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Quality Education for Latinos/as

Quality Education for Latinos/as
Print and Oral Skills for All Students, K-College

A proven method for enhancing the teacher-student relationship and increasing student skills.

Series: Joe R. and Teresa Lozano Long Endowment in Latin American and Latino Art and Culture

June 2005
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239 pages | 6 x 9 |

As educators and legislators across the country debate how to improve public schools, the most vital factor often disappears from the equation—the relationship between the teacher and the student. According to veteran educators Rita and Marco Portales, this relationship is the central issue in the education of students, especially Latino/a students who often face serious barriers to school success because of the legacy of racism, insufficient English-language skills, and cultural differences with the educational establishment.

To break down these barriers and help Latino/a students acquire a quality education, the Portaleses focus attention on the teacher-student relationship and offer a proven method that teachers can use to strengthen the print and oral skills of their students. They begin by analyzing the reasons why schools too often fail to educate Latino/a students, using eloquent comments from young Latinos/as and their parents to confirm how important the teacher-student relationship is to the student's success. Then they show how all educational stakeholders—teachers, administrators, state education agencies, legislators, and parents—can work together to facilitate the teacher-student relationship and improve student education. By demonstrating how teachers can improve students' reading, critical thinking, writing, and oral communication skills across the curriculum, they argue that learning can be made more relevant for students, keeping their interest levels high while preparing them for academically competitive colleges.

  • Preface
  • Acknowledgments
  • Introduction
  • Part I. Education and Latino/a Students Today
    • 1. Thinking about Our Spanish-speaking Students in the Schools
    • 2. Latino/a Students and the Schools We Could Create
    • 3. But Our Education Systems Are Distended
    • 4. Why Students Drop Out
    • 5. A Mexican American Mother Who Will Not Visit School
    • 6. The Tribal Mentality and Favoritism
    • 7. Crime and Properly Funded Schools
  • Part II. How to Repair an Education System
    • 8. Teachers, Administrators, Board Members, State Education Agencies, Legislators, and Taxpayers: Which Is the Most Important Group?
    • 9. The K-12 School District Team
    • 10. Teachers and Students in the Classroom
    • 11. Understanding and Educating All Students
    • 12. The Four K-16 Cultures
  • Part III. A Print and Oral Approach
    • 13. Emphasizing All Print and Oral Skills
    • 14. Blueprint for Reinstating Social Values and Civic Virtues
    • 15. A Print and Oral Approach That Champions the Importance of Clauses
    • 16. A Third Dimension to Words: Choreographing Writing
    • Conclusion
    • 17. Quality Education and the Teachers in the Classroom
  • Notes
  • Bibliography

Rita and Marco Portales each have over thirty years of teaching experience. Rita Portales has taught in the public schools of New York, California, and Texas. Currently she is an ESL Instructional Specialist at a middle school and a Student Teacher Supervisor for the College of Education at Texas A&M University. Marco Portales is Professor of English at Texas A&M University and has also held faculty appointments at the University of California, Berkeley, and the University of Houston-Clear Lake. This book is the third of his "Latino trilogy," the previous volumes being Crowding Out Latinos and Latino Sun, Rising.


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As a husband-and-wife team of educators, we have written this book to make Americans aware of the nature of the interactions that often make learning particularly difficult for Latino and Latina students. We have written Quality Education to show that the failure and dropout rates among such students and among students of all backgrounds and ethnicities can be considerably reduced through a unified effort that repairs our schools.

Only after experiencing problems in different schools and in different states, after finding confirmation in the research of other educators, and after knocking futilely on the doors of people empowered to effect change in the schools did we finally resort to writing this volume. We decided to pursue this option because we have been frustrated in our efforts and we want to demonstrate how and why education systems that succeed for some students are dismally failing others.

By doing so, we hope to enlist educators and American society in helping not only Latino and Latina students but all students not served well enough by current educational approaches. We focus attention on Latinos and Latinas because demographic statistics since the 2000 U.S. Census inform us that Spanish-speaking students now comprise the largest ethnic minority population in U.S. schools.

Throughout this volume, we refer to female and male Spanish-speaking students as Latinos, the masculine form, because when both genders are intended the male form is used in the Spanish language. When not grammatically cumbersome, though, we have included the word Latinas, the feminine form, specifically in the title and where appropriate in the text. Readers will notice that our stories concern not only Latinos and Latinas but African Americans and people of other races and backgrounds. In every instance, we intend inclusion, not exclusion.

