UW News

February 12, 2009

College of Education’s Frances Contreras a rising voice on challenges of Latino education

UW News

Frances Contreras does not hesitate to use strong language to describe the poor state of Latino education in the United States.

In fact, the title of her new book, co-written with Patricia Gandara of the University of California at Los Angeles and published by Harvard University Press, is The Latino Education Crisis: The Consequences of Failed Social Policies.

It’s one of two recent research projects by Contreras, an assistant professor of Educational Leadership and Policy Studies in the College of Education. The other is a review of Hispanic education in Washington state, requested and funded by the state Legislature. She’ll discuss the statewide research during the college’s daylong research conference on Friday, Feb. 13, in Miller Hall. Contreras and Gandara will discuss and sign the book Friday, Feb. 20, at the UW Club.

The heart of the book’s research, Contreras said, was “to document the state of Latino education in the (U.S.). Very few studies have attempted to look at Latino education holistically,” she said.

“We wanted to look at the social contexts for education for Latino students and the opportunities for investment.”

What they found is an ongoing achievement gap for Hispanic and Latino students despite well-intentioned programs seeking to help. They found continued high dropout rates, low college graduation rates, challenges over language learning and special programs with fleeting effectiveness — in short, “systemic failures” in delivering high-quality education to Latino youth, she said.

But Contreras and her co-author aim for more than just analysis of a deeply troubled system — more than just bad news. She said they want to offer hope, a few success stories and a vision of how education could be improved.

“We didn’t just want to document a problem — we all know it exists, but maybe it hasn’t been documented in a quantitative and qualitative way,” she said. “We reviewed a handful of successful intervention programs and their costs — to look at what can be done, and how the social policy arena might work with the Latino community to change the situation.”

One chapter focuses particularly on students who are “beating the odds,” achieving success even in challenged systems. Gandara and Contreras look at their success and asks how it can be replicated.

The book’s central recommendations are:

  • Investment in early education and cognitive enrichment. “We discuss a seamless continuum,” Contreras said. “We raise the issue of … efforts that follow the student from preschool through college.”
  • Housing policies that promote integration and stability. “We need to examine housing lending practices as well as gentrification patterns in rural and urban settings to ensure that minority families have access to comparable lending services and affordable housing in all settings.”
  • Support and development of bilingual and bicultural teachers and promotion of second language development among all students. “We need a critical mass of bilingual, bicultural teachers in the schools.” Many such students are already in the education “pipeline” to become teachers, she said. “The change isn’t coming; the critical mass is here,” she said, and they need to be inspired to choose teaching as a profession.
  • College financial aid. Contreras supports federal legislation — attempted unsuccessfully so far several times — to extend “temporary residency” to children of undocumented immigrants seeking a college education in the U.S. and a pathway to citizenship before they graduate from college, and to enable them to apply for and receive federal financial aid. “A good chunk of those students could be giving back to their community,” she said. “These children of undocumented workers are very much American.”

Frances Contreras and her work will meet the public twice in coming days.

Contreras, Stritikus and their students will present on “Hispanic Students and Academic Achievement in Washington” during the College of Education’s daylong research conference in Miller Hall on Friday, Feb. 13.


Contreras and co-author Gandara will discuss and sign their book in the next Center for Multicultural Education Book Talk, from 10:30 a.m. to 12:30 p.m. Friday, Feb. 20, at the UW Club.

Contreras’ research in Washington, conducted with Tom Stritikus, the College of Education’s dean for academic programs, was commissioned last August by the state Legislature. They were granted $150,000 and asked to study the achievement gap for Hispanic and Latino students. The resulting report was titled “Understanding Opportunities to Learn for Latino Students in Washington.”

The two, working with several graduate and undergraduate UW students, studied 14 schools and interviewed hundreds of public school students and teachers. What they found was similar to Contreras’ work with Gandara — a system requiring “urgent attention.” Latino students had lower test scores and graduation rates and less access to curricular support, particularly among English language learners.

The state report also issued recommendations, including more affordable housing, efforts to engage parents through multiple forms of communication, greater diversity of teachers — especially bilingual/bicultural teachers — and equitable access to high-quality teachers.

“We call for increased access to quality teachers,” Contreras said. “We know that Latino students, and African American students — poor kids — aren’t exposed to the quality of teachers that more affluent, middle-class students are.”

Their report also calls for better long-term data on the progress of Hispanic students. “We need to follow students longitudinally,” Contreras said, “from preschool through college.”

Contreras also believes that the Washington Assessment of Student Learning (WASL) should be removed as an exit exam for high school graduation. “I don’t think that assessment should be used punitively,” she said. “We shouldn’t place the onus of achievement on a student for what we are not providing them.”

Contreras knows that the economic slump makes funding tight throughout education, but she said her recommendations don’t necessarily involve huge amounts of new funding. “What we are calling for is a shifting of budget priorities,” she said. “A shifting of how we do business.”

No stranger to community service work, Contreras was appointed by Seattle Mayor Greg Nickels to Seattle’s Families & Education Levy Oversight Committee in 2005. “She has the background, and the commitment, to make our goal of giving every child a chance at academic success a reality,” Nickels told The Seattle Times. Another local paper, Northwest Asian Weekly, named her among its “rising stars” in 2007.

Contreras and her research also have been the subject of several recent news stories. She was lauded by Diverse Issues in Higher Education in January as one of the Emerging Scholars for 2009 (read the story here.) And The Seattle Times reported on her Washington State research early this month (read the story here.)

Stritikus, her colleague in the statewide research, had high praise for Contreras. “I think she typifies rigorous research that has an immediate implication for the improvement of the lives of Latino youth,” he said. “And given the shifting demographic context, schools must figure out how to meet the needs of Latino students. Dr. Contreras is a credible scholarly voice in this conversation — a great political advocate.”

It’s a busy time for Contreras as she discusses her research and prepares to present her findings, at UCLA on Feb. 18, at the UW’s public events and at an upcoming conference in Texas of the American Association of Hispanics in Higher Education.

“I’m very fortunate to have the opportunity to conduct research on issues I care about,” she said, then added, “I have to say I love writing, and thinking about issues differently. I also really do love working with my students … they are the next generation of leaders — the one to implement a lot of these changes.”