Because of its generally positive impact on the life chances of individuals, and because it engenders greater social equality, education in the United States is more frequently characterized by what it accomplishes (outcomes) than by the knowledge that is actually taught in schools (content) or by the way it is delivered (process). Hence, education as a means to socially desired ends is a focus herein, although the content and process—frequently cast as policy alternatives in the education of Latinas/os—are also addressed. The growing demand for ethnic studies by the Latina/o community across the country is a testament to the currency that debates over content and process have. A shift from outcome to content and process draws on a civil rights frame that positions the Latina/o not as an object of study, but rather as a subject of personal and social transformation. Accordingly, this shift permits greater understanding of relation of self to society, root causes of oppression, positive cultural identity, and a sense of place in history in a democracy where a powerful sense of rights and responsibilities gets nurtured.

Despite the relation of education to mobility, education is, at best, a vexed proposition for most U.S. Latinas/ os. Low levels of educational attainment and academic failure persist as a defining feature of their U.S. educational experience. Explanations for this tend to look either to cultural or to structural factors. With respect to the former, individual background characteristics, as well as institutional and historical circumstances are examined. With respect to the latter, although arguments about cultural and genetic inferiority have been largely discredited, the dominant culture of measurement embodied in our systems of high-stakes testing and educational accountability is influential in reinscribing a worldview of deficit thinking because of its embedded assumption of Anglo cultural superiority (Padilla 2005). Since the power to measure is an extension of the power to rank and assign value to humans on continua related to educational competencies, where Latinas/os systematically come up short, the silence on this by mainstream models of achievement allows myths like individualism, meritocracy, and Anglo cultural superiority to flourish (Steinberg 1996; Ochoa 2007).

Mainstream models of achievement ignore unearned privilege as a factor in mobility and begin instead with the premise that education in U.S. society is based primarily on individual merit and effort. In this view, personal income, occupational status, and educational attainment levels result from one’s personal investment in these. In his classic comparative analysis of the U.S. and British secondary educational systems, Ralph H. Turner characterizes the U.S. educational system as one of “contest mobility,” as opposed to “sponsored mobility” (1960, 855). Otherwise termed a “meritocracy,” elite status goes to those that earn it through their efforts. The popular meritocratic myth—better known as the “American Dream”—aligns to a larger conceptual framework that sociologists term the “immigrant analogy,” whereby the incorporation experiences of all other racial and ethnic groups in U.S. society are likened to that of their European-origin counterparts (Steinberg 1996).

Turner’s (1960) sponsored mobility thesis outlines how entrance into elite society is contingent on one’s sponsorship by elite members already located within the circle in order to gain access. Anticipating what later became scholarship in the area of cultural capital and social reproduction frameworks (see, for example, Bourdieu and Passeron 1977), this thesis posits that those who are already members of the elite judge potential entrants on the extent to which they possess characteristics that they wish to see in their future peers.

Persistent correlations of race/ethnicity, class, and gender with academic achievement and educational attainment, however, not only cast doubt on the view that the United States is a meritocracy, but also point to historical and institutional factors that both illuminate the role of sponsorship mobility in the United States and explain Latinas/os’ overwhelming social location as members of our society’s lowest classes. Historically, the concept of “mode of incorporation” has explanatory power. It differentiates the European-origin experience of coming to this country and continent in a voluntary manner, as opposed to other groups like Latinas/os that become part of this country involuntarily as a result of conquest, slavery, or colonization (Blauner 1972; Ogbu 1978; Leiberson 1980; Ignatiev 1995; Steinberg 2001). These historical facts of minorities’ forceful incorporation experiences into the U.S. political economy is not mitigated by the presence of recent Latina/o immigrants on a putatively voluntary basis since they inherit the legacy of social, cultural, political, and economic oppression and disenfranchisement experienced by their racial and ethnic forerunners.

Turning now to institutional factors with this historical backdrop in mind, a defining feature of U.S. education is “majority-minority relations.” The word “minority” is not a numerical term. Rather, it references both power and its relational aspect. One cannot have a minority without a majority or vice versa. Hence, societies can have a demographic majority like Latinas/os that is simultaneously a social, cultural, political, and economic minority.

Robert Blauner (1972) and Joel Spring (1997) maintain that because of their modes of incorporation, Latinas/os and other minority groups are forced to shed their languages, cultures, and community-based identities and adopt cultural ways of speaking, behaving, and interacting that mirror the mores, values, and interaction styles of the dominant, Anglo majority group. I refer to this as “subtractive schooling” (Valenzuela 1999). Moreover, drawing from educational philosopher Nel Noddings’s (1992) work on caring and education, I acknowledge the presence of aesthetic or superficial ways of caring that most Anglo teachers possess as a result of their culture and preparation and that have the effect of objectifying Latina/o youth. Reduced to objects— especially test scores—they get treated in a bureaucratic manner whereby teachers teach subjects, not students (McNeil and Valenzuela 2001).

Noddings (1992), in contrast, advocates for authentic caring toward youth by school functionaries in a manner that respects the totality of who they are and what they bring to educational contexts. I acknowledge both the transformative potential and politics of authentic caring and further posit that the youth I studied in a three-year ethnography of an urban, inner-city high school reject not education, but schooling (Valenzuela 1999). That is, they reject being objectified and having precious little if anything about their histories, stories, languages, communities, or cultures deemed worthy of inclusion into the school curriculum or learning experience. Worse yet, youth’s resistance to this objectification places them at risk within educational settings (Valenzuela 1999; Ochoa 2007).

