Hispanic Students Declared Losers in Race to the Top Competition

by James J. Lyons, Esq.

Hispanic Link News Service

As part of the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, popularly known as the stimulus program, Congress included $5 billion for education incentive grants to states.  A fundamental goal of the education stimulus money, indeed the thrust of virtually all federal education laws since enactment of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act in 1965, was to narrow racial and socio-economic gaps in student achievement

Education Secretary Arne Duncan, a former professional basketball player, set up a sports-like competition for the stimulus funds.  The rules Duncan developed for his “Race to the Top” competition were complex and educationally controversial.

More controversial still are the race results.  Duncan’s hand-picked reviewers declared 11 states (DE, FL, GA, HI, MD, MA, NY, NC, OH, RI, TN) and the District of Columbia to be the winners  Except for Hawaii, no state admitted to the Union after 1845 won.  And not counting Ohio and Tennessee, all of the winning states hug the Atlantic seaboard, except, of course, Hawaii.  Only one quarter of all public school students live in a “winning” state; three out of four students will not benefit from the stimulus incentive money.

Duncan’s supporters have credited “Race to the Top” with starting a “tidal wave” of educational reform, a claim challenged by many knowledgeable school-reform observers.  The political fallout from the competition may prove to be the real “tidal wave,” drowning Democratic candidates in tight races in the Midwest and West.  Iowa, which propelled Senator Obama in the 2008 Democratic primary and switched from a “red” state to “blue” in the general election, didn’t get a dime.  Neither did Colorado, Nevada, or New Mexico, which voted for Bush in 2004 but for Obama in 2008.  California supported Obama, but its schools, which enroll one-tenth of the nation’s students, didn’t win a stimulus prize.

From the standpoint of narrowing the racial and economic achievement gaps which threaten the nation’s economic, social, and moral well-being, the “Race to the Top” ended like a catastrophic multi-car collision, with Hispanic students sustaining the most casualties.

Native American students, by every measure, are the most educationally needy group in the country.  And dating back to the infamous federally created Indian Boarding Schools, they constitute the most poorly-served student population in the U.S.  9 of every 10 American Indian students live in states which lost in the race for federal aid as their ancestors either died in or fled the Eastern states which won the prize.  

Black students fared better.  While 17% of U.S. public school students are classified as Black, non-Hispanic, they make up 39% of the total public school enrollment in the District of Columbia and 11 winning states.  For Black students, the competition, at least on paper, worked.

Hispanics students constitute the largest minority group in U.S. public schools. With 10.25 million Hispanic students enrolled in K-12 programs, they comprise approximately 20% of all public school students.  In terms of need, Hispanic students are close on the educational heels of Native American students, seemingly stuck at the bottom of our nation’s system of public education.

A majority of Hispanic students live in Western states which were part of Mexico until 1848.  The states with the highest proportional Hispanic enrollment are NM (54 %), CA (47%), TX (44%), AZ (40%), and NV (36%).  These states, which enroll more than 60% of all Hispanic students in the U.S., won’t receive a penny of the multi-billion-dollar race prize.

And so, Hispanic voters who overwhelmingly supported Barak Obama have to swallow another bitter pill.  Candidate Obama promised to pass Comprehensive Immigration Reform in his first year in office.  What came of that promise?     ¡Nada! Nothing! 

The President’s promise of better schools for their children seems equally empty to many Hispanic parents now that the winners of Secretary Duncan’s Race to the Top have been announced.  Hispanic students lost the race, and many Hispanic voters are losing the Audacity of Hope.

James J. Lyons, is a civil rights policy attorney in Arlington, Va.  He is a former staff member of the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights and served in the Department of Education under President Jimmy Carter.  For 16 years he was lobbyist for and then executive director of the National Association for Bilingual Education.  His email is jamesjohnlyons@comast.net

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Language Replaces Race as Inferiority Badge

   By James J. Lyons, Esq.

   Hispanic Link News Service

   Language has replaced race as the government-manufactured badge of social inferiority in Arizona.  Long before the Arizona legislature passed the anti-immigrant law SB 1070, state officials devised a strategy to rid the state of languages other than English, and, presumably, the people who speak them, using the powerful prod of public education. 

