Making the Common Core Work for Latino Students

It sometimes feels like we’re short on lots of things in the United States right now. Like sleep. And time. And political will. And drinking water. And topsoil. And heck, we’re even running short on children these days. The United States is getting older—we’re not replacing our graying Baby Boomers with new children.

Why does this matter? Well, as sociologist Dowell Myers pointed out at a New America event last fall, older Americans need today’s children to grow up and pay taxes to fund the United States’ retirement programs. As exhausting as they can be, today’s children are a critical economic resource.

And the demographics of the American student body are changing, too, as birth rates shift for various races and ethnicities. Latino students currently make up about one-quarter of American students. By 2036, projections suggest that that number will rise to about one-third of all students. As Myers put it, America’s older, whiter generations need this generation of young Latino students to succeed.

The National Council of La Raza (NCLR) hosted a webinar this week to show how teachers, schools, and districts can use the Common Core State Standards to improve educational outcomes for Latino students in New York—and beyond. Those increased successes are sorely needed. Only 62 percent of Latino students graduate high school in New York, fully 15 percentage points below the statewide rate of 77 percent high school completion.

And Common Core could particularly help those students. The panel noted that Latino families are often highly mobile, so wide variance between states’ academic standards has historically presented them with challenges. Fortunately, 82 percent of Latino students currently live in states adopting the Common Core.

Vanessa Ramos, the Senior Director for Policy at the Committee for Hispanic Children and Families, noted that New York should see the Common Core State Standards as an opportunity to serve its Latino students better. Over 14 percent of New York students are classified as English language learners, and over 60 percent of these students are native Spanish speakers. Supporting these students’ academic success—and their ability to meet the Common Core’s high expectations—will require building their bilingualism by using their home language at school. She also recommended that teachers and administrators involve parents in “creating language and literacy experiences at home to reinforce children’s learning at school in pre-K and beyond.” She cautioned that “not all schools are the same”—successful implementation of the standards will require different strategies at different places. Fortunately, she noted that the Common Core does not prescribe curricula, pedagogical methods, or methods of implementation.

Amber Charter School’s Vasthi Acosta and Sashemani Elliot explained that the Common Core sets high “standards of excellence” for all students. They’ve also found that the standards are better organized than the ones they replaced. However, they noted that the new standards require students to broaden their vocabularies to include “domain-specific” words. These are terms like “kiln,” which is both infrequently used and critically important for understanding certain artistic domains. Mastering these sorts of words will require schools, teachers, and families to consciously work on developing their children’s vocabularies via fiction and non-fiction texts. This is particularly important for Latino students who are also dual language learners, since research shows that while their vocabularies are often as large as monolingual students, theirs are split across two languages. Ramos noted that the Common Core had allowed them to highlight recent research on bilingualism as an asset for higher-order thinking and long-term language development.

All of the webinar participants urged parents and educators alike to push back against the widespread misinformation about the standards. As NCLR’s Delia Pompa recently argued however, making the Common Core work for Latinos (and in general) comes down to “making sure that these standards are implemented in the most effective way possible.”

And while the Common Core State Standards were developed by the states, the United States’ shifting demographics suggest that getting the implementation right should be a national priority.

[Cross-posted at Ed Central]

Conor Williams

Conor Williams is a Senior Researcher in the Early Education Initiative at the New America Foundation. Find him on Twitter: @ConorPWilliams