Last tuesday's release of what is known as the "Nation's Report Card" for math and reading is likely to reignite talk of the so-called racial achievement gap. Despite some good news, the report, published by the Department of Education's Institute of Education Sciences, shows that Latinos, like blacks, haven't made progress in catching up to the test scores of whites.
But the dour assessment of Latino educational achievement has nothing to do with a racial gap. We can't use the same lens to interpret Latino data as we do to explain the differences between white and black achievement.
When it comes to Latinos and education, what we're seeing is an assimilation gap. The disparity in academic achievement between whites and blacks is the complicated result of more than 400 years of discrimination by one racial group against another, so it makes sense to describe this gap as racial. The problem with describing Latino achievement in the same terms is that it attributes to race certain facts and trends that are more easily, and more accurately, explained in other ways.
Latinos, and Mexicans in particular, have been immigrating to the U.S. on a near constant basis for about 100 years. There are thus vast differences in how deeply their generational roots extend into American soil. Though they tend to be seen as a largely foreign group, nearly a third of all Mexican Americans trace their roots in the U.S. back three generations or more.
The "race gap" explanation assumes that Latino children growing up in poor, immigrant-headed households are no different than the great-grandchildren of immigrants living in middle-class homes because they share the same "race." But obviously, grouping the large number of poor immigrants in this country with fourth-generation Americans of Latino descent drives down averages for the entire group, providing an overly bleak assessment of educational progress.
The "report card" provides no information on generational differences, but it stands to reason that Latino scores are weighed down by the roughly one-third of Latino fourth-graders and one-fifth of Latino eighth-graders who the report classifies as "English-language learners." So purely racial explanations are guilty of what demographer Dowell Myers calls the Peter Pan fallacy: assuming that the Latino population doesn't change in its educational achievement despite the passage of time.
Yet a 2003 paper by economist James P. Smith, published in the American Economic Review, shows that this is not the case. Each generation born in the United States does markedly better than the previous one. Smith demonstrates that the educational gap between Latino and white males, measured in the number of years of schooling completed by adulthood, closes from more than two years of schooling in the immigrant generation to 1.6 years in the second generation, and to less than a year by the third generation.
If you look specifically at Mexican Americans, the largest group of Latinos in the United States, the intergenerational gains are even more dramatic. Mexican-immigrant males lag behind whites by more than four years of schooling, but their children close the gap to 1.8 years, and their grandchildren make it to within less than a year of parity with whites.
The fact that Latinos do not entirely catch up even in the third generation is a function of their very humble immigrant origins. A 2005 report from the Public Policy Institute of California shows that differences in educational attainment between Mexican Americans and whites are explained in part by generation, and also by such family characteristics as income and parental education.
Understanding differences in educational outcomes as an assimilation gap doesn't negate the need for serious policy intervention. Nearly half of all students in the average California classroom are Latino, and a significant number of them have immigrant parents. Far too many of these students end up in underfunded and overcrowded schools, and the dropout rate is still too high. Because our prosperity will soon depend on their full participation in the economy and society, any gap is unacceptable.
But if politicians and educators are going to figure out how to close the gap, they have to begin by understanding its makeup. It is not a canyon dividing people of different races. It is more like a staircase that Latinos climb over the course of several generations. Our education system needs to speed their climb.