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Make Something Happen--in Whatever Language

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<i> Frank del Olmo is a Times editorial writer</i>

The newspaper headlines last month were blunt: “School Failure Rate of Latinos Seen as Foreboding” and “ ‘Shocking’ Waste of Youths Cited in Study of Hispanics’ Schooling.”

Yet most Latinos probably had the same initial reaction that I had: So what else is new?

One very important thing, actually. Which is why the most recent study of Latino education in this country, entitled “Make Something Happen” by its authors, should not be relegated to the dusty stack of old tomes and treatises dealing with the same subject.

“Make Something Happen” is the work of the National Commission on Secondary Education for Hispanics--a 16-member panel of educators, business people and community leaders who looked at how the nation’s high schools educate Latino students. Working with the Hispanic Policy Development Project, a private research organization based in New York and Washington, the commission produced a 107-page report warning of an impending social crisis in this country unless the nation’s schools and its fast-growing Latino community don’t get their act together soon.

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Granted, the most troubling statistics that the report outlined are not new, at least to Latinos who for the last 20 years have considered education reform to be the single most important issue facing their community. But they are worth repeating precisely because they have hardly changed in 20 years: 45% of the Mexican-Americans and Puerto Ricans who enter public high schools do not graduate (compared with 17% of Anglo students). Of those Latino dropouts, 40% will leave school before completing the 10th grade, and will never return. As the commission’s report succinctly but powerfully concludes: “A shocking proportion of this generation of Hispanic young people is being wasted.”

Latinos have been saying that for years. When the Los Angeles Unified School District was disrupted by angry Chicano protesters in the late 1960s, for example, the main problem cited by their leaders was a dropout rate of about 45% at some high schools on the city’s Eastside.

The big difference now is that the rest of the nation is finally awakening to the problems in public education. It has become a major political issue, a subject of concern even for President Reagan and, more important, for business leaders worried about the quality of their future employees. Everyone is looking for ways to save the United States from what the National Commission on Excellence in Education called “a rising tide of mediocrity.”

The national commission’s 1983 report, “A Nation at Risk,” was clearly the start of the current national debate on public education. It was followed by other studies prepared by prestigious organizations such as the Carnegie Foundation, the 20th Century Fund and the National Institute of Education. While the reports differ in focus and in policy recommendations, the warning message is the same: Our schools are in trouble.

“Make Something Happen” is important because it adds a Latino perspective to the discussion at a time when Latino youngsters are the fastest-growing group in many of the nation’s urban school systems, including Los Angeles.

Among its key recommendations are an end to the tracking of Latino students into vocational or general-education studies in favor of a new curriculum that emphasizes academic skills, more federal spending on public education (cutbacks, such as those imposed by the Reagan Administration, hurt poor and non-English-speaking students the most), and programs to encourage stronger school-community links so that Latino parents “become partners in teaching and learning.”

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But the most important aspect of “Make Something Happen” is the commission’s courage in taking on both sides in the rancorous debate over bilingual education. The report complains that other education issues have been “overshadowed” by the argument between those who believe that a foreign language should not be used to teach children in regular classrooms and those who see anything but bilingual education as a danger to Latino youngsters’ chances for academic success. “Their convictions have evolved into intransigence which inhibits any movement forward in the service of children,” the report says, concluding that “both sides are wrong.”

Amen. I have grown weary of the never-ending arguments for and against bilingual education by teachers, researchers, politicians and community activists. Whether they talk in broad theories or argue over the shortcomings of a bilingual program in a particular school or nitpick the regulations governing bilingual programs, they seem to care more about the process than the results.

Sometimes I wonder whether bilingual instruction hasn’t become a labor issue rather than an education issue. Do Spanish-speaking teachers promote bilingual education because it guarantees them jobs? Do teachers who don’t speak foreign languages attack it because it threatens their job security? Both sides say that they have the best interests of Latino kids at heart, but that’s not what it sounds like.

Maybe I’m too cynical about this. But the people who feel so strongly about bilingual education can easily prove me wrong. While they have the public’s attention, they can set aside their differences and work to “Make Something Happen.”

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