Falling Behind: Understanding the Challenges Facing Latino Education in the U.S.

Growing and developing in a society where income is correlated with access to education and opportunities, Latino students in the United States are showing far different educational outcomes than their white peers and are facing inequitable opportunities that lead to inequitable lifelong outcomes. This gap has been a long-standing source of concern as differences in test scores—particularly in math, reading, and graduation rates—are found at state and national levels.

This post describes the opportunity gap, the educational disparities influencing immigrant Latino students’ achievement with an eye toward increasing understanding. We also examine the achievement gap from an ecological perspective, acknowledging multiple influences for disparities in the ongoing interactions and experiences of immigrant Latino youth and children and their contexts. Finally, we discuss further implications for policy and practice from the point of view of practitioners working in the field.

While the term “achievement gap” has been used to measure and report outcome differences between populations, many scholars and practitioners acknowledge the need for terminology that reflects differences in opportunities between populations. In this post, the term “achievement gap” is used if the focus is on student outcomes, and the term “opportunity gap” is used if the focus is on disparities in experiences and access to education among different populations.

The Challenges Facing America’s Latino Population

Current population trends show that the Latino population in the United States reached a record of 51.9 million in 2011. Within this larger group are people from more than 20 Spanish-speaking nations worldwide. Statistics show that the U.S. born Latino population has grown at a very fast pace, while the share of foreign-born Latinos in the United States is in decline. The U.S. economic downturn, stricter border enforcement, dangers associated with unauthorized border crossings, and demographic and economic changes have influenced the slowdown of foreign-born immigrants to the United States. Generational status is important to consider because third-generation students are most likely to have parents who are fluent in English and less likely to live in poverty.

Regardless of their generational status, Latino children are disproportionately poor, with one-third living in poverty and two-thirds living in low-income households. These living conditions are commonly characterized by larger household sizes, smaller residential units, and more crowded housing when compared to non-Latino children.

Additionally, Latino students make up a large share of English language learners. According to data collected by the U.S. Department of Education in 2009, 37 percent of Latino students in grade four and 21 percent of students in grade eight were English language learners, one of the many factors influencing the achievement gap between young Latino and white students.

Moving from Achievement Gap to Opportunity Gap Thinking

As noted, we use the term achievement gap to describe outcomes, specifically differences in scores on state and national achievement tests between various student demographic groups. The achievement gap is demonstrated by differences in proficiency rates as revealed in math, science and reading scores, as well as graduation rates of children of color and other disadvantaged children compared with graduation rates of white children. The achievement gap is not a one-time event but an ongoing trend that shows poor performance of specific groups of students.

For example, in 2015 eighth grade Latino students in U.S. public schools ranked 23 points below white students in mathematics test scores. As a consequence of the students’ performance, high school graduation rates for Latino students were lower than their white peers in 2012-2013.

We use the term opportunity gap when focusing on disparities in experiences and access to education among different populations. Measuring those disparities can be a tricky business, however. While there are assessments designed to measure student performance and identify factors associated with it, these exams are not designed to identify or explain the causes of differences in students’ performance causes that include disparities and patterns of educational inequities in the United States formed around race, class and ethnicity.

In the past, education was sought to ensure that students of Mexican descent remained a subordinate group by providing them only limited access to inferior and non-academic instruction; this type of subtractive education does not acknowledge traditional knowledge, language, skills and families’ values and culture. It is widely agreed that subtractive education, which divests students of important social and cultural resources, leaves them progressively vulnerable to academic failure.

In addition to disparities based on race, there are funding disparities between urban and suburban schools that tell a story about the value placed on the education of different groups of students. Latino children from low-income families often attend the most poorly equipped urban schools in the most impoverished school districts. These schools lack resources to educate their increasingly diverse populations. For instance, underfunded urban schools often struggle to recruit and retain effective teachers, a situation that can have a negative impact on the educational outcomes of students. Another factor that hurts Latino students’ school performance is a lack of access to pre-school. Research has shown that education in early years promotes school readiness and educational success in elementary school and beyond.

