Skip to Content

The Crisis in the Education of Latino Students

By Patricia Gándara, Civil Rights Project/Proyecto Derechos Civiles, University of California–Los Angeles
This article (from a forthcoming Patricia Gándara book1 ) addresses three questions—
  1. Is there really a Latino education crisis, or is it just a passing phenomenon attributable to recent high immigration?
  2. If there is a crisis, what are its dimensions and what has caused it?
  3. What are some of the policies that we must consider to effectively address the crisis?
Is There Really a Latino Education Crisis?

The most urgent problem for the American education system has a Latino face. Latinos are the largest and most rapidly growing ethnic minority in the country, but, academically, they are lagging dangerously far behind their non-Hispanic peers. For example, upon entering kindergarten 42% of Latino children are found in the lowest quartile of performance on reading readiness compared to just 18% of White children.2 By 4th grade, 16% of Latino students are proficient in reading according to the 2005 NAEP, compared to 41% of White students.3 A similar pattern is notable at the 8th grade, where only 15% of Latinos are proficient in reading compared to 39% of Whites.4

With respect to college completion, only 11% of Latinos 25 to 29 years of age had a BA or higher compared to 34% of Whites. Perhaps most distressing, however, is the fact that no progress has been made in the percentage of Latinos gaining college degrees over a 20-year period, while other groups have seen significant increases in degree completion.

Percentage of 25–29-Year-Olds Having Completed a BA or Higher, by Ethnicity

 Ethnicity   1975   1985   1995   2000   2005
 White        24        24        29        34   


 African American        11  12  15  18  17.5
 Latino  9  11  9  10  11.2

The Latino education crisis is not simply a result of immigration. Successive generations of Latinos do tend to outperform their parents, if those parents are very undereducated.5 In 21st-century America, however, it is not sufficient for each generation to advance from a 6th grade education to an 8th grade education and so forth. Educational progress for Latinos has for the most part stalled at high school, with virtually no progress made beyond that point.

Some scholars have noted that Americanization is bad for immigrants (as opposed to immigrants being bad for America). Based on data from over 2,400 8th- and 9th-grade immigrant students in the San Diego, California, area, Rubén Rumbaut concluded that "Americanization processes, all other things being equal...may be counterproductive for educational achievement."6 A number of other studies have similarly found what is often referred to as "immigrant optimism" that factors into the surprisingly higher educational achievement of many immigrant students than their native-born, co-ethnic peers.7 But the overwhelming majority of Latino students are native-born, and, in spite of the recent large increase in Latino immigration, the native-born population is still growing at a faster rate than is immigration.8 Therefore, the low educational attainment of Latino students is not just the result of large numbers of undereducated immigrants entering the public school system. Rather, it is the result of circumstances encountered by Latino students who were born in this country.

Dimensions of the Crisis

This lack of progress in college completion augurs poorly not just for Latinos, but for the society as a whole. Almost one in five students across the country is Latino; by 2050 one in three will be.9 In 2008, about 48% of public school students in California are Latino, about 46% in Texas, about 20% in New York. These students will form the workforce in the immediate future. The Center for Public Policy and Higher Education10 has projected that if the state of California does not immediately begin preparing more underrepresented students for higher education, by 2020 the state will experience an 11% drop in per capita income, resulting in serious economic hardship for the people of California. Arizona, Texas, and other states with high percentages of Latinos are also projected to see declines in per capita income over the period, although none so steep as California because of its very large and undereducated Latino population. To understand the impact of such a decline in per capita earnings, it is useful to know that the present day economy of California is the result of a 30% increase in per capita income since 1980.11 As there is no evidence of an imminent turnaround in the rate at which Latino students are either graduating from high school or obtaining college degrees, it appears that there is clearly both a regional and national catastrophe at hand.

Cause of the Crisis

It would be simplistic to attribute the cause of the Latino education crisis to any single factor. It's clearly the result of a complex web of social, economic, and educational conditions—inadequate social services, families with exceptionally low human and social capital, a polarizing economy with few entry level jobs that provide a living wage and benefits available to those without higher education or special skills, and schools that lack the resources to meet many students' most basic educational needs. Language difference is commonly perceived to be the primary educational barrier for Latino students, and, unfortunately, most attention has been placed on debates over what kind of language program to provide. This distracts educators and others from the more important questions about educational quality. While language is an issue for some Latino students, it's not the critical issue. A recent study12 found that English Learners (primarily Latinos) received an inferior education along seven different dimensions, even when compared to other poor and low-income students. Chief among the educational inequities suffered are teachers unprepared to address their needs.

What Policies Must Be Considered to Address the Crisis?

