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The Troubling Mexican Dropout Rate

It's clear by now that the high school dropout rate has implications for the country far beyond what is immediately apparent. A front-page story in The New York Times provided new details that underscore the concern ("In New York, Mexicans Lag in Education," Nov. 25).

According to census data, about 41 percent of Mexicans between ages 16 and 19 in New York City have dropped out of school. To put this number in perspective, no other major immigrant group has a dropout rate higher than 20 percent. (The overall rate for the city is less than 9 percent.) Because Mexicans are the fastest growing major immigrant group in New York City, the data assume even greater significance.

Yet the news was highly predictable. A study in 2009 by researchers at the University of California, Berkeley found that although children of Hispanic immigrants, particularly those from Mexico, start life on an intellectual par with American children they begin to lag in linguistic and cognitive skills by the age of two ("Hispanic Immigrants' Children Fall Behind Peers Early, Study Finds," The New York Times, Oct. 21, 2009).

The difference cannot be explained by poverty alone because the drop off is steeper than for other impoverished groups. It's more likely that it's the result of the high percentage of Mexican mothers who have less formal education than the average white or black mothers, and do not speak English. They also tend to have more children, which results in less one-on-one attention by parents.

Given short shrift in explaining the data is the lack of academic role models. Although there are several notable exceptions, the number of Mexicans in this capacity is small compared with the number of black academic role models. As a result, too many Mexican students find it hard to see themselves as capable of completing their education.

It's not that Mexican parents don't value education. On the contrary, one of the reasons they immigrate is to provide their children with the education they never had. But lack of familiarity with the school system and their inability to speak English act as deterrents to their full involvement. That's why it's important to reach out to them through home visits to make them feel welcome in school.

It's here that recent events in Arizona have special relevance. John Huppenthal, the state superintendent of public instruction, ruled that Tucson's Mexican- American studies program violated state law ("Arizona withholds state funding over ethnic studies class," Los Angeles Times, Jan. 7). He pointed to the prohibition of classes primarily designed for a particular ethnic group or which "promote resentment toward a race or class of people." Huppenthal said that the program promotes victimhood and groupthink.

Defenders of the program retorted that the classes encourage students to excel by involving them. This was reflected in better grades and attendance. If this claim is true, then it alone justifies continued funding because it more than offsets the costs associated with dropping out of school. Nevertheless, the Tucson Unified School District suspended the program on Jan. 10 rather than risk a cut in state funds. It was a case of blackmail, and the district caved in.

What's lost in the debate is that public schools in this country have never been nearly as successful as sentimentalists believe. For example, the dropout rate a century ago for immigrants from illiterate backgrounds was much higher than it is today. That doesn't mean we should be satisfied with the status quo, but it does help to put the present situation in better context.

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The opinions expressed in Walt Gardner's Reality Check are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.

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