   One of the principal architects of that strategy is the Arizona Superintendent of Public Instruction Tom Horne.  Horne, a Republican, is currently running to be the state’s Attorney General.

   Arizona’s “English-only” education policies are at the heart of an 18-year-old civil rights case currently being heard in U.S. District Court in Tucson.  The case is Horne v. Flores.  While it may be weeks or longer for the District Court to issue its ruling in the case, a few facts, not in dispute, can and should be noted.

   Horne v. Flores went all the way to the United States Supreme Court last year.  Superintendent Horne and members of the state legislature petitioned the court to set aside a lower court order fining the state for failing to fund and implement effective instructional programs for children who arrive at school speaking a language other than English.  They argued that a key civil rights law, the Equal Educational Opportunities Act of 1974 (EEOA) had been superseded by an education law, the 2000 No Child Left Behind (NCLB) Act.

   The Supreme Court set aside the fines but declared that the EEOA was still the law of the land   It remanded the case to the district court to examine whether Arizona was actually taking “appropriate action to overcome language barriers that impede equal participation by its students in its instructional programs” as required by the civil rights law. 

   Arizona effectively banned bilingual education in 2000 when voters adopted Proposition 203, which mandated that all children, especially those who are limited in their English proficiency (LEP), must be instructed only in English. The measure was promoted by Ron Unz, California multi-millionaire businessman.

   Unz, trained as a theoretical physicist, proclaimed that children could master English as a second language if they were totally immersed in it for a year.  Although Unz’s claim was challenged by virtually all scholars of language development and most rank-and-file teachers of English-as-a-second language, his crusade to abolish bilingual education was successful in California, Arizona and Massachusetts. It was narrowly defeated in Colorado.

   In 2002, former state legislator and Paradise Valley School Board member Tom Horne declared his candidacy for Arizona’s State Superintendent of Instruction, running on a pledge to enforce the new state ban on bilingual education.  Using Unz-like arguments that one year of intensive English instruction would give limited-English-proficient students the language skills they need to succeed academically, Horne was elected with 50.12 percent of the vote.

   Horne developed a program called “Structured English Immersion” to implement the English-only law.  Under it, all LEP students are enrolled in a 4-hour special program of English language development daily. The classes are segregated, enrolling no English proficient students, and often include students of widely differing ages and grade levels.  Students must remain in their segregated classes until tests show they are English proficient.

   Critics quickly pointed out many flaws in the program.  By putting students in classes segregated by language proficiency, the program deprives students of English-language role-models and inculcates a personal sense of inferiority.  Because the focus is on learning English, students fall behind in the academic-content subjects, drastically reducing their chances to gain college degrees 

   Despite the promise that the programs would be short-term, generally they are not.  Recent state statistics show that not even one-third of the students (29%) exit the segregated Structured English Immersion programs after one year.  For secondary level students, the prolonged enrollment of LEP students in the 4-hour per day program guarantees that they cannot earn enough academic credits to graduate from high school on time.  So they drop out of school.

   Even before the Court rules in Horne v. Flores, the U.S. Departments of Justice and Education have notified the state that it must revise the procedures and tests it uses to identify LEP students. Now they do not identify all of the LEP children entitled to instructional help.

   The Justice Department is also looking into whether Horne and his employees in the Department of Education are leaning on school districts to dismiss or reassign teachers who speak English with an accent or make an occasional error in English grammar.  The high-level DOJ probe, revealed in a Wall Street Journal article on April 30th, is still on-going.

   (James J. Lyons, is a civil rights policy attorney in Arlington, VA.  He is a former staff member of the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights and served in the Department of Education under President Jimmy Carter.  For 16 years he was lobbyist for and then Executive Director of the National Association for Bilingual Education.

Standardized Tests: The Tale of Two Latino Teachers

By James J. Lyons, Esq.

Hispanic Link News Service

I remember reading in the early 1980s a terse news story, only a few paragraphs in length, about the Educational Testing Service’s corporate decision to re-test students in Los Angeles who had done extraordinarily well on the Advanced Placement exam in calculus.