A review of research on effective strategies for supporting the healthy development of children from birth to young adulthood yields a series of target areas for policy development, including—

  1. Begin cognitive enrichment early. Early intervention, if sustained over time, can change the intellectual development of children. The evidence suggests, though, that this early intervention needs to extend beyond the classroom, involving the homes of preschool children, helping their parents to understand the demands of school and how practices in the home can work hand in hand with the goals of schooling. Most important of all are literacy practices in the home—reading to and with children and also talking to them about ideas and inviting their curiosity about the world. Many low-income Latino parents have come to believe that they cannot help their children learn because they haven't experienced much formal education themselves, or because they don't speak English, and their skills and abilities are often overlooked by schools. Research shows, however, that such parents can and should be critical educators for their children. Policies that enable them to do so in their primary language—and that support them while they do it—could greatly assist students' learning. There is a critical role for teachers and schools in helping parents to support their children's schooling.

  2. Establish housing policies that help desegregate neighborhoods and schools, and build social capital in the Latino community. It has been argued that housing is the fulcrum of opportunity, linked to many factors critical to the success of adults and children in American society. Such factors include access to good schools, but they also include "wealth, healthy and safe environments, positive peer groups for children, good local health care, convenient access to areas of greatest job growth, high-quality public services, networks to jobs and college, and many other forms of opportunity."13 Unfortunately, Latino students are even more segregated into low-income, low-opportunity neighborhoods in the western U.S. than Black students. Changing school boundaries, providing racially and SES-balanced magnet schools, and providing transfer opportunities to attend two-way language programs are among the many options schools can employ to help desegregate Latino students. There are also powerful social policies that can more radically change housing segregation. While such policies are not in the hands of schools to enact, teachers and school districts can give voice to the need for such policies and can cooperate with city and county government to implement them.

  3. Integrate social services. A number of attempts have been made at state and regional levels to provide integrated health and social services for low-income students through cooperative arrangements between schools and county and regional health and welfare agencies. Such efforts have not been without challenges. But there is also evidence that, when implemented well, they can have substantially positive effects on children's physical and mental well-being, which can be at least indirectly related to schooling outcomes. Schools can spearhead these efforts.

  4. Prepare and recruit specifically qualified teachers. Teachers must be given the specialized tools they need to be successful with Latino populations, and, contrary to the oft-heard mantra that good schools are good schools for all children, some additional and different things must be present in schools that serve this population. Teachers must have skills and the means for communicating with Latino parents and enlisting them as allies. They must be able to communicate with and motivate their Latino students. They must understand the circumstances of the students’ lives and histories. Critically, teachers must know how to provide deep, rich, and intellectually challenging instruction that pushes students to excel and, simultaneously, builds on the fund of knowledge that resides in students' communities. In the words of Michael Martinez,14 they must be able to cultivate intelligence, not just the acquisition of knowledge. They must be able to help children learn to think deeply and creatively about problems, and they must be able to build on the foundations of learning that students bring with them to school. This also implies that teachers must be given the autonomy to exercise their professional judgment and expertise in the classroom. Although most Latino students speak English, many come from families and communities that primarily speak Spanish, and most teachers have difficulty communicating with students' families and thus enlisting their support. In a recent survey of 5,300 teachers in California, we found this inability to communicate with parents to be the single greatest concern of teachers of English Language Learners.15 The fact that most Latino students come from backgrounds where mainstream and academic English are not spoken places them at an educational disadvantage that must be attended to with specific pedagogical strategies. Moreover, many of these students are labeled (reclassified) "fluent English proficient," R-FEP, when only yesterday or last week they were considered English Language Learners. Their language development in English must beviewed as occurring along a continuum that will require many years, and teachers need to be skilled at assessing and addressing those linguistic needs.

    Teachers from the same communities as their students are not only much more likely to understand their students' challenges, they are also more likely to remain teaching in the same schools, developing expertise and gaining experience.16 Of course there is a problem in that so few Latinos successfully make it through the college pipeline that the prospective teacher pool is small. Providing incentives for Latinos to go into teaching would be good public policy, and should include tuition-free college and teacher preparation for those who serve the public schools in these communities—one-year free tuition for each year of successful teaching. Teachers from these communities should also be helped to purchase a home in the community through low interest, low down-payment home ownership programs. The costs of the proposed incentives to attract and retain these teachers are small by comparison to the lost tax-payer investment in teachers who leave the classroom early in their careers out of frustration and a desire to find a better paying or less stressful job in a more affluent part of the city. There is no consensus in the field on the critical competencies that teachers must have to effectively meet these students' needs. The field needs to develop this consensus.