We believe quality education can be made equally available to all students from kindergarten not only through the twelfth grade but including college. For proficiency in the skills that we promote is a lifelong issue for all of our citizens. In order to provide a quality education to every student, however, we have learned that it is necessary to make viable suggestions that can be implemented within the real-life constraints that educators face daily. Actual classroom teaching time has been substantially reduced by other school tasks that, while often well-intended, are not directly extending the knowledge of students or stimulating their learning capacities. Learning assignments for this and other reasons that we discuss in the following pages tend toward rote classroom tasks that do not sufficiently engage students' interest nor their imaginations and creativity.

Our extensive teaching experiences have taught us that most educators simply do not have enough time in their busy schedules to think about how they can also deliver quality education to a greater number of educationally underserved students. Based on our observations and on the experiences of students in our classrooms, we are convinced that one of the best contributions that educators of our generation can make to the general welfare of society is to offer a higher quality of education to more students, regardless of color or ethnicity. That objective, we believe, can be responsibly and sensibly achieved by examining and adjusting the ideas that we highlight in the following chapters to the different realities that each school and every school district face.

We hope that no readers will feel singled out by our analysis of the current education scene. For this reason, we want to state clearly at the outset that we have not written our book to criticize or fault the schools or anyone in or related to the education establishment. We hasten, in fact, to recognize the courageous efforts of many teachers, administrators, and citizens who, despite considerable stressful challenges, continue to devote their best energies to improving the increasingly difficult environment in which U.S. schools function.

Some of our ethnographic stories will be distressing to read. Indeed, when we have related a few of these factual school events to different audiences over the years, occasionally we have been told, "You're so negative," and once even, "You sound un-American." We have listened to such responses with dismay because we realize that the points of the stories we have carefully attempted to narrate have not been accepted. Such responses, in turn, delay the desired improvements. Our intention in describing the school incidents is to raise awareness about the messages that words, looks, and actions send to youngsters in our schools. The impact of what some adults may dismiss as seeming trivialities, especially when reinforced by life's cares and what some students see and interpret as indifference or ignorance, can cripple and sometimes even devastate children and teenagers who have little recourse and who do not quite understand how the classes they attend ought to and can benefit their future lives.

To move toward improving student learning, in the following pages we describe situations that we have personally experienced. We are aware that throughout the years Latino and Latina students in particular have shared their problems and frustrations with us more readily because we are Spanish-speaking educators ourselves. Given this reality, we have gradually and somewhat reluctantly arrived at the realization that our schools and education systems are not as effective as many people want to think.

The suggestions that we put forth in these pages have considerably improved the education of students with whom we have worked. Encouraging students has been constantly required, but by emphasizing a gradual increase in sophistication in the basic skills of reading, interpreting, thinking, writing, and speaking, we have successfully enabled many students. We are convinced that the skills and ideas we recommend, especially when communicated by teachers using approaches and methods with which they feel comfortable, can smoothly improve the quality of education delivered at every grade level.


Even though we grew up in different parts of the country, we are both first-generation Americans.

Rita was born on the commonwealth of Puerto Rico. Although her parents were schooled in English during their time, Spanish has always been the language of the island, making el español Rita's mother tongue. When she came to the United States at the age of eight, Rita entered the third grade. Knowing little English, she suffered emotionally from culture shock, a response that was only ameliorated by an English-speaking third-grader who became a steadfast friend. That experience and other events in her young life progressively turned her into a lifelong defender of students of English as a second language. Since then, she has worked on developing nurturing, understanding, and properly implemented approaches to education that best address the needs of Spanish-speaking students.

In Marco's case, his father learned only what English he could before his schooling abruptly ended in the fifth grade. He stopped there because at that grade level schooling stopped for the great majority of Mexican children in Central and South Texas in the 1920s, as Guadalupe San Miguel points out in Let All of Them Take Heed (1987) and as Américo Paredes suggests in George Washington Gómez (which was finished in 1940 and not published until 1990). Marco's Costa Rican mother, who immigrated to the United States as an adult in 1946, knew no English; and since his parents lived along the border area next to Mexico in the Rio Grande Valley all their married life, bilingualism was a way of life.