As a consequence of these disparities, Latino students are overrepresented in lower educational outcomes; nationally they tend to have lower grades, lower scores on standardized tests, and higher dropout rates than do students from other ethnic groups

The Causes of the Opportunity Gap in Latino Education

While it’s clear that the opportunity game is very real for Latino students, there are a number of factors that contribute to this situation.

Economic Factors

More Latino children are living in poverty—6.1 million in 2010—than children of any other racial or ethnic group. This development marks the first time in U.S. history that the single largest group of poor children is not white. According to the Pew Hispanic Center, 37.3 percent of poor children were Latino, 30.5 percent were white and 26.6 percent were black.

Another aspect of the economic picture for Latino families is that those with immigrant parents face different barriers than Latino families with U.S. born parents. Two-thirds (4.1 million) of the 6.1 million Latino children living in poverty in 2010 were the children of immigrant parents, while the other third (2 million) were children of parents born in the United States. Economic constraints hinder Latino children’s academic success, with children of low-income Latino immigrant parents faring even worse than children of low-income Latino parents who were born in the United States. Although the children of U.S.-born Latino parents still lag behind other ethnic groups academically, they benefit somewhat because their parents are more likely than immigrant parents to speak English and to understand American school systems.

Language Barriers

The challenges that minority children, including Latino children, who speak little or no English encounter in their early school years are many and likely to interfere with their school adjustment. This may result in a disadvantage for social and academic success in the future. Minority students (including Latinos) who have limited English-language skills receive fewer opportunities to learn than students who are fully bilingual, or speak only English well. This limits Latino students’ access to post-secondary education, and those who do successfully access it may not be well prepared to perform because of knowledge gaps and lower language skills.

It is well known that the pace of language acquisition for immigrant children affects their academic achievement. Because linguistic, cognitive and social development of children are all related, the environment in which language skills are acquired is critically important for children of Latino immigrant parents. Children construct mental frameworks for perceiving the world through cultural bonds and socially mediated processes of language development. As children develop their ability to use language, they also acquire a better understanding of social situations and improve their thinking skills.

Latino immigrant students have limited opportunities to fully participate in activities that would support social and cognitive development. Consequently, they will likely continue to struggle academically and may suffer socially as well. Over time, both academic and social deficiencies can become more severe as children reach higher grades. Limited English proficiency is commonly misdiagnosed in schools as a language disorder, and Latino immigrant students are overrepresented in special education classes as a result.


Acculturation is another ecological factor that can either enhance or detract from a child’s potential to learn. Acculturation is the process of adopting the cultural traits or social patterns of another group. For Latino immigrant children, the process of acculturation includes facing the new experiences and challenging events that require immediate attention, such as to how to navigate the school system, communicate with teachers, acquire knowledge (absorb what they’re taught), and participate in sports and other extra-curricular activities.

Immigrant children are often learning a new language, adjusting to a new culture, and experiencing the everyday challenges of growing up. All this can be exhausting. Latino immigrant children also must often balance familism, which is a cultural value that emphasizes family closeness and loyalty with conflicting values in the United States. Familism encourages individual family members to put the needs of the family first, even if this requires making personal sacrifice. This can create stress particularly for those children who have family obligations such as language translation or caring for younger siblings.

Another Latino cultural value is known as marianismo, which emphasizes the self-sacrifice of females and highlights their traditional role as family caregiver. Together, familism and marianismo are challenging for Latina immigrant girls, who feel pressure to fulfill family obligations that may keep them from devoting time to studying and succeeding in school. Latina teenage girls also face the brunt of other behavioral demands stemming from marianismo and familism, such as refraining from joining in public activities without their parents. This keeps them from participating in after-school activities and field trips, and from socializing with peers.

