Latino Children Regress In School, Study Finds

A new study by the American Psychological Association finds that Latino children enter kindergarten with strong social and educational skills. Unfortunately, the study also found that Latino children are likely to lose those skills due to poor schooling and the bad neighborhood influences. Guest host Allison Keyes speaks with NPR education correspondent Claudio Sanchez on how this study challenges commonly held stereotypes about Latino children and education.

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ALLISON KEYES, host:

We now move from Harvard Law School all the way back to kindergarten where it all begins. Nationwide, one in five of all kindergarteners are Latino. A new study reveals Latino children enter kindergarten with strong social skills that schools and teachers fail to recognize. Joining us now to discuss it is NPR's education correspondent Claudio Sanchez.

Claudio, thanks for joining us.

CLAUDIO SANCHEZ: Thank you for having me.

KEYES: I've got to say the typical scenario the study presents, talented kids who end up in mediocre schools and bad neighborhoods, and kind of fall in to the social pressures, this is not new. What does this study tell us that is?

SANCHEZ: It is not new, but this is a good a snapshot, I believe, that you're going to get about some of the real challenges of really beginning this introducing any white children into some kind of academic success before it's too late. So one thing we should say here, though, that is not mentioned here in the study, though, is that we cannot make assumptions about how many Latino children in this country have access to good quality kindergarten.

I mean, these some programs that are even half day are tough Latino parents because they work and they don't have daycare. And so, that said, this is a pretty big sample, 21,000 kids - mostly in the South and Southwestern, Western United States where they're concentrated. And we should also mention that the entire study that we're talking about here was based on teacher interviews.

So, what we have learned and can glean from the study is that teachers in schools are very poorly prepared to educate Latino children, by and large. what are considered risky behaviors or the risk that these kids run in not accomplishing very much early on, what's often called a social competence of these children ,are often a problem of perception more than they are of reality.

In other words...

KEYES: You mean the way the teachers look at them when they come in the room in the first place.

SANCHEZ: Exactly. It's the deficit model more than it is, you know, what do these kids bring to the table and what the study clearly shows, and what we've known for many, many years is that teachers make all kinds of assumptions about these children, their language ability, their social skills. And sometimes it's like trying to, you know, put a square peg into a round hole. We have an institution called the public schools that are very poorly equipped to take these kids and build on what they bring to the table.

KEYES: The study's co-editor Bruce Fuller at the University of California said and I'm quoting, "immigrant kids begin school with surprisingly good social skills eager to engage teachers and classroom tasks even though many are raised in poor neighborhoods," which sounds kind of offensive. Why would it be so surprising that an immigrant Latino could raise a perfectly functional child?

SANCHEZ: Well, I don't think anybody is questioning, you know, whether or not these Latino families, certainly parents and these children are capable of achieving what middle class, upper middle class kids can.

But let's be real here. The fact is that these immigrant families are often, or more likely than not, very poor. That's another predictor of how kids do in school. It's not the only predictor. The single biggest predictor of academic success for kids in general, Latinos as well, is a mother's educational attainment. Did the mother, you know, go to high school, did they get a good education?

If they didn't, you can often predict that the child is going to struggle as well. And so we're looking at predictors here of, you know, or least the fact that so few Latino parents, mothers in particular, have had little or no formal education.

Teen pregnancy rates, you know, mothers having kids very early on is also a problem. Economics, certainly survival of these families is key. And so many parents bring very few tools to help their kids with schoolwork for example. It's also a fact and the study points to it that Latino mothers do not read to their children nearly as often.

And so there are these, you know, this readiness the readiness issues, are these kids ready for school are very much a problem for Latino families because either they're working really, really hard to just put food on the table or these are families that themselves had little or no formal education. And so you kind of, you know, it's very tough to break that cycle.

KEYES: What kind of differences among Latino children of different heritage did the study find in terms of the readiness?

SANCHEZ: There were major differences, almost all of them class based, Cuban and South American parents of Latino children, for example, were more likely to have had more education. The parents themselves were more likely to have more education than, let's say, Puerto Rican or Mexican families. Also keep in mind that the sampling here of these children was 64 percent Mexican-American. Clearly they're the dominant group within the Latino community.

So, you have families that bring a little bit more to the table. I guess when we were talking about Cuban and especially second, third generation Americans. And so that's an advantage and that's a huge distinction. But if we come back to the fact that teachers by and large consider these kids all in one group, they don't work hard enough to make these distinctions to say, okay, here are the different, class differences or other differences among or between Latino groups. Then they all as far as teachers and schools are concerned, these are all one group. And that's a huge mistake.

KEYES: Really briefly, Claudio, what kind of policy recommendations can we take from this study?

SANCHEZ: Well, because we're talking about things that we've known for a long time, I think the bottom line is that teachers and schools need to be far more prepared than they are to deal with this population. And it takes on an urgent, it's an urgent issues because if you begin to look at the implications of the immigration debate, for example, there is a lingering fear that this is a community, a population, that is not ready to contribute enough and it went it to this nation's well-being, to its quality of life.

And so there's this lingering fear that, you know, there's this population that's really going to put the United States in a hole, economically and otherwise and culturally. And I'm not just talking about the xenophobia, I'm talking about folks who are legitimately concerned about where this population is going and we're not moving quickly enough to help schools to essentially call on schools to do a better job.

KEYES: Okay. Claudio Sanchez is NPR's education correspondent. He was kind enough to join us in studio here in Washington, D.C. Thanks, Claudio.

SANCHEZ: You're welcome.

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