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Secretary Arne Duncan Talks Hispanic Education

Arne Duncan sat down today with José A. Rico, the executive director of the White House Initiative on Educational Excellence for Hispanics, to discuss education issues important to the Latino community. The education secretary answered queries from people who submitted them via Twitter and Facebook.

For those who couldn't tune in or won't have time to read the tweets, here's a recap:

On college aspirations for undocumented students, Duncan said "it's absolutely crazy" for states not to provide access to higher education to these students on a level playing field, such as in-state tuition and financial aid. He said he and President Obama would continue pushing for the passage of the federal DREAM Act.

On reducing dropout rates for Latinos AND strengthening the teaching corps, Duncan said the field is in desperate need of Hispanic teachers, especially men. Roughly 22 percent of the nation's K-12 enrollment is Hispanic, but less than 2 percent of the nation's teaching pool is made up of Latino males. Having teachers and administrators who come from the same communities is a key to keeping students engaged in their schooling, he said.

Duncan called on Latino parents to enroll their children in preschool and other high-quality, early childhood programs, stressing that the early years are key to being ready for kindergarten and later academic success. As a subgroup, Latinos are the least likely to participate in preschool.

"We really need Latino mothers and fathers to say 'this is the right thing for my child,'" Duncan said. Rico, a former principal in Chicago, agreed, saying that increasing Latino enrollment in preschool "could be a huge game changer."

Dolores Huerta, the long-time civil rights activist and labor leader, asked what can be done to encourage more parental engagement in the Hispanic community. Duncan said that the Education Department is requesting that Congress double the budget for parent engagement to $240 million a year. "We want to scale [up] what is working in local communities," he said.

The secretary also said he'd like to see more school districts adopt robust foreign language programs, saying it's the "norm" in other countries that are among America's biggest global competitors.

Finally, when asked about how to get more Hispanic students participating in advanced STEM courses, Duncan said the key was teachers. Namely, he added, making sure there is a good supply of teachers who are "competent and fluent" in the STEM subjects and paying them more, especially those who go to work in disadvantaged communities. He stressed the need for more science fairs, robotics programs, mentoring, and internship opportunities in the STEM field. "It's about exposure," he said.

Saying that technology can be the great "equalizer," the secretary gave a huge plug to the Khan Academy, a nonprofit organization that has built a collection of thousands of lessons in math, science and other subjects that are free to anyone on its website.

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