  5. Exploit the comparative advantage of many Latino students. If the U.S. is not to be left (further) behind in the education race in a globalizing economy, the ability of its people to work and interact across cultural and linguistic borders will become increasingly important. The notion of speaking a language other than English as an educational liability must be turned on its head. Languages must be seen as resources, as invaluable human capital, and as doorways to enhanced cognitive skills. This is the one area in which many Latino students arrive at school with an advantage over their non-Hispanic peers. It can be exploited for their educational benefit and that of their peers with whom they can share this asset.

    Numerous studies of the academic and linguistic achievement of students in dual language programs, compared with similar students who are in English-only programs, find that in the two-way immersion students either perform as well as those students in English-only (as well as knowing another language) or they outperform the English-only students, across all academic areas. 17 Moreover, students in two-way or dual immersion programs tend to have more positive attitudes toward non-English languages and cultures and exhibit better intercultural relations with students who speak other languages. That is, these programs appear to prepare students better for the global village.18 Wherever possible, such programs should be promoted for the benefit of both Latino and non-Latino students to enhance cognitive and linguistic abilities.


    1. Excerpted from my forthcoming, The Latino Education Crisis: The Consequences of Failed Social Policies (with F. Contreras), Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

    2. Based on NCES data reported for the ECLS 1998 kindergarten sample.

    3. Analyses of 2005 NAEP data.

    4. Ibid.

    5. James Smith (2003) argues that intergenerational mobility among Mexican immigrants is far greater than most studies have shown because they have examined the issue cross-sectionally, by looking at the education levels of first, second, and third generation group means in the same time period. Smith asserts that it is necessary to look backwards, charting grandparents, parents, and children's mean education levels to get a sense of the mobility that has occurred over time. While this argument makes some sense, it is flawed in that social and educational conditions have changed radically over time, and mobility in a prior time may be neither sufficient to keep pace with current labor market demands, nor replicated in the contemporary context. Nonetheless, we agree that some progress does occur across the generations. This is not in dispute.

    6. Rumbaut, 1995, p. 52.

    7. See, for example, Kao and Tienda, 1995; Suárez-Orozco and Suárez-Orozco, 1995.

    8. Pew Hispanic Center, based on 2005 American Community Survey data.

    9. Passel and Cohn, 2008.

    10. These projections are based on recent work by Patrick Kelly of the National Center for Higher Education Management Systems (NCHEMS).

    11. The series of reports for 10 states and the nation as a whole can be found at the National Center for Public Policy and Higher Education Web site.

    12. Gándara et al., 2003.

    13. Orfield and McArdle, 2006.

    14. Martinez, 2000.

    15. Gándara, Maxwell-Jolly, and Driscoll, 2004.

    16. Murnane et al., 1991.

    17. See discussion of this topic in Genesee et al., 2006, especially pages 200–205.

    18. See Genesee and Gándara, 1999, for a discussion of the issue of intercultural relations and attitudes toward other language speakers.


Gándara, P., R. Rumberger, J. Maxwell-Jolly, and R. Callahan. 2003. "English Learners in California Schools: Unequal Resources, Unequal Outcomes." Educational Policy Analysis Archives. Downloaded March 10, 2008, from the Educational Policy Analysis Archives Web site.

Gándara, P., J. Maxwell-Jolly, and A. Driscoll. 2005. Listening to Teachers of English Learners. Santa Cruz, CA: Center for the Future of Teaching and Learning.

Genesee, F., K. Lindholm-Leary, W. Saunders, and D. Christian. 2006. Educating English Language Learners: A Synthesis of Research Evidence. New York: Cambridge University Press.

Genesee, F., and P. Gándara. 1999. "Bilingual Education Programs: A Cross-National Perspective." Journal of Social Issues 55: 665–685.

Kao, G., and M. Tienda. 1998. "Educational Aspirations of Minority Youth." American Journal of Education 106(3): 349–384.

Martinez, M. 2000. Education as the Cultivation of Intelligence . Mahwah, NJ: Laurence Erlbaum.

Murnane, R.J., J.D. Singer, J. B. Willett, J.J. Kemple, and R.J. Olsen. 1991. Who Will Teach?: Policies that Matter. Cambridge, MA: Harvard College.

National Center for Public Policy and Higher Education. 2005. "Income of U.S. Workforce Projected to Decline if Education Doesn't Improve." Downloaded March 10, 2008, from the National Center for Public Policy and Higher Education Policy Alert (PDF, 8pp.).

Orfield, G., and N. McArdle. 2006. The Vicious Cycle: Segregated Housing, Schools, and Intergenerational Inequality. Cambridge: Joint Center for Housing Studies, Harvard University. Downloaded March 10, 2008, from the Civil Rights Project of Harvard University paper (PDF, 69pp.)

Passel, J., and D. Cohn. 2008. "U.S. Population Projections: 2005–2050." Pew Hispanic Center. Downloaded March 10, 2008, from the
Pew Hispanic Center report.

