by José de la Isla
(First in a two-part commentary)
HOUSTON – Twenty-one years ago, in 1986, Japan’s Prime Minister Yasuhiro Nakasone said his country had “become quite an intelligent nation, much more than the United States.”
Then he threw dynamite onto the boast by adding, “In America there are quite a few blacks, Puerto Ricans and Mexicans. On average [the level] is extremely low.”
Of course, African American and Hispanic members of Congress, among a large public, criticized the ignorant comment. But the prime minister put his foot in his mouth again by saying the United States was unable “to accomplish in education and other areas because it is a multi-racial society.” More criticisms poured in.
Ultimately, Nakasone issued an apology of sorts, saying he believed U.S. “dynamism” came from its diversity.
In 1986, accelerated global competition from free trade was virtually non-existent. And the badly stated wake-up call from Japan came out upside down, as one about the U.S.’s ethnic diversity.
The initial Nakasone gaffe confused cause and effect. Our national diversity was in no way responsible for the failure in the public schools and society. But now the inference is looming again.
A new Educational Testing Service report referencing immigration and demographics, “America’s Perfect Storm: Three Forces Changing Our Nation’s Future,” says a less literate U.S. workforce is emerging that will have significant economic consequences by 2030.
Our high school completion rates peaked at 77 percent in 1969. Then they fell to 70 percent in 1995, where they remain. The United States ranks 16th out of 21 in high school graduation rates among advanced countries. That means, while the Bush Administration talks about channeling all high school graduates toward getting at least a two-year college degree, proportionately fewer are eligible than in 1969.
Back then, people with a bachelor’s degree averaged 51 percent more income than individuals with only a high school diploma. By 2004, the difference widened to 96 percent. Obviously, to succeed economically, getting a degree matters.
In the 20 years from 1984 to 2004, reading scores for 13- to 17-year-olds have remained flat. And while math scores improved slightly among the three largest race/ethnic groups — blacks, whites and the burgeoning young Hispanic population — the wide gap between Hispanics and whites, as well as blacks and whites, has shown negligible progress.
“Demographic changes” is a fear expressed in ETS’s “Perfect Storm,” a metaphor that comes from the book title and movie by that name. Between now and 2015, the Census Bureau says international migration will be responsible for half of our nation’s population growth. By 2030, Hispanics are expected to become 20 percent of the nation’s population. So, ETS projects a decline in the United States’ economic standing attributable to Hispanics.
ETS President Kurt Landgraf warns us that inadequate literacy skills and the retirement surge of the baby-boomer generation will be contributors.
But what we are really witnessing is how the education establishment is changing the discussion from reform to a blame game. Data is being assembled in a new way to make it seem as if all of a sudden, while no one was looking, the United States became too ethnically (largely Hispanic) diverse.
ETS’s report can be a dangerous document. It misdirects attention from where it should go. The issue we must address is restructuring the education establishment and making prudent investments where they are needed.
We are getting, instead — you guessed it — “Help! The Hispanics Are Coming.”
In that sense, the ETS report lacks sophistication, just like Nakasone did two decades ago.
Maybe it’s time to reassess the destructiveness of the prime minister’s logic, recalling that it led to the resignation of Japan’s minister of education.
Next: the real culprits. [José de la Isla, a former educator, writes on social issues for Hispanic Link News Service. He is author of The Rise of Hispanic Political Power (Archer Books). E-mail firstname.lastname@example.org.]