Peeling Back Layers of Ethnicity to Learn More About Students

Email a Friend

Kirk Semple’s recent article in The New York Times about the high dropout rate among Mexican students compared with other groups raises more questions that are worth asking about achievement among different ethnic groups in New York City.

Most of the conversations we have had about the dropout rate and the achievement gap have been about broader ethnicities — blacks, whites, Hispanics and Asians — because this is the way the schools in New York City and the state break down the graduation data. Those conversations have not been about intra-ethnicities or about nonimmigrants versus immigrants.

DESCRIPTIONRachel Elkind Rashid F. Davis

Mr. Semple has peeled back the ethnicity onion that has many layers. He provided information for six major immigrant groups: Mexican, Dominican, Chinese, Jamaican, Guyanese and Ecuadorean.

Mr. Semple's data apparently came from the United States census, and within his numbers was the remarkable finding that about 41 percent of all Mexicans between ages 16 and 19 in the city have dropped out of school. At the same time, the overall rate for the city was less than 9 percent.

The article presented percentages of students 16 to 19 years old from major immigrant groups in New York City from 2005 to 2009 who are in high school or graduated from high school, and also the percentage of 19- to 23-year-olds in college or graduated.

How do those findings translate to the broader ethnicities of blacks, whites, Hispanics and Asians, the categories we have long examined?

Sensitivity is needed, because we do not want to ostracize anyone, but we can use the data as a platform for more conversations.

I would say that four of the six groups included in the census data are more easily translated than the others. For example, I would say that close to 100 percent of Mexicans and Ecuadoreans may translate to Hispanic; Chinese would be included in the Asian category; and Jamaicans in the category of black.

Dominicans are split between some identifying themselves as Hispanic and some identifying as black. Guyanese are also split, with some identifying as Asian and some identifying as black.

I think it is important to do as Mr. Semple did in peeling back those layers, and then ask the following question: Are immigrants faring better in the dropout crisis than nonimmigrants?

Even within the immigrant population, the dropout crisis is worse for some immigrants than for others. The census information showed that 96 percent of Jamaicans are still in high school or graduated, which brings into question which other immigrant or nonimmigrant groups that define themselves as black are dropping out more than others.

The New York State Board of Regents voted to back the Education Equity for Dreamers Act, which would allow state financial aid for undocumented students.

In a bill that it sent to the Legislature on Thursday, the state’s Education Department said it could cost about $627,428 annually if it were to provide college tuition assistance to illegal immigrants.

If the bill is able to pass the Legislature, New York could be creating a terrific blueprint for areas with large immigrant populations.

The passing of the so-called Dream Act would give immigrants something to aspire to, and we may be able to see higher high school and college completion rates from all six major ethnic groups.

There has been a tremendous outcry around the low high school completion rates, and rightfully so. Maybe we need to approach the dropout and achievement gap conversations from a different angle.

The chart below, from the city's Department of Education, shows that the four-year graduation rate for Asian students in 2010 was 82 percent. For blacks, it was 61.

The Census data, on the other hand, shows Jamaican immigrants tied with Guyanese for the highest in-school or graduation rates, at 96 percent, exceeding that for Chinese immigrants, who have a 94 percent graduation rate.

The numbers leave me in disbelief. What more would we learn if we were able to go inside of all of New York City’s graduation data and look into the subgroups within ethnicities?

We need to delve deeper into the city’s data and see how immigrant and nonimmigrant groups are graduating. The old saying “we are only as strong as our weakest member” is quite relevant here, and it is crucial that we first have the data reported with ethnicities disaggregated so that we can have a clearer picture of how to be strategic with interventions.