Education is transformational. It changes lives. That is why people work so hard to become educated and why education has always been the key to the American Dream, the force that erases arbitrary divisions of race and class and culture and unlocks every person’s God-given potential.— Condoleezza Rice
The first Hispanic female justice to the US Supreme Court, Sonia Sotomayor, declared, “Until we get equality in education, we will not have an equal society.”
“Equal education.” “Equal society.”
Strong words with significant implications. The way a society educates its children reflects the essential values of that society—for good or ill. Most homeschoolers would agree with that notion.
Judge Sotomayor’s quote feels particularly relevant now, as the crisis of educational inequality for Hispanic and African American students hits headlines (especially in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic):
- “The Achievement Gap: Why Hispanic Students are Still Behind” (Time Magazine)
- “Achievement Gap between White and Black Students Still Gaping” (US News and World Report)
- “Report: The Race Gap in Higher Education is Very Real” (USA Today)
- “How COVID-19 has Laid Bare the Vast Inequities in US Public Education” (Washington Post)
The term “academic achievement gap” refers to the unequal or inequitable distribution of educational results, benefits, and attainment between different groups of students with shared characteristics or group identity like race, socioeconomic status and ethnicity (The Glossary of Educational Reform, 2013).
The gap shows up in lower grades and standardized-test scores, reduced rigor of course selection, higher dropout rates, and lower college-completion rates, among other measures. Most often, the academic achievement gap describes the performance inequalities between African American and Hispanic students who are at the lower end of the achievement scale, compared with their non-Hispanic White peers (Education Week, 2011).
However, it is well documented that there is no difference in intellectual capacity between races or ethnicities. Children, no matter what culture or race, are created to learn and to experience academic success. But even though the academic capacity is there, performance is often found lacking—and this has led many to question the prevailing educational paradigm.
When the No Child Left Behind Act of 2001 was passed, educational accountability for closing achievement gaps among non-White or non-Asian student groups became a focused priority of the federal government. The US Department of Education started requiring performance measurement data in terms of student characteristics (like race and ethnicity), so improved comparisons of academic achievement could be made. This requirement enabled a greater awareness of racial differences in academic performance and increased efforts to understand and remedy the problem.
However, despite increased, well-funded, and targeted interventions, little improvement has been seen, even decades after the law was passed. The National Center for Education Statistics showed in 2009 and 2011 that Black and Hispanic students continued to score below “their white peers by an average of more than 20 test-score points on the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) math and reading assessments at 4th and 8th grades, a difference of about two grade levels” (Ansell 2011). The Brookings Institute assessed the results from the NAEP report from 2017 and affirmed, “unless we rapidly increase the rates at which we close our race-, ethnicity-, and income-based gaps, unequal access to education and the consequences of this inequality will affect students today as well as subsequent generations” (Hansen et al. 2018).
Additionally, a study examining educational opportunity in 50 cities declared, “Poor and minority students still face staggering academic inequities, and the picture is especially bleak for Black students” (DeArmond et al. 2015). This study also states, “Black high school students suffer significantly higher drop-out and suspension rates as compared to their White counterparts and, in many cities, Black students were more likely to attend the cities’ lowest-scoring schools.”
Hispanic students face similar challenges. For example, Hispanic individuals aged 25 and older were less likely to have graduated from high school than Whites were, and more than one-quarter of Hispanics had less than a ninth-grade education. Recently, the National Assessment of Educational Progress report showed that the achievement gap between Hispanic and non-Hispanic White students hasn’t meaningfully changed for 20 years (Allen 2011). Twenty years!
Knowing that Hispanic and Black children share the same potential for learning as their White and Asian peers, all this data leads to questions such as the one posed in the 2019 Forbes Magazine article, entitled “The Achievement Gap Hasn’t Budged in 50 Years. Now What?” The author states, “All sorts of ideas—and money—have been thrown at the problem: Head Start, services for students with disabilities, more equal funding for school districts, an overall quadrupling in per-student spending. But none of that has worked. Even the Black-White gap in scores, which narrowed significantly during the earlier period covered by the study, hasn’t changed over the last two decades. The obvious question is why” (Wexler 2019).
Scores of researchers have sought to understand why interventions haven’t meaningfully bridged the gap. Numerous contributing factors have been clearly identified, including stereotyping, racism, test bias, language barriers, unequal access to academic rigor and quality curriculum, lower parental engagement, differing cultural motivations, the vicious cycle of the culture of low expectations, and many more (Cook 2015). Ultimately, these factors work together to conspire against equality in education.
The Forbes article goes onto suggest, “perhaps it is time to consider alternatives to the reform strategies of the past. But the recommendations [researchers] offer are essentially the same ones reformers have been attempting to implement for decades” (Wexler 2019).
