Morphing Outrage Into Ideas

Times Staff Writer

It was presented as good news.

In front of a group of student leaders at Alhambra High School, Assistant Principal Grace Love spoke in February about the school's recent gains on state tests.

Alhambra, she said, had narrowed the gap in test scores between Asian and Latino students. Overall, Latino test takers had improved their composite scores on state tests faster than any other group over the last four years.

Robin Zhou, an 18-year-old columnist for the Moor, the school newspaper, listened skeptically. He had trouble seeing any reason to celebrate.

To him, the real news in Love's statistics wasn't the small gains she was pointing out, but rather the wide gulf that still existed between Asians and Latinos.

The composite scores for Asians at Alhambra High were still far above those of Latinos. According to Love's presentation, 57% of Asian ninth-graders passed the state's English Language Arts standards test, but only 28% of Latino ninth-graders passed. It was even worse in algebra, with only 12% of Latinos passing the test as compared to 49% of Asians.

To Zhou, the data raised a question: "Why was the gap there in the first place?"

With the next round of state tests looming, Zhou decided to examine the subject in his newspaper column. He said he did so out of a desire to get people to focus on solutions. That's not what happened -- at least not at first.

That there are gaps in test scores among racial and ethnic groups is an uncomfortable truth in modern day education.

The achievement gap, as racial disparities in test scores are known in education circles, exists at schools throughout the nation. It also exists across class lines.

Examining the issue requires traversing a political and cultural minefield. Every possible explanation is likely to offend, which may be why the subject rarely provokes the kind of discussion that might eventually lead to change.

Using test scores as a measure, Latino students are "not pulling their weight," the article said.

Zhou then went on to try to explain the gap. The first reason, he wrote, was largely cultural, in that Asian parents were more likely to "push their children to move toward academic success, while many Hispanic parents are well-meaning but less active."

The editors and reporters in the room crowded around co-editor-in-chief Lena Chen to read the draft. They understood that Zhou's article touched on dangerous ground; they agreed that he needed to tone down his language, even though many of them thought he had made some valid points and had thoroughly researched the subject.

"My first reaction? Robin's gonna get beat up," recalled Sara Martinez, a 16-year-old Latina, who was the only non-Asian student to read the article that day.

The paper's advisor, Mark Padilla, agreed that the story could use some qualifying. But he reminded the editors that this was a column, and therefore offered more leeway. It was important, he reminded them, for journalists not to shy away from sensitive but important subjects.

No one could accuse Zhou of that.


On March 22, the paper was distributed.

Anastasia Landeros, 18, was in her first period English class when a friend turned to her and asked, "Did you hear about the article about how Latinos are not pulling their weight?"

She hadn't. She got a copy and started reading.

Zhou's article seemed to suggest to her that Latinos were slackers whose parents didn't care about their children's education.

Who was this guy, she wondered. If Zhou thought Latino parents didn't push their children, he ought to come to her house and listen to her mother nag her about homework.

And how could he say Latinos weren't achieving? She was getting A's in music and drama, and B's and C's in her other classes.

For days students talked about the article, often angrily.

Some teachers tried to use it as a tool for teaching cultural sensitivity. Other teachers were simply incensed. One math teacher scrawled "racist" across the article and posted it on the blackboard.

Heading home on the day the article came out, Landeros wondered what her mother, a 45-year-old nurse and certified diabetes educator, would think.

Rosa Linda Landeros had always told her three children to be proud of their Mexican heritage and prove that stereotypes about lazy Latinos were wrong.

As soon as Linda Landeros walked through the door that evening, Anastasia handed her the school newspaper.

"Mom, you gotta read this article," she said.

'Hecho en Mexico'

In the days that followed, Zhou's friends told him that Latino students he didn't even know were talking about beating him up or pelting him with paintballs at graduation.

The dean and the principal called him in to discuss his reasons for writing the article. They reassured him that they would look out for any hint of trouble.

On March 30, those who disagreed with Zhou made a show of solidarity. Almost all the Latino students and a few white and black students wore shirts that were brown or made statements of Latino pride, including "Hecho en Mexico." Landeros wore a T-shirt with the words "Stay Brown Chicanas"

Zhou walked onto the stage that week at an assembly for an academic award. He heard boos.