We both know that if our separate and different schooling experiences had not sufficiently equipped us with the necessary print and oral skills that each of us was fortunate to develop due to the care and support of our parents and teachers as we moved from grade to grade, the schools would not have transformed our lives by what we learned and were taught. Like many of the Spanish-speaking students who attend school today, we also might have failed and ended up without the quality education that has allowed us to care for our needs and the future of our children. From personal experience, then, we feel compelled to say that when schools do not offer students ample opportunities to succeed, all members of society have to endure the consequences.

Educational foundations like the Carlos H. Cantu Hispanic Education and Opportunity Endowment increasingly recognize both the seriousness and the depth of the problems that Latina and Latino students face. The Cantu endowment is a million-dollar gift to Texas A&M University's College Station campus donated in the fall of 1999 for the purpose of addressing the shockingly high dropout rates among U.S. Latino students. When he dedicated this sum to the university to reduce that unconscionable human loss, Mr. Carlos Cantu, an Aggie Former Student, Class of 1955, observed that more than "half a million Hispanic children drop out of school every year. That is disastrous." Although educators have long known that many Latino and Latina students drop out of school without graduating year after year, the schools have not effectively addressed this appalling human wreckage.

Given today's wave of standardized testing and accountability, thousands of schools nationwide are in the process of being declared "failing" by state education agencies and other education watch organizations. Such reports suggest the extent of the problem that we endeavor to curb and to rectify. Primarily because most minority students are not yet receiving quality education, academically competitive colleges and universities cannot find enough qualified Hispanic, black, and other minority students capable of pursuing higher education successfully. Two-thirds of all Latino and Latina students in higher education are enrolled at the community college level, largely because they lack the financial means, adequate transcripts from kindergarten through twelfth grade (K-12), and competitive college entrance test scores to attend four-year colleges and universities. With these demographics in mind, our objective is to demonstrate how long-standing social and economic disparities among Hispanic, black, and other disadvantaged students can be gradually surmounted year in and year out by good, consistent teaching.

We believe that schools have an obligation to help students improve the quality of their lives. The best way to achieve this goal is to show students what knowledge can do for them. The idea of “quality education” is to engage the natural curiosity and interest of all students in learning and in improving their skills and talents so they can be academically prepared to achieve success as adults.

For years scholars and educators have studied the complex nature of the K-12 issues that our schools and higher education institutions have faced, and many have offered recommendations. In our experience and observations, we recognize that education recommendations, if they are to be taken seriously, should not necessarily depend on incurring new costs or on securing new funding that often is uncertain or wishful at best. We also have discovered that education cannot be improved unless the changes being contemplated and implemented actually facilitate the lives of the people charged with making the improvements, namely the educators and the administrators themselves. While being encouraged to teach up to their full potential, these professionals have become so regulated by policies and mandates that a good amount of their best energies are daily consumed by activities that are only tangentially connected to the teaching mission and their classroom assignments.

Schools, too, often become boring places for students, prompting many of them to seek more interesting activities on which to spend their considerable youthful energies. But in strongly urging educators to return to the business of teaching the fundamental skills that all students can progressively continue to develop until they achieve their full potential, we are keenly aware that the assistance of many different audiences has to be enlisted. Indeed, if a constructive national dialogue and practical academic changes that promote the public good in the schools are to ensue, we should not delay. We believe that the quality schools that minority as well as nonminority students urgently need can be communally created by diagnosing the different problems that exist in the individual schools. The task then becomes a matter of locally and nationally repairing the school systems on which so much of civilization depends.

When we look at the history of education and how schools function today, it is clear to us that the great majority of educators and citizens tend to see quality education and Latino students in separate and highly unrelated realms. Quality education is extremely desirable and sought after by members of society who know its value, for good schooling has traditionally secured economic advantages and social privileges for its beneficiaries. We have learned, however, that over the years Latina and Latino students more often unfortunately have been seen as problem pupils whom educators have not been able to teach successfully enough. But these realities and distinctions are no longer acceptable. The narratives we share in this volume illustrate personal encounters that reflect some educators' lack of understanding or skill in relating to such pupils and their families. Throughout the twentieth century, a small number of students of color attained a quality education year after year, helping them shape their destinies productively, but the great majority of such students did not.

The twenty-first century, we are convinced, has to be different.