It’s a heartbreaking conundrum. Researchers and educators work harder, spend more money, and call louder: “Closing the academic achievement gap is one of the most pressing issues facing policy makers and educators” (Barton 2006; Mayer 2008). But the gap remains with no clear bridge in sight . . .
Or is there?
Bridge Builders—Closing the Gap
Amid this bleak context, there shines a bright future for some: Hispanic and African American homeschoolers who are building families and raising children. They are not only bridging the achievement gap—they’re leaping over it. These children are not limited by the failed attempts of public schools and have embraced the freedoms to create their own success.
A growing number of African American and Hispanic homeschoolers have been enabling success for their children while government efforts have largely continued to fail. Their stories of struggles and success offer hope. Their grand goal—and even realistic expectation—is for their children to be liberated from hinderances to their God-given potential, achieve success, and overcome the gap.
I’d like to introduce homeschooling moms Karim Morato and Jacqui Gittens. They represent inspiring examples of the success that can emerge from the thousands of Hispanic and African American homeschooling families in the US.
Neither woman would consider herself a heroine (what mother really does?). Yet, their example fits the Dictionary.com definition: “a person who, in the opinion of others, has special achievements, abilities, or personal qualities and is regarded as a role model or ideal.” Like the best heroes, they model relatable examples— complete with human insecurities and frailty—and the dedication to overcome obstacles for the sake of love.
Academics, School Environment, and a Culture of Low Expectations
Like many homeschooling families, Black and Hispanic homeschoolers are attracted to the chance to advance their children’s academic achievement. This choice seems well founded, based on studies showing that Black homeschooled children rank significantly higher in reading, language, and math than Black public schooled students did and are at an equal or higher rank than all public schooled students as a group are (Ray 2015).
The number of African American families choosing to homeschool has increased substantially as concern over the plight of American Black students has grown. Reportedly, 8–15 percent of all homeschoolers are African American (Anderson 2018; Ray 2011).
Since 2003, the number of Black children being home educated has doubled to about 220,000 (Weber and Kargbo 2018).
For many Black homeschoolers, taking responsibility for their children’s education is a continuation of a strong heritage of overcoming racially restricted opportunities. The modern Black homeschooling movement shares a connection to African Americans’ generations-long struggle to change their children’s future through education (Anderson 2018). Instead of fighting for equal acceptance into the educational system, they are now taking control of their children’s future by bringing them home.
Jacqui Gittens is an African American homeschooling mom who, along with her husband Mark, has homeschooled their three children in the Queens and Bronx areas of New York City. Having graduated their oldest daughter into college to pursue her talents in art, they are now readying their second daughter to embark on her journey to law school. Through their faithful home education, they have upended the culture of low expectations hindering many children of color being educated through the public schools. However, like many heroes, Jacqui started her journey with fear and insecurity.
“I was young. We had never heard of anybody homeschooling. We were brought up in the Bronx, and nobody we knew did that.”
When their first daughter was ready for 1st grade, the reality of the public school setting hit hard.
“I knew she was not at a great school,” Jacqui recalled. “It gets a little rougher because the teachers yell more, and the parents are more confrontational, and the classes turn into yelling and wrangling. So, I thought maybe I can homeschool her, and I was very scared. I was scared I’d mess up. Could I do better? Could I try? But I thought, let’s try this for a year, and if I mess up and she doesn’t learn, it will only be 1st grade. I didn’t have the background to teach her, but my husband encouraged me.”
Through an internet search for “homeschool support groups,” Jacqui found a role model who said, “You and me? We got this!” The Gittens family started their journey across the academic achievement bridge . . . and never looked back.
“I just figured out how to teach [my daughter] by looking at her,” Jacqui said. “I hate telling people that, but all the tests told me I was on the right path—I knew my kid. I was with her every day.”
Like the Gittens family, many Black and Hispanic parents discover that homeschooling can empower them to meet their child’s needs. Sadly, parents whose kids are stuck in inadequate public schools often feel hindered from influencing their child’s environment or education.
Homeschooling returns power to parents. It frees their children from detrimental school environments, tired educational approaches, and neglected opportunities, and opens up a door of possibilities, protection, and positive influences.
An Additional Perspective
Although there’s little research on Hispanic homeschooling so far, we do know that Hispanic students make up more than a quarter of the US homeschooling population— about 26 percent, up from 16 percent in 2012 and 5.3 percent in 2003 (NCES 2017). Inadequate educational opportunities are often cited as a major motivator for this growing number of Hispanic homeschoolers. Nearly half of Hispanic respondents to the NCES survey cited concerns about school environment, such as school safety, bullying, and racism. A frightened mind cannot freely learn.