"I did some soul searching as the controversy continued -- whether it was right to have confronted the issue head-on like that," he said.

Different Expectations

Researchers who study the issue of racial disparities in academic performance say that even they have to be careful how they present data.

Laurence Steinberg, a psychology professor at Temple University in Philadelphia, and his colleagues wanted to look at factors, including race, that affected student achievement several years ago. "We were nervous about how people would react, that we'd be accused of being prejudiced," he said. "There's nothing nice you can say about this that's going to make people feel good."

Steinberg and his colleagues found that even after economics were controlled for, Asian and Asian American students performed better on tests than any other racial group. Latinos and African Americans performed the least well.

Steinberg's research further suggested that an "attitudinal profile" influenced academic success, and that Asians tended to have the most students that fit the profile.

The first variable wasn't parental involvement, as Zhou concluded, but something more subtle: parental expectation. Steinberg asked students what was the worst grade they could get without their parents getting angry. For Asian children, it was a B-plus; for Latino and African American children, it was a C.

Another factor was that Asian children in the study were more likely to associate with peers who valued high marks in school, whereas Latino and African American students were more likely to have friends who put less stock in good grades.

Steinberg found two other differences that seemed linked to success. Asian children were much more likely to attribute their grades to hard work rather than aptitude. They also were more likely to believe that doing poorly in school would harm their chances for success in life.

"If you have these four things, it doesn't matter what ethnic group you're from, you'll do well in school," Steinberg said. "It's just more common among Asian kids and less common among black and Latino kids."

Pedro Noguera, a sociologist at the Metropolitan Center for Urban Education at New York University, believes class plays more of a role than Steinberg does. He points to a mostly Asian high school in San Francisco with a high dropout rate. "They're not dropping out because they're not sufficiently Chinese, but mainly because their parents put an emphasis on work."

Noguera also suggested that Latino parents may be less adept at navigating the American school system and advocating on their children's behalf.

"It's not that they don't value education," Noguera said. "They're putting too much trust in the schools. That's a big mistake."

Noguera wasn't surprised to hear that Zhou's article created a stir. "If Asian and Latino students are not communicating with each other, or if there were already strained relations," he said, "then there was no context for a thoughtful discussion, and the article merely served as a catalyst for more conflict."

'Another Attack'

As Landeros' mother read through Zhou's column, she thought: "Here's another attack on my people. Here's another person stepping on our neck."

She knew that average test scores for Latino students at Alhambra High School were lower than average test scores for Asian students. But she hated how Latino students were hit with a constant stream of news reports about how badly they performed in school. That wasn't making things better, just lowering expectations.

Linda Landeros was proud of the letter her daughter sent to the school newspaper. It was published April 12.

"As if it weren't enough to worry about academics, the entire Latino student body apparently also has to worry about racial profiling by our school newspaper," Anastasia Landeros wrote.

"My issue is not with the 'facts' that are present, but with the facts that are missing regarding a community and a culture he apparently has no knowledge of," she wrote. The article was "inflammatory" in singling out one ethnic group based on a stereotype.

"It would be wrong to write, 'Because of Asian drivers, insurance rates in Alhambra are high,' " Anastasia wrote. "Wouldn't the article be seen as a one-sided, non-researched piece?"

Food for Thought

It was obvious that Zhou's article polarized students and parents. But it also got them thinking and talking about race, culture and achievement at Alhambra High.

Several Latino students said they were nervous when they walked into Advanced Placement classes and saw a sea of Asians. But this turned to disappointment when some teachers seemed to expect less from them.

"When we answer a question wrong, they say, 'It's OK. You're really trying hard,' " said Perla Trejo, 17. "It's like, OK, but what's the answer?" Trejo said teachers don't treat Asian students the same way in her class.

Saul Pineda, 16, said he almost quit one of his AP classes last summer because it was difficult and he felt uncomfortable. But now that the article has come out, he said, "I want to try harder."

"Mostly just to prove them wrong," Trejo added.

Russell Lee-Sung, 41, who was principal of the school at the time, says he felt torn about the turmoil Zhou's article sparked.

