Leaders on Education Reform: Rosario Marin on Latinos and Education

Bush logoBy Ruben Navarrette

rosario_marin_picture_orange_suitOver the next few months, I will be speaking with Hispanic leaders to hear their views on education, including how they view testing, accountability and standards. The series is part of the Bush Institute’s focus on school accountability, which is aimed at improving student achievement, empowering parents, and helping educators in their important work.

The first interview comes as Congress is again turning its attention to the renewal of the No Child Left Behind Act. As federal and state officials follow that debate closely, I spoke with Rosario Marin on a range of education issues. A widely-recognized leader in the Latino community, has a long record of government service at the local, state, and federal levels. 

She’s also an author, successful businesswoman, and engaging motivational speaker whose views on education, politics, and success are heavily sought after throughout the United States and around the world. The recipient of four honorary doctorates, she is a former city councilwoman and mayor of Huntington Park, California, and a former California Secretary of State. 

Marin is also the 41st Treasurer of the United States. She was appointed, in 2001, by President George W. Bush and unanimously confirmed by the U.S. Senate. Born in Mexico, she was the first immigrant to serve in that position.

But Marin is more than her resume. She’s also an immigrant success story herself, and a no-nonsense advocate for children who doesn’t accept excuses or take “no” for an answer. She is obviously a student of the Jaime Escalante School of Educational Achievement. Like the late high school teacher in East Los Angeles whose exploits were made famous in the film, “Stand and Deliver,” Marin doesn’t want to hear and refuses to accept that some kids can’t learn because of their immigrant status, native language, cultural background, or economic disadvantage. 

Listening to her, it’s clear what sort of personal attributes have made her successful. And, it’s good to see that she is eager to help develop them in future generations.

Madame Treasurer, it’s great to see you. What do you make of the state of Hispanic education in the United States? How well are Hispanic students doing? 

Unfortunately, the Hispanic community has lagged behind. We have some very significant challenges. When I came to this country 30 years ago, we had challenges. But now they seem to have been exacerbated.

There are about 54 million Hispanics in the United States. High schools struggling to graduate them and colleges are struggling to recruit and retain them. The problem seems so enormous. What can be done about it?

We’re always asking ourselves, “What makes some students fail in school?” That’s the wrong question. We should be asking: “What makes some students succeed where others fail?” We should find those examples of students who are succeeding, determine what is working in those cases, and implement those strategies elsewhere.

Is there anything about the education system or the public schools that seems different today than the way it used to be when you were attending school?

When I was growing up, parents were our first set of teachers. The schools were our second homes. I struggled with learning English. My mother put the onus on me. I had to work harder, and learn the language. It wasn’t about the teachers and schools. Now we blame the state, the school, everyone except parents and students. No one wants to take responsibility for anything. That’s a problem.

But we can’t let teachers and schools off the hook, can we? They have a significant role to play in turning out successful students. Why can’t we attack the problem there?

Former President George W. Bush used to use that great phrase, ‘the soft bigotry of low expectations.’ Well, I lived it. I encountered it. My teachers didn’t expect very much of me. It was up to me to work hard and succeed.

I always thought it was interesting that teachers unions objected so vociferously to that portion of the education reform law, No Child Left Behind,that breaks down test scores according to race. They wanted no part of that.    

Yes, because they knew what we would find. When students aren’t learning, it reflects poorly on the teachers. They must be doing something wrong.

There is a big debate over testing, with some groups insisting that the tests are the problem. What do you make of that? Do you think we should be conducting these kinds of high-stakes tests, where teachers and schools are held accountable when students do poorly? 

Of course. If you can’t measure something, you can’t improve it. You need to know where you stand.  Otherwise, how else do we know we’ve succeeded in teaching that student? If you don’t have that, you’re completely lost. It’s true in the world of business, government, non-profits. And it’s true in public education. Either the child has learned, or he hasn’t.

It’s interesting that education reform splits the political parties. Democrats are divided over those who cater to teachers unions and those inclined to see education as a civil right. But Republicans are split between those who want a national standard to measure academic success and those who oppose that very thing in the name of preserving local control.  You have a unique perspective because you’ve been both a local and national official. What do you make of this schism? 

Well, the local school district has by far the most responsibility over the child and the greatest opportunity to make a difference. When I was mayor, I knew that federal government shouldn’t tell me where to put my park — or what kind of trees to plant in it. That’s local control. But when we’re talking about education, it’s a different story. We’re losing international competitiveness. We’re falling behind. We’re not graduating the type of people we need to be graduating. We have a shortage of high-achieving individuals. We’re in real trouble. I understand that everyone wants to make decisions at the local level, whatever the tribe wants. But now we have to have a national answer to our education problem to compete in the world. Internationally, we have to say, as a nation, these are our standards and principles. Just like other countries do.

Thank you, Madame Treasurer.

It was my pleasure.

Ruben Navarrette is a fellow at the George W. Bush Institute.  He is also a syndicated columnist with the Washington Post Writers Group, a columnist for the Daily Beast, a frequent commentator on television and radio, and author of “A Darker Shade of Crimson: Odyssey of a Harvard Chicano” (Bantam). Formerly, he was also a teacher at the K-12 level, consultant to the College Board, and university instructor.

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