Spell it Éxito or Success — That’s What Hispanic Students Need

I want to wish everyone a happy and reflective Hispanic Heritage Month (September 15 – October 15). This must be a disturbing time for Hispanics, with presidential candidates competing to say terrible and ignorant things about them.

Americans love to speak with pride about our nation of immigrants, often as a prelude to telling their own immigration story. Our history does record the struggles immigrants had to overcome to find their place in America, but the sad part is that the struggles are often due to our own government, our own people and even (in many cases) immigrants from the same places who got here a little earlier.

In the long run, I think it is certain that Hispanics will become successful, respected and accepted, as the many middle class Hispanics already are. However, our schools could do a lot to help ease the transition so that Hispanics and other immigrants can reach economic security and social acceptance much faster.

The key educational issue with Spanish-dominant Hispanics and other English learners is figuring out how to help them learn English without slowing down their learning of everything else they need to learn in school. For decades, there have been highly contentious and political battles about whether Spanish-dominant children should be taught to read first in Spanish and then transitioned to English by about the third grade, or whether they should be taught in English from the outset. Along with colleagues, I did a large, randomized experiment comparing these strategies. The result? By fourth grade, there was no significant difference between the two groups.

Our findings confirmed a growing sense among advocates for English learners that fighting about language of instruction is not as important as ensuring quality of instruction. Along with colleague Alan Cheung, I wrote a review of research on effective reading programs for English learners. There were many proven and promising programs. Yet still today, there remains far more discussion about language than about effective instruction.

To me, this is one more area in which research and development in education can shift the debate and lead to genuine progress. So often, opposing sides make passionate arguments for or against some aspect of practice. Both sides are only interested in research that supports their preconceived position, and reject all other evidence. Yet often, the evidence points to solutions that are effectively neutral on the contentious issue. In the case of Spanish-dominant students, there is plenty of rigorous research to indicate that they benefit from cooperative learning, one-to-one and small-group tutoring, and instruction in metacognitive and learning-to-learn skills, for example. None of these solutions depends much on the language of instruction, so they do not get the attention the fight over bilingual education gets. Yet if everyone can stay focused on what is best for children rather than winning an argument, we’re likely to see the outcomes that everyone wants.

I’m not saying that language of instruction is unimportant, and there needs to be further research on how to help students who start off with limited English to succeed in school and maintain their home language. But whether you call it éxito or success, that’s what Hispanic kids need in school, whichever language is emphasized in the first few years.