From Thought to Action on the Latino Front

By Watson Scott Swail, President and CEO, Educational Policy InstituteS

This morning I was privileged to speak at the Strengthening the Pipeline to Support Latino/a College Students workshop in San Antonio, TX. The workshop, sponsored by the NASPA Latino/a Knowledge Community, the Educational Policy Institute, Excelencia in Education, and the Texas Association of Chicanos in Higher Education (TACHE) welcomed educators from around the country to explore challenges and solutions in the education of Latino/a students.

SThis morning I was privileged to speak at the Strengthening the Pipeline to Support Latino/a College Students workshop in San Antonio, TX. The workshop, sponsored by the NASPA Latino/a Knowledge Community, the Educational Policy Institute, Excelencia in Education, and the Texas Association of Chicanos in Higher Education (TACHE) welcomed educators from around the country to explore challenges and solutions in the education of Latino/a students.

The workshop opened up last night with a presentation by Deborah Santiago of Excelencia in Education. Deborah titled her presentation “Crystal Ball or Snow Globe: Examining the Future of Latinos in the Educational Pipeline,” her point being that our policies or practices are often like a snow globe: we shake them up, the snow flies around, but once settled, nothing has changed. People think we have traction, but it’s just more play around the margins.

At EPI, we have followed the Latino/a trends for a number of years. Together, with my colleague and University of Maryland, College Park researcher Alberto Cabrera, EPI has released several publications on Latino students and educational opportunity and has sponsored or hosted several meetings on this issue. But the challenges are daunting and the barriers seemingly intractable for this group.

I won’t review in detail what we already know, but Latino students are less prepared for college, have much lower high school graduation rates, lower college matriculation rates, lower access to four-year and higher-quality institutions (and instruction), lower PSE retention and graduation rates, lower matriculation to graduate programs and the professoriate, and lower entry to business and industry than white and Asians. Nice story.

It is daunting because the future of America, for better or worse (and that is a horrible way to think it through, I admit), is through the Hispanic vein. We will be a Hispanic-majority country at some point in this century. If we want to continue to prosper in the global marketplace, we need competent, highly qualified individuals who can think and achieve at high levels. I closed my presentation this morning with a quote from Albert Einstein, or Al, who said that “Imagination is more important than knowledge. Knowledge is limited. Imagination encircles the world.” Global competition doesn’t depend on who can develop pampers and widgets on a cheap scale (although that does help), but rather, it is the ability to create and innovate that has always kept the US at the top of the economic heap (perhaps an accurate term these days).

Back to Deborah’s “snow globe,” our barriers are seemingly intractable because we cannot seem to find public policy that pushes our envelope (sorry) to do anything on a rational basis. (EDITOR’S NOTE: For the non-policymaker-type, rational means doing things in an efficient, effective, and time-sensitive fashion, rather than the alternative, the “incremental” method, loosely defined as a snail-paced, politically-oriented method of policy development which is safer, but not time sensitive; we are a society caught in the net of incremental public policy development). We are so far behind the eight-ball on these issues that the task ahead of us seems insurmountable, at best. Whatever we do on a legislative slate, we seem to be in the same position we were before we started. The snow reads as deception. Our leaders are deceiving us. We elect them into powerful positions, whether that be school councils, mayors, state officials, or members of Congress, and they don’t get the job done.

This is, of course, a deficit philosophy and perspective. If we focus on what “cannot” be done, we never get to what can be done. As a nation, we need to focus on what we can do to elevate the educational opportunities, therefore the workforce opportunities, of Latino/a youth in this country. If not, we have severe problems ahead of us. I’ve stated this before: the 19th century was the British century; the 20th century was the American century, and the 21st century firmly belongs to the Asians. Two countries–India and China–together house 1/3 of the world’s population. And together, they also are gaining political, financial, and military clout. Be forewarned.

For the US (and yes, Canada and Australia and the rest of the world too!) to be competitive, we need to find more rational ways to improve our education systems at the elementary, secondary, and postsecondary levels. If not, we will lose further ground in the global economy.

Natural resources are one of those attributes countries are fortunate to have, whether that be hydro, petrol, or agricultural. Our greatest resource, however, are our human resources. The greatest economies are always led by the nation with the best and brightest. This has been America’s trump card over the past century plus. If this is our philosophy, we certainly cannot marginalize the fastest growing constituency in this country.

Thus, we need to move from talk to action, but our current economic downturn suggests that education will be backburned, yet again, due to poor policy development among our legislators (it’s not Wall Street! It’s what we allowed Wall Street to do!). I’ve always been fascinated that when we run into economy turmoil, when people flock back to postsecondary education, states cut funds to higher education. Antithetical, don’t ya think?

At some point, we need kick some serious policy butt and move forward with agendas that matter. After the election fatigue caused by a 2.5 year cycle, many of us in the US are tired of talking about trivial (at best) policy issues (I don’t give a damn who Ayers is or that Bristol’s boyfriend quit high school to work in the oil fields, although the latter is not a great long-term career move; he apparently needs some good career and college guidance…). We need a lightening bolt to reenergize the commitment necessary to help not only Latino/as but all Americans. It’s time to move on. This isn’t partisan. This is life. And we’re wasting too many of these lives because we can’t move beyond the politics.

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