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The Troubling Mexican Dropout Rate

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

According to the census, 41 percent of Mexicans between the ages of 16 and 19 in New York City dropped out. No other major immigrant group there has a rate higher than 20 percent. (The overall dropout rate for the city is nine percent.) Since Mexicans constitute the fastest growing major immigrant group in the city, the situation is causing great concern.

Yet the news was not entirely unpredictable. A study in 2009 by the University of California at Berkeley found that although children of Hispanics, particularly Mexicans, start life on an intellectual par with American children, they begin to lag behind in linguistic and cognitive skills by the age of two.

The difference cannot be explained by poverty alone because the drop off is steeper than for any other impoverished group. The most likely explanation is that Mexican mothers have less formal education than black or white mothers. Moreover, they have large families, which means they often cannot devote sufficient attention to their children.

Given short shrift is that Mexicans lack academic role models compared with blacks. It's not that Mexicans do not value education. On the contrary, they come to this country to give their children the education they never received. But their inability to speak English and their unfamiliarity with the school system act as deterrents to becoming involved.

It's here that recent events in Arizona have special relevance. John Huppenthal, state superintendent of public instruction, ruled that Tucson's Mexican- American studies program violated state law ("Arizona withholds state funding over ethnic studies," Los Angeles Times, Jan. 7). He cited the prohibition of classes designed to "promote resentment toward race or class."

But these classes have been found to engage students. If so, their existence has to be weighed against the cost to society of high dropouts among Mexicans. Nevertheless, the program was dismantled by the Tucson Unified School District on Jan. 10 in order to avoid a cut in state funds.

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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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