Those with limited English-speaking abilities may experience additional barriers when advocating for their children. This can lead to a reduction of parental influence over their child’s educational success, and a learned helplessness develops for both parents and children, contributing to the cycle of frustration, failure, and dropouts.
As a Hispanic homeschooling mom, Karim Morato observed this phenomenon during her 16 years of teaching Spanish in the public schools. “When you’re in a public setting, if the student is not performing to the standards, there is shame and guilt and they get so overwhelmed. This is why they drop out.”
Karim partners with her husband to provide an academically rigorous education for their three children in Virginia. Their oldest daughter recently applied to nine colleges, seeking a pre-med track, and hopes to be an oncologist. She has been offered a full ride at one college and awaits word from others. Like the Gittens, the Moratos have lovingly labored to construct their own bridge over the academic achievement gap.
“As a homeschool mom, I could stay involved in giving our children what they needed to succeed,” said Karim. “When our son was struggling, we could help him make a plan. He could fail at home with grace so he could learn to succeed in the world.”
Karim and her husband are first-generation immigrants from Guatemala and Bolivia, and English is a second language for both of them. She describes the challenges they overcame to thrive as the only Hispanic homeschooling family in their community:
Homeschooling is not a Hispanic perspective; it is an American perspective. Education for Hispanics is represented by schools. A parent would not educate. When Hispanics come to the US, both parents work, and it never crosses their minds that they can homeschool their child. None of my family understood. The backlash from others was real. They were very concerned and asked us how we could do it!
When families come to the US, they are thinking that the education is automatically better. If you have a parent who doesn’t speak English, they are happy if the kids are getting good grades—that is their only measure.
People think that they can’t homeschool if they don’t speak the language or have a good education. But I want them to know they can. I just made sure I got a tutor so they can learn, and we can ask questions.
After her years of teaching Spanish in the public schools, Karim decided to pursue her master’s degree in curriculum and instruction so she could start her own business and work from home. She and her husband have dedicated their lives to their children’s academic success.
“I work full time to pay for my kids to have a good education,” Karim said. “Every penny I make goes to the kids’ education, and my husband takes care of the bills. I don’t have free time. I have been building my children’s dream— not mine. But that’s ok because we wanted our children to have a customized education. That was our goal.”
The need to work full time is a common barrier and challenge to homeschooling for many families. Karim said she and her husband have counted this cost.
“I think in our community, the reality of every Hispanic family is that both men and women work. But we decided our priority would be our kids’ education. When you have a vision for your children, you have to consider the cost. The cost for us has been very high, but it is worth it to us.”
Self-Identity and the Problems of Racism
Not surprisingly, research shows positive self-concept, established identity, and higher levels of parental involvement dramatically impact academic achievement (Carter 2002). For a healthy family, these contributors can be naturally nurtured within a homeschool educational paradigm.
Researchers have also learned that when children “internalize a perception of their own inferiority,” there is a negative impact on academic outcomes (Jost et al. 2004; Nasir et al. 2016). In other words, confidence connected with ethnic identity is critical for full expression of human potential. Children of color, like all children, require an identity that affirms their worth, culture, race, and potential in order to succeed.
However, many African American parents express grave concerns that American schools utilize teaching environments and ethnocentric curriculum that demoralize and marginalize Black racial identity formation. This approach can deprive Black children of the internalized support rooted in the richness of their heritage—from Africa, the Caribbean, or other cultures. These factors prompt many African American families to seek an improved educational experience for their children (Fields-Smith and Kisura 2013). These families describe a “deterioration of the educational system,” citing “impoverished curriculum and impoverished communities” (Mazama and Lundy 2013). Many also point to dissatisfaction with the “ethnocentric and racist” nature of American schools—both public and private (Fields-Smith and Kisura 2013; Mazama and Lundy 2013; Ray 2015)
Many African American parents choose homeschooling for reasons similar to those of homeschool parents in general. Yet, many are additionally motivated by the desire to use homeschooling to help their children learn Black culture, history, and identity (Mazama and Lundy 2013; Ray 2015; Weber and Kargbo 2018).
When Jacqui considered the opportunity that homeschooling gave her to impart deep cultural identity to her children, she thought about the potential. “Academics and our religion were at the top of our list, but so was our heritage as Black people, and just her joy in who she was. Could I inspire her to love herself well? Because I knew that media and society tell us that we are not enough. So could I do something there? . . . is their Blackness the totality of what they are? I want them to be more than Black. They’re Christians first—they are my children and they are my family. There was so much more to our dynamic than just our Blackness.”
