United States Capitol with Senate Chamber Under Blue Sky


The Road Ahead for Latino Education

Nonprofit leader and community advocate Marco Davis believes that new census data and an influx of pandemic funds can transform outcomes for America’s Hispanic students

When the Congressional Hispanic Caucus Institute (CHCI) was founded in 1978, there were only five Hispanic members of Congress from four states and Puerto Rico. “But the end of the 1970s was the beginning of critical mass in terms of representation,” Marco Davis, CHCI president and CEO, tells The Elective. “They wanted to make sure they weren’t the last ones, to make sure there was a pipeline of young Hispanic leadership that could build on that critical mass.”

The Hispanic caucus has now grown to 38 members of Congress. Ensuring that number keeps expanding remains core to the CHCI’s mission. One way it does that is by investing in the pipeline of Latino leadership and training young people from across the country. “The idea is to develop leaders who have proven to be successful and effective in all careers, but with a strong grounding in public policy,” Davis says. “In addition to leadership development, we also try to convene different sectors—business, nonprofit, and government—with an eye toward solutions to pressing issues, toward identifying real changes we can bring about in policy and practice.”

A native New Yorker, Davis has spent most of his career working in Washington-based nonprofits. He also served in the Obama administration as an advisor on Hispanic education. Davis and I have known each other since attending college together. It has been a joy to watch him emerge as one of the most respected voices in Washington when it comes to supporting students and young professionals.

We spoke recently about America’s growing Latino population, the challenge of college outreach, and how the covid-19 pandemic might be a turning point for school investment.

Photo of Marco Davis on the left next to the Congressional Hispanic Caucus Institute's logo rendered in white text on a blue background

Congressional Hispanic Caucus Institute

Last month, we saw preliminary data from the 2020 census showing the Latino population grew by almost 23% and accounted for more than half of overall population growth over the last decade. We also saw a huge jump in the percentage of people identifying as more than one ethnicity. How should we be thinking about identity in an increasingly multiracial, blended society?

It really was incredible growth, and it speaks to the need for more Latino leadership at pretty much every level—which is exciting for someone in my role!

Two big thoughts about the census data: One is that in 21st century America, racial identity is evolving more and possibly faster than it ever has before. We’re finally breaking down this idea that racial identity is super-fixed and understanding it’s a fairly fabricated social construct. For a long time, it has felt very fixed with iron walls between Black Americans and Asian Americans and Native Americans and White Americans. And that has started to crumble. Racial identity is really in flux, and people are starting to embrace that. We saw much greater identification as mixed-race, including among Latinos. I think mixed race has always been a piece of our story, but it’s always been ignored. And that’s now a much more lively dynamic.

The second major point is that we’ve had this narrative as a country about our multiethnic identity, the melting pot, the mosaic, for a very long time. And it was mostly abstract—an ideal, somewhere off in the future. It wasn’t really playing out. But now it absolutely is—it’s really happening on the ground. So you’re forced to kind of recognize and reckon and be explicit about the fact that we’re a much more diverse population, with a much more diverse culture and history, than we’ve ever realized. It’s always been there; we just haven’t talked about it clearly.

We all—and I mean truly all of us—have to learn a lot more about each other. For better or for worse, we essentially have to go back to school. We have to study up on other cultures. After so many years of feeling like the racial makeup of this country was essentially binary, Black/White, now everyone has to learn everyone else’s culture. I don’t know any shortcut for that. We’re not going to function as a society without people taking massive crash courses on all of this stuff and really wanting to know each other. It’s not easy, it’s uncomfortable, and it’s a lot of work. This is a journey that’s going to take a lot of time. But it’s worthwhile.

You mentioned the need for Latino leadership, which is really the focus of your organization. What will it take to see more of that in schools—more teachers, principals, district leaders who reflect the Latino communities in our public schools?

We need a lot more attention given to the value of having diverse populations in the teaching space. Not just the classroom, but principals and policymakers and everywhere. Even though there’s more and more research on this, people still resist it. But this isn’t just beneficial to Latino students. White students who see a more diverse educational leadership benefit, too.

The second is that we need, across the board, a much more intensive focus on elevating the teaching profession—from the type of prestige it’s given to how teacher prep happens to how teachers are compensated. There’s this idea that teaching is either too hard to achieve or not rewarded enough, and those perceptions really contribute to the barriers we see around teacher diversity.

The teaching profession is very well respected in Latin America, but it seems to be less so in the United States. A lot of first-generation immigrants who need to provide for their families won’t even look at teaching if it doesn’t promise them a way to advance economically, to support their families. We have a lot of work to do for more people to see it as a viable profession.

When it comes to Latino students, what kind of metrics are important for tracking progress? How will we know we’re doing better in serving that growing population?

Back when I had an opportunity to work in the Obama administration, I was gearing up for a job interview and I called a friend who’s an education researcher. “What are the top issues in the Latino community I can highlight?” I asked her. “What are the major concerns I can refer to in this interview?”

