Like the rest of the US, Arizona has a serious problem regarding educational attainment gaps between white and Latino students. According to the National Assessment of Educational Progress, whites in 2015 were 46% proficient in reading by grade 4 and 44% proficient at grade 8; Latinos were 21% proficient at both grade levels with similar disparities present in math.* As with the US generally, Latinos are not the only non-white group to fare poorly in school in Arizona. However, as they comprise 31% of the population, Arizona has one of the country’s largest Latino populations.* Many Latinos have an educational experience different from their non-Latino counterparts in that most (73%) speak a language other than English at home.* Does this explain why Latinos experience worse educational outcomes than whites? Can we do anything to close or narrow these outcome gaps?
Background on Latinos in the US and Arizona
Arizona’s current proportion of Latinos is relatively high depending on when in the state’s history the comparison is made. In 1930, for example, the state’s Latino population was also roughly 30%. It would fall to closer to 20% from around the 1950s to the 1990s when it began to rise again. However, in 1870, the proportion of Arizonans who were Latino was 60.9%. This high proportion of Latinos stemmed, in part, from the fact that, up to about 1850, most of the Southwest was controlled by the Spanish or by Mexico.*
The US granted citizenship to all Mexicans living in territories acquired from Mexico.* By 1900, there were about 500,000 Mexicans living in the US due to labor needs in building the railroad system. Changing economic needs, labor needs, and immigration policies like Operation Wetback influenced the ebb and flow of immigrants across the southern border up to the 1960s. Immigration legislation passed in 1965 led to a surge in Latino immigrants across the country.
Why Arizonans Should Care About Latino Education
People in the US generally might wonder why anyone should care about whether Latinos do well in school. One reason they might care is that most people in the US believe that all people are created equal. In 2015, when asked if they thought that Thomas Jefferson’s assertion that “all men are created equal” is true, 76% of US respondents said that it is.* If people generally begin life on the same footing, it stands to reason that it is largely external forces that prevent them from achieving their full potential. People in the US also generally believe, one, that races are not currently equal and, two, that they should be. A majority of people in the US, 61%, feels that changes are needed to achieve racial equality.*
Arizona also faces the possibility of not being able to meet the needs of the changing job market by not being able to properly educate its large Latino population. According to a report by Georgetown University, by 2020, 68% of jobs in Arizona will require postsecondary education.* Consumer spending is a significant driver of economic growth generally.* In the US, consumer spending makes up two-thirds of the economy.* However, there must also be job growth in order for consumers to have the income to actually spend. If a third of Arizona’s citizens are not well-educated enough to do or qualify to do the jobs that will be available in the near future, they will not generate the income necessary to keep consumer spending up. This will be detrimental to the economic well-being of all Arizonans.
Why Arizona Latinos Are Not Performing as Well as Whites
There are several problems that English Language Learners (ELLs) face that their English-speaking peers do not. One obvious challenge is that they must acquire proficiency close to their peers while they are simultaneously expected to learn the same material, taught in English, as their peers. Given that a proportion of a given group of English-speaking students will struggle with course materials in their native language, the challenge for ELL students is even greater. ELLs do especially poorly in Arizona. According to Department of Education data, Arizona’s rate of graduating ELLs (18% compared to 75.7% for the general population) is the worst in the country.* By contrast, California, which has a similar composition of ELL students, graduated 65% during the same period.*
Another major influencer of student success is parental education. More than 65% of Latino adults in Arizona have no educational experience outside of high school.* In a longitudinal study by Dubow, Boxer, and Huesmann, published in 2009, the researchers followed 856 third-graders over a 40-year timespan. They found that their parents’ educational attainment level significantly predicted their child’s educational and occupational success at age 48. The researchers note that lower educational attainment in adults is associated with a host of negative child development outcomes stemming from such phenomena as greater parental stress.*
One other major influencer is poverty rate. Data from the US Census Bureau show a strong correlation between poverty and educational outcomes in the US.* According to those data, 28.9% of people aged 25 and older in 2014 without a high school diploma were living in poverty. This poverty rate is reduced by half (to 14.2%) for those with a high school diploma but with no college.* Given the strong association between poverty and lack of education, it is not surprising that both would impact Spanish-speaking immigrants the hardest. As a group, they are already more likely to be poor as a disproportionate number are more recent immigrants, and such immigrants typically do not leave their home country if they are already financially well-off.
In a 2012 report by the Department of Education and Early Childhood Development of Victoria and the University of Melbourne, researchers noted the strong impact of reading to children on improving educational outcomes. They found that reading to kids 4–5 years old 3–5 days per week has the same effect on the child’s reading skills as being 6 months older. They also found that increasing the number of readings to 6–7 days per week had the same effect as the child being nearly 12 months older.* This may present a special challenge for parents who speak Spanish only as, one, they may be disinclined to read to their kids in Spanish for fear of worsening their English attainment, and, two, they may be right to fear doing so. One way to overcome this might be to expose children to reading while they are at school or to make children’s books in audio form more widely available to them.
Milem, Salazar, and Bryan reported in 2016 on findings by the Arizona Minority Education Policy Analysis Center suggesting strategies for improving educational outcomes for English Language Learners in Arizona generally. One recommendation they give is to examine entrance requirements that grant or deny access to ELL services.* The nonpartisan Arizona education analysis organization Center for Student Achievement wrote in 2016 that the precipitous drop in Arizona students being classified as ELL is probably due to too-generous proficiency tests more than to actual proficiency. However, it is difficult to know for sure as data on students reclassified as fluent in English are not readily available.*
In 2000, Arizona’s Proposition 203 was passed, requiring a statewide abolition of bilingual education in favor of Structured English Immersion (SEI).* The proposition stipulates that students are expected to learn English within 1 year.* Prior to implementation, opponents argued that this was, one, an unrealistically short amount of time, and, two, would result in years of cumulatively incomprehensible classroom education.* A 2000 study by Hakuta, Butler, and Witt supports that contention. They found that the time to achieve oral English proficiency is roughly 3–5 years while academic proficiency takes 4–7 years.* These writers suggested that, within the time available during formal school hours, it might be impossible for ELL students to keep up with their peers. They suggest that summer and after-school programs might be needed.*
The Near Future
The evidence is overwhelming that educational attainment among Arizona’s Latinos is a serious issue that will have far-reaching impacts on the state’s economy and on people of all racial and national origins. Although Arizona’s Latinos experience high rates of poverty and, to a much larger degree, have the extra barrier of language, there are, nevertheless, ways that the gap can be closed. However, as this process will take years to show progress, and time has already been lost by not taking the issue seriously enough, Arizona’s leadership will have to work diligently to help its inhabitants prosper in the coming years and decades.