Through the freedoms of homeschooling, Jacqui was empowered to impart a sense of belonging and identity to her daughter—a mindset that’s so crucial to a child’s ability to achieve their best academic performance and one that parents can enable and encourage in their children.
As an African American mom, Jacqui said, “I wanted to be able to talk to [my daughter] about our heritage as African Americans and express to her the importance of pride in herself and who she was, as opposed to other people teaching her during the majority of the day. I wanted to have a say in all of that.”
Other Hispanic homeschooling families also cite racism as a motivator for homeschooling. In an interview with Ozy.com, Monica Olivera—a homeschool mom who runs Mommy Maestra, a blog for Hispanic homeschoolers— reports that Hispanic parents are considering homeschooling because they are afraid to send their kids to school. “The reality is that Hispanic kids are facing a lot of racism and racist remarks,” she says (Miltner 2018).
Free from the distractions of racism and inadequate educational opportunities, Jacqui and Karim both embrace their roles as advocates for their children. Both families strongly believe that successful home education comes from a mindset.
Karim says, “It has to be a mindset shift. You have to become an advocate for your child’s education.”
And Jacqui agrees, “Homeschooling puts you in a train of thought because you don’t have a counselor or a school to supplement. You don’t have anything ready-made, so you have to create community for them.”
Their advocacy also included intentionally finding mentors and positive peer influences to promote their children’s potential and open doors of opportunity.
Jacqui told her second daughter, “When your sister wanted to be an artist, we put her around artists, so let’s find your people.”
Karim agrees, “My children were doing things above my head, but I was always looking and putting things and people in front of them. The language barriers can be overcome, but you can’t do this alone. You have to find help, but when you do, there is no limit to how far your kids can go. I am the facilitator of my kids’ education.”
Monica Olivera of Mommy Maestra says that another major motivation to homeschool for Hispanic families is the opportunity to “to raise a bilingual child.” She focuses much of her own kids’ homeschool lessons on world cultures and her family’s Spanish and Mexican-American heritage. “A lot of Hispanic parents are really trying to go back to that and raise bilingual kids because they see the advantage that it provides for their children” (Miltner 2018).
As a bilingual family intimately involved in their Hispanic church and community, the Moratos are also intentionally providing the gift of culture and bilingualism for their children. Again, research supports consistently been positively associated with academic self-concept and achievement among children of immigrants” (Portes and Rumbaut 2001; Nasir et al. 2016). This self-concept relates then to their “sense of self and motivation in school” (Neel and Fuligni 2013; Nasir et al. 2016). Everyday human experience verifies that these efforts to support, affirm, and empower identity and belonging lead to greater motivation and subsequent achievement.
Karim says, “As immigrants, we didn’t have a legacy here, so we had to create a legacy. I had to find resources in English so my children could learn from them. And I want parents to know that even if you don’t have an education, or speak English well, there are other ways to do it. Our challenge became our advantage.”
Parents like Karim and Jacqui pour the kind of self-identity and confidence into their children that has been shown to fuel success. This is work that even the best teacher in a multicultural school setting cannot match. The individualized attention afforded by homeschooling helped these moms recognize areas where their children showed excellence, needed mentors, or wanted support.
Karim reflected: “That’s the beauty of homeschooling. You can adjust the education, pace, and content based on your kid’s emotional, intellectual, and academic need. We can’t know capacity until capacity is tested.”
Jacqui and Karim are also bridging another gap of sorts—the need for families of color to see what academic success can look like within their unique cultures and ethnicities. Just like the homeschool heroines of the 1980s’ early modern homeschool movement, these courageous moms are pioneers, customizing bridges to success for their children.
The US Department of Education states that their mission “is to ensure equal access to a high quality of education for all.” This is a wonderful mission! The educational paradigm of homeschooling is accomplishing this mission for many Black and Hispanic children.
Research—and Jacqui and Karim’s stories—confirm that a home education guided by a loving parent can naturally enable the complex components needed for children of color to succeed. It enables equality in academic access and achievement, building a strong bridge across the “most pressing issue facing policy makers and educators” (Mayer, 2008).
As Jacqui said, “You are their best teacher because you love them most. Love isn’t the only factor, but it’s the most powerful factor to [support] learning.”
Karim put it another way: “Sometimes we expect the government or somebody else to give us education—but as a mom, you have to grow up and go look for the best for your kids. This is powerful. Imagine!”
While American public education remains gridlocked and unable to solve this crisis, homeschooling is providing an immediate, adaptable, affordable, and superior educational solution for thousands of children. Through one family at a time, homeschooling has enabled the “equality in education” needed to foster an “equal society.”
The academic achievement gap has a bridge after all.
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