The students, who attended Garfield High School in East Los Angeles, were Hispanic and poor. Not said, but implied, was that their high scores were fraudulent, the product of cheating and chicanery.

They were retested and the results were the same; the impoverished Latino students passed the extremely rigorous exam, winning college credit for college-level calculus. There was no fraud involved, just a passionate Bolivian immigrant teacher by name of Jaime Escalante.

Jaime Escalante’s story inspired the movie “Stand and Deliver” and actor Edward James Olmos received an Academy Award nomination for his portrayal of this immigrant teacher.

Released in 1988, “Stand and Deliver” taught two potent lessons about schooling: don’t underestimate the academic ability of students who are poor and Hispanic, and don’t dismiss the power of a passionate Latino teacher.

Now I read a longer news story about a 39-year-old Hispanic teacher from the eastern part of Los Angeles. Rigoberto Ruelas loved teaching. He started as a teacher aide at Miramonte Elementary School when he was 22. Four years later, after receiving his education degree and credential, he returned to Miramonte as a fifth-grade teacher. Last week, Rigoberto taught his last class. This past weekend, Rigoberto committed suicide.

Rigoberto was deeply depressed. Not because he had been laid off or terminated as so many teachers have been in California and elsewhere because of our “under-performing” economy. He was depressed because his name had been listed in a controversial database created and published by the Los Angeles Times. It identified him as slightly “less effective” than other L.A. teachers. The database and its publication are part of a nationwide campaign to “reform” education.

The education “reform” campaign has been a major plank in President Obama’s mid-term election platform. Both the President and his basketball playing buddy from Chicago, Education Secretary Arne Duncan, refer to education as the civil rights challenge of our time, citing the dismal high-school completion and college attendance rates of racial and ethnic minority students.

This “education reform” campaign is radically different from the grassroots civil rights movements which shaped U.S. history. It is the brainchild of the Business Roundtable and has been bankrolled by billionaires. Microsoft founder Bill Gates, Eli Broad (founder of SunAmerica, now part of the financial/insurance behemoth AIG which taxpayers bailed out), and the Walton family members who control the global retail empire known as Walmart are just a few of the hugely wealthy folks funding the campaign.

Little wonder then that the campaign has been the object of unprecedented media coverage. Little wonder that the back-to-school programming of the major television networks, both broadcast and cable, has given wall-to-wall coverage to the campaign’s Holy Grail: higher standardized test scores in math and reading.

And little wonder that the Los Angeles Times created and published its database of teacher effectiveness based on student standardized test scores. The media, whether broadcast or print, live off of advertising revenue, and big corporations are the biggest advertisers.

Despite repeated warnings by experts in education testing and statistics that the Times database of teacher-ratings were unreliable and misleading, the paper published its grades for about 6,000 third- through fifth-grade teachers in the Los Angeles Unified School District. Education Secretary Duncan cheered and urged newspapers across the country to follow the Times example.

According to LAUSD officials, Rigoberto Ruelas was incredibly dedicated, with an almost perfect work attendance performance during his 14-year teaching career. According to parents whose children he taught, Rigoberto would work late into the evening to boost his students’ aspirations and academic performance through after-school tutoring and homework assistance.

Most important of all, many of the students he taught report that Rigoberto challenged and inspired them to stay in school, away from gangs, and to graduate from college – even many years after they left his fifth-grade classroom.

Ruelas family members and teacher colleagues at Montamonte, say Rigoberto was depressed at being rated “average” in his ability to raise students’ English scores and “less effective” in his ability to raise math scores and slightly “less effective” than his peers. He became so despondent with his “failure” that he took his own life.

And so a teacher who could have helped thousands of poor, immigrant and Latino students climb the educational ladder “failed” to measure up to a misleading performance standard, and in despair “dropped out” of the teaching profession he loved, away from the children for whom he lived.
If there is a Heaven, he is surely now in the company of Jaime Escalante, who died in March of this year at the age of 79.

James J. Lyons, is a civil rights policy attorney in Arlington, Va.  He is a former staff member of the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights and served in the Department of Education under President Jimmy Carter.  For 16 years he was lobbyist for and then executive director of the National Association for Bilingual Education.  His email is jamesjohnlyons@comast.net