Rumbaut, R. 1995. "The New Californians: Comparative Research Findings on the Educational Progress of Immigrant Children." In R. Rumbaut and W. Cornelius, eds., California's Immigrant Children: Theory, Research, and Implications for Educational Policy. La Jolla, CA: Center for U.S.-Mexican Studies, University of California–San Diego. Pages 17–70.

Smith, P.J. 2003. "Assimilation Across the Latino Generations." American Economic Review 93(2): 315–319.

Suárez-Orozco, C.M., and M. Suárez-Orozco. 1996. Transformations: Immigration, Family Life, and Achievement Motivation among Latino Adolescents. Stanford: Stanford University Press.

About Patricia Gándara

Patricia Gándara is Professor of Education in the Graduate School of Education at the University of California–Los Angeles. Having earned her Ph.D. in Educational Psychology from UCLA, she recently returned there after many years. She has been a bilingual school psychologist, a social scientist with the RAND Corporation, director of education research in the California Legislature(State Assembly), Commissioner for Post-secondary Education for the State of California, and Professor of Education at the University of California–Davis for 16 years. She is currently Co-Director of the Civil Rights Project/Proyecto Derechos Civiles at UCLA and Associate Director of the UC Linguistic Minority Research Institute.

Patricia's research focuses on educational equity and access for low-income and ethnic minority students, language policy, and the education of Mexican origin youth. She has just completed a study, with her colleague Russell Rumberger, entitled Resource Needs for California's English Learners, as part of the statewide adequacy project funded by four major foundations. She is the author of numerous articles and several books, including the forthcoming, The Latino Education Crisis: The Consequences of Failed Social Policies, with Harvard University Press. A selection of other publications includes—

Gándara, P.,and R. Rumberger. Forthcoming. "Defining an Adequate Education for English Learners." Education Finance and Policy.

Gándara, P., and M.C. Gómez. Forthcoming. "Language Policy in Education." In B. Schneider, G. Sykes, and D. Plank, eds. AERA Handbook on Educational Policy Research. Washington DC: AERA.

Gándara, P., and R. Rumberger. In press. "Immigration, Language, and Education: How Does Language Policy Structure Opportunity?" Teachers College Record.

Rumberger, R., and P. Gándara. 2007. "Resource Needs for Educating Linguistic Minority Students." In H.F. Ladd and E.B. Fiske, eds. Handbook of Research in Education Finance and Policy. New York: Routledge.

Abedi, J., and P. Gándara. 2006. "Performance of English Language Learners as a Subgroup in Large-Scale Assessment: Interaction of Research and Policy." Educational Measurement Issues and Practice 25:36–46.

Maxwell-Jolly, J., and P. Gándara. 2006. "Critical Issues in the Preparation of Teachers for English Learners." In E. Burr et al., eds. Crucial Issues in California Education 2000. Berkeley: PACE.

Gándara, P. 2006. "Fragile Futures: Risk and Vulnerability among Latino High Achievers." Policy Brief. Princeton, NJ: Educational Testing Service.

Gándara, P., and J. Maxwell-Jolly. 2005. "Critical Issues in the Development of the Teacher Corps for English Learners." In H. Waxman, H. Tellez, and K. Tellez, eds. Preparing Quality Teachers for English Language Learners. Mahweh, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum.

Gándara, P., R. Moran, and E. Garcia. 2004. "Legacy of Brown: Lau and Language Policy in the United States." Review of Research in Education 28: 27–46.

Callahan, R., and P. Gándara, P. 2004. "Nobody's Agenda: English Learners and Post-secondary Education." In M. Sadowski, ed. Immigrant and English-Language Learners: Strategies for Success. Cambridge, MA: Harvard Education Press.

Rumberger, R., and P. Gándara. 2004. "Seeking Equity in the Education of California's English Learners." Teachers College Record 106: 2031–2055.
Gándara, P., R. Rumberger, J. Maxwell-Jolly, and R. Callahan. 2003. "English Learners in California Schools: Unequal Resources, Unequal Outcomes."
Educational Policy Analysis Archives.

About the Visiting Scholars Series

NEA Research periodically hosts the Visiting Scholars Series as a forum intended to help link policy initiatives with educational scholarship. Prominent scholars are asked to link their research to recommendations for closing achievement gaps. This article, a research brief from the Spring 2008 forum, is from a forthcoming Patricia Gándara book.

Contact us for more information.

This article, The Crisis in the Education of Latino Students, by Patricia Gándara, Civil Rights Project/Proyecto Derechos Civiles, University of California–Los Angeles, is a Research Brief from the NEA Research Visiting Scholars Series, Spring 2008, vol. 1a.