Take Andres, age 4. He spends much of his days trailing after his mother, Fernanda OrtÃz, and their pushcart, selling fresh cheese to help make ends meet. Back home, Andres readily aids OrtÃz, cleaning the house, drying the dinner dishes. Another mother, Luz Mireles, insisted on respect from her young children, especially with visiting kin. "Es mala educación interrupir a los adultos [it is bad manners to interrupt adults]," she would scold her preschooler.
This rich tough love initially helps lift school performance. We know, for instance, that Mexican-American kids with stronger cooperative skills display accelerated math learning during the kindergarten year. What's not well-understood is how language or insensitive teachers, later in elementary school, appear to swamp the early social-skill advantage.
The Obama administration's hawkish position on standardized testing "“ along with dodging debate over whether classrooms should host bilingual instruction "“ further discounts the importance of social agility and self-confidence inside classrooms. Kindergarten now enforces plenty of drill-and-kill, with 5-year-olds lined up in rows of lone desks prepping for multiple-choice tests.
All this serves to detract teachers from recognizing the robust social skills of Latino kids, and ensures that only proficiencies lodged in a kid's head, not his heart, will be advanced. So, the very skills that would bolster our economy globally "“ social agility and bicultural proficiencies "“ are barely recognized in many American classrooms.
More broadly, it's becoming clear that poor Latino parents don't necessarily raise "disadvantaged" children "“ a liberal mantra for the past half-century. Educators often fail to recognize these cooperative "soft skills" as expressed by Latino youngsters. This, at the same time that economists and popular analysts, like New York Times' Paul Tough, have rediscovered that it's such "grit and character" that drives success in school and later in jobs.
Educators and policy thinkers must first recognize and build from the cultural strengths of Latino families. Instead, policy makers and practitioners on the ground too often assume that quite kids from poor households must be slow, a pobrecito with limited potential, or that the welfare state must endeavor to fix the practices of poor families.
We have intervened into households since the Great Society via Head Start and home-visiting programs, the latter sharply expanding under Obama's health care reforms. But again, well-meaning activists try to fix families they don't well understand. Federal home visitors now ironically urge better nutritional practices "“ even though immigrant Latinas display even healthier prenatal and early feeding practices with their toddlers than the average white mother.