UNITED States Secretary of Education Lauro Cavazos is holding five regional forums around the country, talking with students, parents, and teachers about the issues surrounding the education of Hispanic students. While in Boston, he spoke with the Monitor.
The dropout rate among Hispanic students is high, up to 45 percent in the inner cities. How would you turn that around?
We have to get a real commitment from everyone in the system. That may sound harsh. You have to say, why are people dropping out? People approve their dropping out. In Texas you had to have parents' permission before you drop out. Texas has a 45 percent dropout rate. First, you have to turn around the attitude that permits people to drop out of school. A lot will drop out because they can't achieve academically. By 3rd, 4th, 5th grade, you can start predicting that they're going to drop out. If they get two classes behind in reading skills and further behind in mathematics. They're just waiting to reach a legal age.
You have to ... start correcting it in early years of childhood education. I'm talking about younger than Head Start. They need an awful lot of good counseling and tutoring. We tend to go through the system as if they're all the same, they're not. You have to provide for the differences between those students.
You were criticized in Texas for saying that what was needed to turn around the schools was not more money, but a ``better utilization of resources.''
My whole approach has been one of saying it's really not up to us. I have no authority to go into Texas and say this is where you need to find the money. Funding is not the fundamental solution. You have to change the educational system, because we've already had a decade of ... pouring more and more money into the system and it hasn't improved it at all. From 1981 till last year this nation increased spending by 26 percent, adjusted for inflation. That's about $42 billion. You've seen the reports: students flat on reading skills, unable to really write, mathematics is low, geography, history. We're already spending more per student than any [nation except] ... Switzerland.
Where do you stand on the controversy between advocates of bilingual education, and of immersion into English?
I am not proposing one system over another because the decision of how you teach bilingual education is really a local issue. There are some very positive aspects of immersion, let's face it, but there are other students who learn in different paths. The problem that we have in education is that we assume that everybody learns everything in exactly the same manner. They don't, and you have to allow for those differences.
We're not talking about political issues, we're talking about the education of a child. I am supportive of bilingual ed, but I always state at the outset that regardless of technique you must move that child as quickly as possible into English competency. I talked to a student yesterday who had had five years of bilingual education and he said, `I can pass the written test, but I can't understand what they're saying.' I say, one: Move them to English as quickly as possible. Two: Retain that other language.... And speak it well and clearly. Third: That they bring into the culture of the United States their own culture. Because America's nothing more than an amalgam of all those cultures.
Additional forums will be held in Chicago, May 11; Miami, May 18; and Los Angeles, June 5. The first forum was held in San Antonio, Texas.