t know the material themselves? It is even worse when they also don’t even speak English.
    The Latino students who always perform best in my class and at my school are always the most proficient in English, have parents who either speak English or are taking classes to learn English and who have gone to school at least through junior high or high school.

  • You bring up really good points MAM, especially parental education and language differences. That is what makes studies like this difficult, and hard to measure to everybody’s satisfaction. However, that is one thing I like about Asian and Mexican comparisons, unlike whites, Asians also have a language barrier, they also immigrated, and when controlling for economic and educational background, you get a lot closer to a true apples to apples comparison than with other groups.

    Another comparison that I like, and one that has been studied more than the Mexican vs Asian comparison, is that with Blacks vs. Mexicans. In fact, when you look at it from this angle, you get counterintuitive results. Mexicans and Blacks share alot of the same living conditions, economic status, bad schools and poorly educated parents (my dad, for example, didn’t even know how to write his own name when he immigrated to the USA), but Mexicans, not Blacks, also have a language barrier to overcome, they also have, alot of times being recent immigrants, assimilation difficulties that Blacks don’t have. So with all of this, you would expect Blacks to do better than Raza in school. Yet this is not what you see, in study after study, Mexicans, especially after a few years of schooling, start to outperform their Black brothers and sisters in the ghetto. Granted, not by much, but enough to make a statistical difference. Why is this so? In my opinion, there are many factors here, but the two primary ones are, first and foremost, that Mexicans tend to have both parents living at home at a much higher percentage than Blacks, and secondly, anti-intellectualism is not as prominent in the Mexican culture as much as it is in the Black culture. So you see, even with two groups of the same background, with Mexicans in many respects having worse starting positions, culture (and I would classify two parent families, and strong marriages under the cultural category) plays a large roll in how much a certain group progresses.

    On the other hand, one could make the ‘racism’ argument, one could argue that since Blacks tend to be darker than Hispanics, they would face much stronger racism and this could explain why they under perform Hispanics. However, even this doesn’t stand up to scrutiny, especially to those of us who spend time on college campuses and good companies. For example, I go to UC San Diego, and the few Blacks that I have seen in my classes, engineering classes, are all primarily from Africa. They speak with a heavy accent, and come from places like Cameroon or Nigeria. They also tend to be darker than the typical Black, and in many cases, started off just as poor as those of us that grew up in the ghetto. Yet they ended up at drastically different ending points (they also tend to be, atleast from my experience, the most critical of American born blacks, often times using strong language to show their distaste, saying things like, “They need to get off of their lazy asses and ….you get the idea).

    In addition to this, Mexicans aren’t doing that much better. I have taken courses with 150 seats, and in many cases, I am the only Mexican in the class. The few times that I have seen other Latinos, they are always foreign born Latinos. Transfer students from Peru, students from Mexico City, and students from Monterrey, but I have yet to see another United States born Mexican. Of course my experience is very limited, since I am not going to school fulltime, and I haven’t looked into the other majors, but this does shed a little light on how racism could not be as large a factor as people currently make it out to be, since in many cases, those minorities who do end up doing well in school are more ‘Mexican’ and more ‘Black’ than those who live in the ghetto (In fact, my experience has been the exact opposite of racism, sometimes I get the feeling that because I am Mexican, because people know – but don’t publicly say – that we are a minority on campus yet a majority of the public, they make a little more effort making me feel comfortable than had I not been, it may be all in my head though, since I can’t stand being seen as a charity cause).

    With all of that said though, I have seen studies that control for everything you say. Most recently, the book I recommended to you earlier, No Excuses by the Thernstrom’s do exactly that. And even when you control for the same educational background, the same income level ( for example, they even compare rich Blacks to Rich Asians, or Whites), the same family background and the same starting point, minorities, Mexicans and Blacks, but more so Blacks, still show a considerable educational gap. In addition, studies have also shown that when you have parents, regardless of race, regardless of educational background, regardless of starting points, and regardless of income, stressing education at a very high level, for example, by setting expectation levels high (A- and above), students with pro-education peer groups, a stronger philosophy that ties good grades to effort, not natural intelligence, and a belief that bad grades is equal to a bad life in the USA, than regardless of everything else, the student will do very well in school.