Two hours and six pages of notes later, I realized that all of the metrics matter. Unfortunately, the Latino community is lagging behind in almost every part of the pipeline, from early childhood education to grade-level reading to AP access and performance on test scores. You look at college readiness, college enrollment, college completion—every step of the way, there are gaps, there are disparities.

It’s hard to narrow it down and focus on any single metric. I think you have to make equity an overriding concept in education, where you’re looking at any set of numbers and thinking about whether Latino students are accessing the same resources and supports as their peers. Do they get the same investment in their classrooms and their communities? That’s how you frame these conversations about outcomes, by asking where the breakdown is occurring and how you can address the disparity in resources.

Just looking at access to higher education, what’s one area you think we could make real progress for Latino students?

Access to information is one of the biggest missed opportunities—and it’s one of the biggest challenges that can be resolved relatively easily, much more easily than massive systemic change. You don’t need new laws to get more information to the people who need it.

If you look at the history of education in the Black community, the fact that it was systemically and legally denied created a culture of determination to achieve it. There were famous civil rights cases around integration and structural supports like HBCUs created specifically to address access for Black students. I think that deepened the sense that education must be important because people fought so hard to gain access.

There’s not quite the same history with Latinos in the United States. Higher education is not very common in Latin America, where a high school diploma is already an achievement because it’s not always guaranteed the way it is here. Higher education feels more aspirational, like something only some people will ever accomplish, much like it used to be in the United States. That doesn’t mean Latino families don’t value education, which is something you hear tossed around a lot. They absolutely do. But increasingly parents look at the math around college and say, “it’s just not possible for us” and give up. They don’t know about the FAFSA®, or they worry that if anyone in their extended family is undocumented, they won’t qualify. So it’s a lack of information about the higher education system.

Because so many students are first-gen, they don’t have peers who have been through the system and can help them navigate what isn’t especially obvious. How would you know that the sticker price, what’s on a school’s website, isn’t what you actually pay? You have to break down for folks that the private school that looks out of your reach might have a more generous financial aid package than a state school. That’s not at all intuitive.

When I was traveling the country engaging Latino communities on education, we would ask every group we encountered—including school counselors and administrators!—if they knew they could fill out the entire FAFSA in Spanish. Very few of them knew that there’s a little button on the FAFSA website, up at the top, to switch the site to Spanish, including the form. When I think about the number of hours spent by people translating that form for parents or the number of parents who just gave up because they couldn’t follow it. … It’s such a powerful example of how critical information often fails to reach our communities.

Two photos, side by side, of congresspeople meeting high school students at the U.S. Capitol

Rep. Marc Veasey/Twitter (left), Rep. Jenniffer González/Twitter (right)

Rep. Marc Veasey (D-TX), left, and Rep. Jenniffer González (R-PR) meet with high school students participating in CHCI's R2L NextGen program in June 2019.

School districts are getting millions of dollars in federal pandemic relief funds. What should they be spending that money on?

Aside from “all the things!” there two specific areas that strike me the most.

The first is technology—both access to it and potentially wraparound supports so people know how to use it for learning. If we’re talking about a family that has never had a tablet or a laptop, I don’t know that they’re going to make full use of that new technology without some guidance. If it’s a family that has traditionally relied on mobile access, are they going to use a computer not just to complete school assignments but to really be a resource for the whole family? This is where schools can really fulfill their role as community resources, holding classes for the parents on computer use and navigating all the services available online now. That could be a creative use of covid relief that helps address other problems in the community.

The second big thing is to tackle all of the big issues we already knew were problems and are now made worse by the pandemic: falloff in attendance, schools that are massively under-resourced in terms of guidance counselors and mental health supports, the “summer slide” in learning that has always been there but is made much worse by the disruptions to schools over the last year.

People don’t like the language that was used around covid—learning loss, falling behind. I understand the terminology issues, but I also understand that some Latino communities have in fact received less learning than their peers over the past year. They’re going to need added supports, added intensive learning and coursework. That has to be a critical piece of covid recovery.

What advice do you have for someone who wants to follow your trajectory, to make a difference for Latino communities in the United States?

As much as I just talked about Latino communities on a national scale, where the rubber meets the road is often the community level, the district level, the school level. That’s especially true in K–12 schools. One needs to understand the local-level dynamics, to address the broad trends effectively.

There’s huge diversity within the Latino population, so there aren’t many one-size-fits-all solutions. If you study and get to know a Latino community really well, you’ve studied and gotten to know one Latino community really well. You can’t copy and paste something that works well in one community and expect it to work well elsewhere. A recent immigrant community where Spanish is the second language, after a regional dialect or indigenous language in their home country and English is often the third language—that’s not going to be the same as a fourth- and fifth-generation Latino community that’s been rooted in the United States for a long time.

As an outsider, the best thing you could do is go to the people you’re trying to serve and really talk to them, and listen and learn.

This conversation has been edited for length and clarity.