According to the poll, 57 percent of the Hispanic parents and 43 percent of the African-American parents said they expected their oldest children to obtain post-graduate degrees -- although few of the parents had college degrees themselves. (Photo: SXC.)

By Howard Goodman
Florida Center for Investigative Reporting

Hispanic and African-American parents in Florida and seven other southern states are wildly overconfident that their children’s schools are doing a good job and that their kids will go on to college and even attain advanced college degrees, a new poll shows.

Ninety percent of Hispanic parents surveyed said the quality of their children’s education was good or excellent. Eighty-seven percent of African-American parents said the same.

They answered almost as enthusiastically when asked if their kids’ schools were doing a good job of preparing them for college and employment and teaching the basic skills of reading, writing and math.

More striking, 57 percent of the Hispanic parents and 43 percent of the African-American parents said they expected their oldest children to obtain post-graduate degrees — although few of the parents had college degrees themselves: just 14 percent of the Hispanic parents and 17 percent of the African Americans.

You might read the poll as a sign of classic American optimism — the idea that every generation believes the next will have a better life.

But the organization behind the survey — New America Media, the nation’s largest association of ethnic media outlets — says it shows a dangerous lack of knowledge on the part of parents at a time when America’s educational attainment is slipping by world measures.

“Parents don’t understand the weaknesses of their kids’ education,” said pollster Sergio Bendixen at a news briefing Wednesday in Miami.

“The real crisis is, we’re losing ground,” added Sandy Close, New America Media’s executive director. “And how do we build awareness that there’s a serious crisis?”

In reality, only 11 percent of African-American eighth graders in Florida are performing at or above grade level in math, and only 14 percent are that high in reading, according to U.S. Department of Education statistics. Only 22 percent of the state’s Hispanic eighth graders are as high as grade level in math, and 27 percent in reading.

The performance of Caucasian students in Florida is somewhat better: 37 percent of eighth graders are doing math at or above grade level and 38 percent are reading at grade level. Sixty-six percent of Asian eighth graders are as high as grade level in math, 49 percent in reading.

Many of the state’s high school graduates are ill-prepared for college at all, let alone on the road to post-graduate education. At Miami-Dade College, the nation’s largest community college, more than 70 percent of incoming students are deficient in one or more of the basic areas of math, reading or writing, said Lenore P. Rodicio, executive director of the school’s Student Success and Completion Initiative.

And for students who try to catch up? “It’s a struggle,” she said.

“Right now, parents are looking at their kids’ high school education and thinking that’s equivalent to college entrance,” Rodicio said, “and the numbers are telling us it’s not. It’s not.”

American high school students — among the world leaders in math and reading a couple of decades ago — have fallen sharply in world rankings, Bendixen said. According to the PISA, a test of 15-year-olds last given in 2009 to students in 65 countries, the United States ranked 17th in reading (below Iceland, Poland and Estonia), 23rd in science and 30th in math.

Shanghai, China, scored first in all three categories.

The poll, underwritten by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, surveyed 1,400 parents of kindergarten-through-high school students in Florida, Georgia, Arkansas, Louisiana, Texas, Kentucky, North Carolina and Tennessee: 400 Hispanics, 400 African Americans, 400 Caucasians and 200 Asians.  Besides English, interviews were conducted in Spanish, Creole, Cantonese, Mandarin, Korean and Vietnamese.

Across the board, the parents interviewed said that the issue of education was second only to the economy in importance.

Asian and Caucasian parents had somewhat more realistic expectations for their children. Forty-five percent of Asian parents expected their children to attain graduate degrees, as did 31 percent of Caucasian parents. Fifty percent of the Asian parents and 29 percent of Caucasian parents had college degrees themselves.

Modesto E. Abety-Gutierrez, president and CEO of The Children’s Trust, an agency for family and children’s services in Miami-Dade County, said the poll showed a troubling gap in parents’ knowledge about education and the school system. He noted that large numbers of young children enter kindergarten unready for school.  Those slow starts tend to have large consequences.

“We know that 88 percent of dropouts are poor readers,” he said. “A lot weighs on children unless they have the vocabulary and foundation for life-long learning.”



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