    But in the end, I still think more studies like this need to be done, I think one of the most neglected areas in this whole ‘race in America’ discussion is precisely this point, cultural factors, and how they play into educational success, and financial stability.

    That is why I applaud Zhou and his study, and rebuke those Latinos that would try to censor this type of information.

  • Yeah,yeah, you are still pushing that darn book on me!!!!
    I am going off track in 1 week. I will have time to read my book that I have been waiting to get through. Maybe I will consider getting YOUR book at the library. We will see. :-)

  • That gut was brave, and he was on point. People gotta start pulling their weight, and stop looking for phantoms to blame. The ol’ “institutional racism” line is tired and doing no one any good.

    Good post, HP. I re-posted it at soy.

  • LOL I meant *guy, not “gut.”

  • Nice Post.

    I also concur with the conclusion that culture is a prominent factor for the disparities in educational performance and thus should be a focal point when discussing educatinal gaps. True, Latino children tend to start school at a disadvantage in many areas, and those are exacerbated as the students move on up grade levels without the underlying problems being addressed.

    These people who get butt hurt over the mention of perceived ‘cultural educational deficiencies’ and try to preclude constructive and informative discussions thereof, our doing a great disservice to our Latino community.

  • The race issue has gotten so toxic in America that you can’t even acknowledge anything without somebody jumping up and down about it. I absolutely think there are historical reasons for the race/class hierarchy in America (you’d have to be deliberately fooling yourself to think otherwise). But that doesn’t mean that we can’t learn something from racial factors that contribute to currently held values which contribute to the current status quo.

    When racism is used as a tool to oppress, we should all jump up and down and yell. But not every not-so-PC-sounding comment is racist.

  • interesting post. i didn’t find anything wrong with what zhou said. pc pussyfooting around issues can be so detrimental to progress. well at least the column resulted in opening dialogue.

  • Good discussion. When you speak of Latinos or Asians, these are two very broad categories. Are we talking about ChineseAmericans/Japanese Americans or Hmong Americans and Cambodian Americans. Are they 1st generation in the US or 5th or 6th like some Japanese are? Are they native English Speakers or not? Are they low, middle, or high, income? BEcause there are some real differences from a recently arrived Hmong American and a fifth generation Japanese American.

    Same thing for Latinos. There is a lot of in group diversity.
    PLus, the context of reception for immigrants (Latino & Asian) has been dramatcially different. A comparison of this sort is very limiting in that sometimes there is more in group diversity than out.

  • @hispanicpundit yeah sorry no offense but latinos (mainly Mexicans) are the least educated so you guys do not outperform blacks :/. I mean even with two parent households Mexicans still have the lowest high school completion rate, the lowest high school graduating rate, the highest high school dropout rate, the lowest incomes, are less likely to obtain ANY type of degree, the lowest community college completion rate even though that’s where most Mexicans are and the transition to 4 year colleges are still low. Also you Mexicans (latinos in general) are the only group that’s more educated than your immigrant group, and that’s not to good because you both do equally bad. Sure you have culture, but that will not always help you. You do realize that Mexicans preform worse than, not only blacks, whites, and Asians, but also Native Americans who are, may I remind you, only 1% of the population. I don’t really know how you could draw your conclusions without data, but Mexicans have been behind blacks, whites, and Asians for 30 years now. Also latina girls have a 41% dropout rate and are more likely to be uneducated teen mothers. Besides at least blacks visit their OOW children and still manage to out-preform Mexicans and other latinos. Why worry about blacks when you guys can’t even immigrate to this country right? At least 89% of blacks complete high school whereas only 75% of Hispanics do, meaning you still have the lowest high school completion rate even in the year 2012. That’s truely disappointing to think your better than a group of people, when in fact your the least educated in the nation, and you mexicans have been like that for the last 30 years and probably 40 knowing as how blacks will probably progress and your foreign-born Mexican bretheren drag down the average far worse than any black, so fix your culture and drop the machismo it’s almost as ugly as sagging, but daggers still outperform mexicans. So I advise learning English and being legal citizens before you make any progress also I don’t care if I’m 7 years late my statements still hold true for your uneducated kin so research the truth mi amigo. Adios!

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