Ser bien educada/o, or being well educated in the Latina/o sense, emanates from a set of cultural values based on respect, reciprocity, and relation. Despite Noddings’s (1992) assertion that all educational experience should be premised on relation, Latinas/os’ lack of dominant group. In his participatory action research study among high school youth in San Bernardino, California, Louie Rodriguez (2012) extends this analysis of caring to the “politics of recognition,” wherein youth seek acknowledgment in different ways. For some, this consisted of simple, relational recognition, whereas others desire that the curriculum and learning experience, as well as deeper levels of recognition, be related to the historical, social, psychological, cultural, and political realities of their communities.

Blauner (1972) indicates that while many ethnic groups that migrate to the United States similarly face discrimination and begin life at the proverbial “bottom,” the insistence of the dominant group that the subordinate group subscribe to its language, culture, values, and norms is particularly humiliating to U.S. minorities. Latinas/os’ minority status is evident in numerous ways, including the underrepresentation of Latina/o teachers in public schools (7.1 percent, nationally according to Villegas [2007]); the lack of books and curricula that speak to Latinas/os’ history, culture, and experience; hyper-segregation in underfunded schools—particularly among English learners within large, inner-city districts; an uneven commitment to bilingual education; curricular tracking coupled with Latinas/os’ concentrations in the lower, non-college- bound tracks; excessive standardized testing; high retention rates; over- as well as under-identification of special education needs; low teacher expectations; and lack of access to quality teaching, advanced placement courses, tutorial support, after-school programs, and public schools themselves, particularly in the wake of school closures that are taking place throughout the country (for instance, see de la Torre and Gwynne’s [2009] analysis of Chicago public schools).

Defying the notion of a meritocracy, institutionalized discrimination overwhelmingly defines the educational experiences of Latinas/os in the United States such that even if Latinas/os make progress, the gap relative to Anglos remains constant (Gándara and Contreras 2009; Madrid 2011). Moreover, this culturally chauvinist posture of U.S. schooling is layered over a long history of de-indigenization not only in the United States but also in public schools in Mexico and Latin America from which many of our immigrant youth emanate. Consequently, Latina/o students have endured a long history of educational neglect and lack of recognition that further attaches to a widely shared experience of alienation from schools (Carter 1970; Valenzuela 1999; Ochoa 2007; L. Rodriguez 2012).

Latina/o studies’ education scholars have endeavored to identify means for overcoming the social stigma of being Mexican or Latina/o in the United States, generally. The most promising directions are in the areas of bilingual education (Bartlett and Garcia 2011); culturally relevant teachers and teaching (Villegas and Irvine 2010); improving teacher recruitment and teacher preparation (Ochoa 2007); sociocultural and sociopolitical curricula and instruction (Bartolomé and Balderrama 2001;Nieto et al. 2012); respecting and affirming cultural difference and incorporating the cultural wealth that exists in Latina/o communities (Yosso 2005; Palmer 2008); making use of students’ funds of knowledge (González, Moll, and Amanti 2005); countering stereotypes and deficit thinking (Valencia 2010); increasing parent involvement by reframing it as bicultural parent engagement (Olivos, Jiménez-Castellanos, and Ochoa 2011); developing parents’ interpersonal networks of support that include teachers (Stanton-Salazar 1997); and advocating for research-based policies that address the structural and organizational features of school, including tracking (Flores-González 2002), retention (Valencia and Villarreal 2005), high-stakes standardized testing (Valenzuela 2005), and disciplinary policies and school culture (L. Rodriguez 2012).

Drawing from scholars like the late Paulo Freire (1970, 1998) and Daniel Solórzano and Dolores Delgado Bernal (2001), among the most significant, current theoretical preoccupations in Latina/o education scholarship pertain to the relationship of identity and acculturation to the development of positive orientations toward schools and students’ transformational consciousness. To this end, the mediating role of a culturally relevant Latina/o studies curriculum and a critical bicultural pedagogy in the classroom holds promise. Responding, in effect, to the above-mentioned concerns related to the politics of recognition and caring (Valenzuela 1999; L. Rodriguez 2012), these approaches would mean not only that students are taught in their native tongues, but that critical bicultural educators interrogate, along with their students, the ideologies, policies, practices, and structures of domination that shape their lives and their communities. Such a curriculum encourages them to consider the ways that they seek emancipation for themselves, as well as for their communities, while simultaneously considering the ways that they themselves are colonized and contradictory (Darder 1991).

Scholarship on community-university-school partnerships (e.g., Valenzuela and López 2014), together with participatory action research, makes this pedagogy actionable by equipping youth with the intellectual, scholarly, policy, and political tools they need in order to become agents of change in their own respective contexts. In the process, they secure preparedness for college (Cammarota and Fine 2008; L. Rodriguez 2012). Hence, college preparedness is a byproduct of an otherwise meaningful engagement with education, which considers student’s desires, need for recognition, and quest for fairness and equity.

Chicana feminism and critical race theory—through their shared intellectual preoccupation with power relations, identity, and consciousness—acknowledge the broader power relationships in institutions and society and how their priorities, policies, and practices shape Latinas/os’ educational experiences. Chicana and Latina scholars’ separate and combined intellectual preoccupation with epistemology, spirituality, and indigeneity (e.g., Facio and Lara 2014) illuminates other ways of knowing and being in the world that further align to notions of well-being and being well educated from a Latina/o perspective (ser bien educada/o). This is not a call to a new orthodoxy, but rather a call for epistemological freedom in a form of education that is inclusive, enriching, culturally resonant, and humane as part and parcel of a progressive social-justice agenda.

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