Report: Massachusetts Schools Fail Latino Students

If one of the nation's top-ranked school districts can't figure out how to meet the needs of its students, imagine how other states are faring.

By Julianne Hing Jan 31, 2011

Here are the essential numbers: Latinos make up 15 percent of students enrolled in Massachusetts public schools. They represent the fastest growing racial group in the Massachusetts public school system. But they also account for 23 percent of incidents that lead to disciplinary action and "removal."

Latino students also miss more school on average–13 days per year–than their peers, who miss on average 9 days of school a year. Latinos have the highest rate of absenteeism in the state. These findings came out of "The State of Latinos and Education in Massachusetts: 2010," a report released last week by UMass-Boston’s Mauricio Gaston Institute. Researchers also found that Latinos have lower high school graduation rates and dropout rates that are more than double those of their non-Latino peers. Latino males in particular are faring worse than their female counterparts.

"This is the kind of thing that keeps me up at night," research fellow Andrew Flannery Aguilar told the AP. "How are you supposed to succeed if you’re not in class?"

But then there’s this: Massachusetts consistently ranks among the nation’s best public school systems.

If one of the nation’s top-ranked school districts can’t figure out how to meet the needs of its students, imagine how other states are faring.

A few things worth noting, though. The report notes that in Massachusetts, as is the case elsewhere in the country, public schools are extremely racially segregated. More than 60 percent of the state’s Latino students are concentrated in 4 percent of the state’s school districts. I have not been to Massachusetts or done any education reporting there, but I have done some education reporting from Los Angeles, where the poorest schools are concentrated in black and Latino and poor immigrant neighborhoods. I suspect such is the case in Massachusetts–issues of class and race are inextricably linked, and can become major indicators of the kinds of opportunities that students are afforded.

Reports like the Mauricio Gaston’s can be used in several ways — as proof that school systems need to do more to address the systemic forces that influence kids’ lives and their ability to get an education. Or they can serve as ammunition to people who would rather throw up their hands at a lost cause and chalk up educational disparities to cultural deficiencies or worse, inherent intellectual differences. (May I refer you to Charles Murray’s extremely influential and damaging book The Bell Curve.)

What school districts choose to do with the information that these numbers provide is of huge import. What’s not always clear from these sorts of reports is the why’s and the how’s. I keep coming back to that high rate of Latino student absenteeism. Again, drawing on reporting I admit has only taken place in California, I’ve found that there were many reasons kids who consistently missed class didn’t show up to school. Some kids had to take care of their younger siblings. They missed class because they were taking little sisters to day care on the bus or had to cross town on hour-long commutes. Some had to leave work early to work jobs to help make ends meet at home. Sometimes kids who worked at night after school were plain exhausted. If we have the strength to keep asking why, we’ll find compelling explanations that can show the way to possible solutions.