History Matters: Raise the Bar for Mexican-American Students

November 3, 2009

OSU educator wants schools to review their expectations


By Theresa Hogue

Illustration by Edel Rodriguez

In Brief

Rick Orozco has seen in his personal life and professional career how low expectations can shape the education of Mexican-American students. The assistant professor in the College of Education is beginning to work with Oregon school districts to identify negative messages targeted — intentionally or unintentionally — at this ethnic group.

Raising the barOregon State University's College of Education has a new voice, one which speaks not only to issues of diversity and privilege, but which is deeply rooted in an understanding of K-12 education.

Rick Orozco arrived at OSU after 15 years teaching in a nearly exclusively Latino high school in Arizona. Now an assistant professor, he's bringing that knowledge to OSU education students.

Orozco has a passion for his research, which focuses on low expectations toward Mexican American students - and it comes from personal experience.

The Conference

When he was in fifth grade, his teacher called him and his parents in for a conference and told them that Orozco was never going to be more than an average student. His teacher said that Orozco's parents shouldn't push or encourage him to excel in school, because he would only be disappointed and his self-esteem crushed.

Luckily, Orozco didn't allow himself to be limited by this less-than-accurate foretelling of his future. But when he became a high school teacher at a predominately Mexican-American school in Tucson, Arizona, he began hearing teachers espouse the same limited expectations toward their students.

"I would hear these discourses between teachers and students and between teachers and teachers, which emphasized the idea that these Mexican-American students were going nowhere," says Orozco. "I was bothered by the things I heard (teachers) say about the students they were serving."

Negative Messages

Orozco wants to understand how and why some K-12 teachers and administrators consciously or unconsciously transmit negative ideas and attitudes toward Mexican-American students. For 15 years, he witnessed negative attitudes toward Mexican-American students at his high school, and he began to think about where these negative messages were coming from and how they were filtering down to students. He decided he needed to go back to school to delve deeper into the topic and earned a Ph.D. from the University of Arizona.

Among his concerns is how well schools understand the issues that Mexican-American students face. Although Arizona, where he began his research, has a higher percentage Mexican ethnic population, Orozco believes his work is fully applicable to the Pacific Northwest.

"The population in Oregon, although a little different than the Southwest, within a generation or two will be about the same. The mobility of Mexican ethnics is going to decrease, and we'll see more Mexican-American students in schools that are second and third generation as time goes on."
That means a majority of Mexican-American students will be native speakers of English within a generation.

"The way I see my work helping Oregon is to be able to deal with this growing subpopulation within the Latino community that is going to be become the majority Hispanic population soon," Orozco adds. "There needs to be some foresight with how schools are going to deal with those students."

Expectations Vary

Orozco says his work is specific to Mexican-Americans.

"Latinos are not a homogenous population," he points out. "The issues and concerns of the Mexican-American population are not necessarily the same as those of the Puerto Rican population, for instance."
In Arizona, Orozco analyzed the mission statements of schools and school districts that served predominantly white versus predominantly Mexican ethnic populations, to see how the expectations and attitudes differed. What he found did not surprise him but confirmed that there are lower expectations and more negative attitudes toward the Mexican ethnic students as presented in the mission statements.

"My purpose was not to find anything new, but rather to understand how those attitudes and expectations are transmitted, what is the vehicle with which those things are sent and that they might be picked up by students."

Now in Oregon, Orozco wants to continue his research by working with Oregon school districts that have a high Mexican ethnic student population.

"My next step would be to find out if those mission statements are replicated in verbal communications, and then, are Mexican-American students receiving those statements in the same way?" he says. "There's a lot of work to be done, but I can say that there are some consistencies in the ways that students are characterized in the mission statements."

His ultimate goal is to "try to help schools, teachers and administrators to understand how their communication can reinforce some of those negative attitudes and low expectations. I'm sure that most of this is unintentional, but that doesn't mean it doesn't happen. What I hope my work does is to help people recognize how discourses have an effect."

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