National discussions about how best to educate students, such as the debate over the No Child Left Behind Act, cannot overlook the demographic dimension of school populations. Given evolving realities in American society, solving the schools' problems cannot be postponed or ignored much longer. Our schools today require a renewed emphasis on actually teaching students how to understand and how to master the use of all print symbols as well as fully understanding the necessity to communicate very well orally. To accomplish these two goals, we must first repair our existing education systems. We believe that the structures and the organizations of our schools are basically sound. But often they do not work because the adults involved in the education of our students do not sufficiently appear to understand how their particular roles, responsibilities, and challenges are compromised by continual changes that pervade school policies, procedures, and practices. A constantly changing school environment directly impinges on the lives of students, and it is the education of the students that suffers. Ironically, often the students themselves end up as casualties of many good intentions. We believe that the relationships between parents and the educators and other employees within a school system need to be clarified sensibly so that everybody understands who is responsible for what. By doing so, all citizens involved in the business of delivering effective education to all students can help each other instead of working against each other, as often happens.

We believe it is time to initiate a transformation of the schools into the learning environments they can be. We possess such confidence in our colleagues that we know we can all provide quality education for all students once we learn how to repair our school systems. For quality education cannot be provided with the school systems functioning as uncertainly as they do. We believe society understands that an uneducated child of any socioeconomic background is a failure that will continue to affect all of us, a harder or more difficult life that will not easily go away. For every school failure is a life that ever after calls into question the great hopes and aspirations that the Constitution promises to all of our citizens and residents.

We have related existing problems in order to encourage educators and the schools to initiate the task of improving their own school systems, if that is needed. We tell the stories we have selected to underscore the urgency of the challenge. We did not exaggerate the difficulties described here; no one wishes more than we do that these school experiences did not exist. They are simply part of the daily reality for many students, and we encourage educators to be courageous enough to admit the problems we discuss and to work steadfastly in any way they can to remedy the nature of the education extended to all students. Until problems like the ones that we describe in this text are accurately diagnosed and addressed and students can feel free to relate them to any confidant in education, the American system of education will remain besieged by forces and factors that educators have not entirely understood.

To address the problems brought out in Part I and Part II of this book, we believe that our education systems need immediate repair. Part III is designed to show how all members of society can help educators overhaul the school systems for which we pay to produce better students. In Quality Education for Latinos/as we place emphasis on the skills that every teacher in every discipline can teach within a classroom while staying within the normal parameters of a school district's grade course curriculum. We are hopeful that school district leaders will see that they are responsible for hiring teachers who know their disciplines well enough to provide quality education for their students while following school guidelines. The idea in these closing chapters is to show administrators, teachers, and all interested citizens the extent to which every person associated with a school district has to work with colleagues and other members of society to help the schools provide all students with quality education. The alternative is what we have today: to continue with cross-purpose school relationships that frequently impede the delivery of first-rate education to the students. Such relationships are often built more on school district power and position than on delivering the knowledge and information that students need to be successful. Given this objective, we approach the issue of improving an education system by reminding educators again that the schools exist to achieve the full potential of students, not to provide adults with opportunities to demonstrate that they are accountable, competent professionals. This goal of featuring learning by the students nonetheless still leaves considerable room for administrators and teachers to run the schools, including shaping the curriculum that each grade level requires.

Although Latino and Latina, black, and other minority and disadvantaged students are often seen as academically less competitive, we write to encourage educators and concerned citizens to raise the academic expectations and dispel incorrect perceptions particularly associated with students of color. By preparing and working to deliver high-quality instruction to them on a consistent daily basis, good educators can make every classroom a transforming environment that changes and can end up improving the lives of all students.

When educators are allowed and encouraged to work to their full potential, education becomes capable of actually changing the nature of the lives of students. Hispanic and non-Hispanic students who are now languishing in our schools can be energized by pedagogical challenges that allow such students to participate actively in their own education, reducing boredom, fatigue, and classroom disruptions. We hope that our book will be used by educators and readers seriously engaged in providing Latinos and Latinas as well as all other students with the quality education that should supply the ensuing generations with success in school and throughout their lives.


“This thoughtful book is worthy of being studied and its principles adopted.”
Hispanic Outlook

“Portales and Portales, teachers and insiders, provide a needed perspective on the critical relationship between teachers and students and the factors that affect it.... Their work deserves to be read by teachers and parents, educational administrators, and policymakers.”
Miren Uriarte, Senior Research Associate, Mauricio Gaston Institute for Latino Community Development and Public Policy, University of Massachusetts, Boston


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