Lee-Sung had not only thought about the issues raised in Zhou's column, he had lived them. Lee-Sung's father, who is half Mexican, grew up poor in Texas. His mother was born in China and grew up wealthy.

In his own home, he had seen cultural differences in attitudes toward education. His father, he said, "was very encouraging about what [grades] I got. If I tried my best, that would be fine.

"My mom, on the other hand, said, 'You need to get good grades. You need to go to a good school.' If I came home with all A's and a B, she'd question me. 'What's the problem?' "

But it would be a mistake to say his father cared less about his schoolwork, Lee-Sung said. "They both valued education," he said. "They just communicated in different ways."

Lee-Sung knows the subject is difficult to discuss. "This is one of those issues in education that is so taboo to talk about," he said.

But talking about it was what he had to do in the weeks after Zhou's column. He said more than 30 parents contacted him. Some commended Zhou for bringing up a point that needed to be addressed. But most were critical of the student, the newspaper advisor and even the principal.

Lee-Sung tried to use the controversy as a teaching tool. He held several discussions with the school staff. He created an "Action Planning Committee" of parents, students, teachers and administrators.

Lee-Sung also invited students who were upset by the article to the first of several "student committee" meetings so they could meet Zhou and other newspaper staffers.

At the meeting, students had a lot of questions for Zhou: Why had he used such offensive language? Why was he stereotyping people? What business did he have talking about the Latino community when he was not Latino?

Zhou told them he was trying to be straightforward with his words. He explained that he grew up in Echo Park, with mostly Latino friends and that his baby-sitter was Latina.

Some students weren't satisfied, and one Latina student said the conversation didn't make her feel any better about the article.

But near the end of the first meeting, which lasted about an hour and a half, the students started coming up with ways to close the gap, Lee-Sung said. Their questions were trying to clarify, not accuse.

Suggestions included holding periodic student-moderated dialogues on topics including students' relationships with teachers and administrators, and cultural assemblies to discuss historical differences, not just food and dancing.

At the second meeting a few weeks later, more solutions were proposed.

The school should expand a program, which has benefited mostly Latino students, that prepares students to attend a four-year university and take some AP and honors classes. Latino students should be encouraged to join more after-school clubs and to take more AP and honors classes.

In the May 10 issue of the school newspaper, Zhou wrote a letter about what he had learned from the experience. "I realize that pointing out a disparity between two of the major student groups on campus has the potential to divide us, to turn students against classmates and neighbors against each other," he wrote.

He went on to offer "my deepest regrets to those who have been hurt," saying that "it was not my intent to make anyone feel they are inferior or unable to succeed, but rather to address an issue in desperate need of attention."

He didn't apologize for the points he made in his article.

A Lasting Change?

It remains to be seen whether the controversy will result in lasting change.

Most of the key students have graduated. Zhou left for Stanford University. Landeros is studying at East Los Angeles College. Lee-Sung accepted a job as principal of Walnut High School.

But Lee-Sung still has hope.

By the end of the school year, more Latino students had applied for AP classes, though he couldn't say how many. Students founded a chapter of the Mexican American student group MEChA. And Latino parents formed an organization to support their children.

When the state released scores from the spring 2005 standardized testing, the percentages of Latino students passing the English Language Arts exam and all but one of the math tests had improved from last year. Lee-Sung thinks the awareness spurred by Zhou's article played a role.

"I think some students who may have had the thought that nobody cares and nobody looks at these scores realized that people do look at them," he said.

"I would imagine for some students, there was a sense of pride. 'Know what? I don't want people to think this way about me, and I'll work harder on the test than in the past.' "

Linda Landeros says she and her daughter are still angry about the article. But she acknowledges that it may have spurred her daughter on as well. Near the end of the school year, Anastasia Landeros wasn't doing well in her high-school math class.

Her mother brought up Zhou's column, saying, "See, he's right in this article."

The daughter blew up, but her mother's taunt made her pull up her grade.

Zhou is philosophical about what happened. "You can't expect to write something like this without taking a few lumps," he said. But, he added, "If nothing happened, I'd be feeling even worse."

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