What’s the Problem?
Latinos and Latinas together comprise 16% of the overall population in the United States, and approximately 22% of the school-aged population. The percentage of school-aged children who are Latino/a is predicted to reach 30% by 2030. Arguably more important than the Latino population’s relative growth is the fact that their mathematics achievement lags behind that of students of other races. The success of educational reforms in the United States will increasingly depend on schools’ abilities to facilitate the achievement of Latino/a students.
School characteristics have an important role in the academic achievement of students, including Latino/a children. Previous research has pointed to the importance of teacher collaboration and school professional communities for academic achievement of most students. This research has found that, unfortunately, Latino students’ math achievement is at best unaffected and at worst harmed by higher levels of teacher collaboration.
In our recent study, “Teacher Collaboration and Latinos/as’ Mathematics Achievement Trajectories” we explored the relationship between teacher collaboration and Latino students’ math achievement taking into account the great diversity within Latinos/as in America. We analyzed data from the Early Childhood Longitudinal Survey-K from approximately 1,900 Latino/a students utilizing multilevel growth models. Specifically, we examined the role of Latino/a students’ immigrant status and language spoken at home in moderating the relationship between teacher collaboration and mathematics achievement trajectories. We took this approach in an attempt to address the often fine-grained distinctions that challenge such pan-ethnic labels as “Latino.”
Why is Teacher Collaboration Important for Students’ Achievement?
By “teacher collaboration” we refer to an environment where teachers build their lessons cooperatively, eliminating redundancy and augmenting compatibility across parts of the curriculum and across grades. This environment allows teachers to take collective responsibility for students, and permits teachers to interactively develop the best strategies for teaching. Teacher collaboration also encompasses the collaborative assessment of student work. Since collaboration entails teachers interacting and sharing information about students and instruction methods, in our study we expected that teachers’ understandings of students tend to coalesce in patterned ways. These practices might cause teachers to assign students “reputations” and/or expectations related with ability to perform academically.
Recent evidence points to the differential impact of teacher collaboration depending on students’ individual characteristics. This relationship raises the possibility that teacher collaboration may be one of the mechanisms through which a cultural mismatch can systematically disadvantage certain students. In our study we focus on a very specific element of culture—language. As used in our study, cultural mismatch theory refers specifically to incompatibilities in the ways that language is used and expectations are communicated at home versus in the school environment. Our study suggests that a cultural mismatch due to differences in language reduces, in many instances, the number and quality of learning opportunities to which Latino/a students might have access.
Teacher Collaboration vs. Latino Students’ Linguistic Divergence and Immigrant Optimism
Although the majority of Latino/a students attending schools in the United States were born on North American soil, many have a different native tongue and were raised in a different culture. Thus, they may experience a disjuncture between the American schools’ normative environment that is generally understood to be English-speaking, white, and middle class. Notably, roughly 80% of teachers who teach in schools in the U.S. are white; very few teachers are Latinos/as. As a consequence, Latino/as frequently attend schools where teachers have limited knowledge of their cultural backgrounds. Furthermore, teachers’ personal perceptions of students are often influenced by their own race, ethnicity, and social class cultures.
Latinos/as often are perceived in two contradictory ways as a result of the key characteristics that define their ethno-racial status within schools: their language minority status and their immigrant status. While the linguistic mismatch might generate obstacles in the educational process of Latino/a students, research related to the achievement of immigrant students has also established that immigrant parents promote academic achievement of their children.
What is Teacher Collaboration Doing for Latino Math Achievement?
Although Latinos/as do not benefit from teacher collaboration when analyzed as an overall group, distinguishing between immigrant and non-immigrant Latino/a students generate new insights. Making this distinction reveals that certain Latino/a students do, in fact, benefit from teacher collaboration. Latino/a immigrant students who study in schools with high levels of teacher collaboration have higher mathematics achievement trajectories than Latino/a immigrant students who study in schools with average or low levels of teacher collaboration. In contrast, Latino/a students who are English language learners (ELL) do not benefit from teacher collaboration as modeled in the study. After third grade, their achievement trajectories are significantly lower when they study in schools with high levels of teacher collaboration. To summarize, our analysis found evidence of a differential effect of collaboration for Latinos/as based on ELL and immigrant status. Teacher collaboration interacts with language minority status to foster lower mathematics achievement for non-native English-speaking Latinos/as, and teacher collaboration interacts with immigrant status to nurture higher mathematics achievement for immigrant Latinos/as.
Our analysis of nationally representative data also found evidence that teachers perceive ELL students as “putting in less effort” in school than other Latinos/as. Specifically, across subsamples of Latino/a students – separated into groups of low achievers, middle achievers, and high achievers –teachers almost consistently perceived ELL Latino/a students as individuals who demonstrate less effort in school. We therefore suggest that teacher collaboration might, in fact, be spreading negative perceptions of ELL students.
Where to go from here?
- There is a need in teacher preservice training and professional development for greater acknowledgement of the verbal aspects of mathematics and the subject’s inextricable link to language.
- It is important to ensure that educators have diversity training so that their cultural understandings include an acknowledgement of the lived experiences of Latinos/as who speak their native language at home.
- There is a need to further develop an “artisanal” style of teaching in which instructors craft unique lessons given the specific needs of a particular population of students. Doing so will enable students of all races, cultural backgrounds, and linguistic abilities to reap the benefits of teacher collaboration practices
Martha Cecilia Bottia is research assistant professor of sociology at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte. Her research interest includes the effects of school racial and socioeconomic demographic composition on various educational outcomes, the unequal impact of the curriculum on diverse students, and the role of structural characteristics of K–12 schools on the decision of students to major in and graduate from a STEM discipline.
Roslyn Arlin Mickelson is Chancellor’s Professor and professor of sociology, public policy, and women and gender studies at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte. Her research focuses on the political economy of schooling and school reform, particularly the relationships among race, ethnicity, gender, and class and educational organizations, processes, and outcomes across the life course.
Elizabeth Stearns is associate professor of sociology and public policy at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte. Her research interests include the interplay between structural characteristics of schools and student outcomes, including gender and racial disparities in achievement and attainment. Her current research is focusing on the gender and racial gaps in STEM education, including the declaration of STEM majors in college.