At the same time, while Latino parents who have limited English skills appear to be less involved with their children’s school, their involvement may be demonstrated in other ways that are less visible to school personnel, such as offering encouragement and guidance to their children, reinforcing the importance of education in the home, and setting examples. Parental involvement may also include exposing children to the rigors of manual labor as a way of demonstrating the harsh consequences of not succeeding in school. These ways of teaching and guiding can be less visible to school personnel, but are often more feasible for parents with lower educational attainment.

Prejudice and Discrimination in Schools

A final, important ecological factor lies in prejudice and discrimination against Latino immigrants, which persists in the United States. Negative judgments and discriminatory practices affect the wellbeing of Latino children, and being judged or experiencing unfair treatment because of language, culture or physical features is associated with poor mental health.

Studies show that when Latino students attend schools with few Latino peers, they can feel disconnected from the school and are likely to report perceived discrimination by the end of 10th grade. They feel less represented in terms of numbers, less motivated to participate in student activities, and consequently more disconnected with school.

In addition, researchers sometimes compare the school performance of students of color, including Latino students, with white students without factoring in the causes of disparities and differences discussed here. White students can be tacitly viewed as intellectually and academically superior to students of color, which can contaminate research results because studies are conducted from a deficit perspective that doesn’t acknowledge the racist structures, systems, contexts, policies and practices that influence the world in which students of color develop and grow.

Working for Change

When looking at the significant evidence illustrating the opportunity gap for Latino students, we reached out to some of our colleagues who are actively working in Latino education for their reactions and ideas for how the U.S. can help move forward on these issues. Here’s a bit of what they had to say:

Mitch Roldan, El Colegio Charter School; Dean of Students/Parents Liaison

“School personnel interested in closing the achievement gap for Latino students must look at the level of training that is provided for teachers, counseling staff and administrators. If the schools staff has had little or no training in the areas of cultural relevancy, language acquisition, or a general understanding of relevant issues to the Latino community, how will the change happen?

“These research findings might also be incorporated into a curriculum for parents as a tool to empower them to organize and advocate for the needs of their children…. It is important for schools with Latino students who are falling behind to examine the teaching models they are using in the classroom. Latino students have unique linguistic needs, and language acquisition is essential to their academic progress.”

Monica Hurtado, Voices of Racial Justice; Racial Justice and Health Equity Organizer

“As a community member I would make a request to reconsider the use of the term achievement gap, and instead consider using a term which community members have already adopted: equity or opportunity gap. The achievement gap term reinforces the notion that individuals are solely responsible for becoming better educated and minimizes the role that social conditions and structural barriers play in preventing a person’s readiness to learn and achieve better educational outcomes.

“In Minnesota, those in the educational system have been doing a better job of collecting and sharing data than people in some other state systems. However, there are some significant gaps in our data…. We need to better define processes for collecting, using and sharing data to address disparities in education. Examples of questions might include: What data will be needed to identify and explain differences in performance between children of color and their white counterparts? How can we collect more meaningful data to lead policy work in education?”

Isabel Duran-Graybow, Youth Development Clinic Based Project, Aqui Para Ti; School/College Connector

“It is important to raise awareness at every level about the fact that the achievement gap between different ethnicities is not an issue that affects students only—it affects us all in a social, cultural, academic and family way. Closing the achievement gap is the civil rights issue of our time, and we need to make this a priority.

“Research supports the fact that the United States education system is not providing low-income and minority children access to the high-quality education they need to compete on the same level with their white peers. When we fail to educate all children, the outcome is predictable; eventually students will not have the ability to succeed in college or compete in today’s economy. The consequences can include increased poverty, crime and incarceration and decreased productivity and quality of life.”

Note: This blog was adapted from the academic research review “Falling Behind: Understanding the Educational Disparities Faced by Immigrant Latino Students in the U.S.” To read the complete paper, click here.

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About the Author

Silvia Alvarez de Davila, Ph.D.

Cari Michaels

About the Author

Cari Michaels

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