Critics of bilingual education have cited the high Hispanic dropout rate as
evidence against bilingual education. Since most bilingual programs are
Spanish-English, it is concluded that bilingual education must be
responsible. In this note, I review what is known about dropout rates
among Hispanic students.
Do Hispanic students drop out more?
The latest figures from the US government have been recently released, covering the
academic year 1994-1995 (McMillan, Kaufman, and Klein, 1997). Defining the
dropout rate as the proportion of young adults (ages 16 to 24) who are not enrolled in a
high school program and who have not completed high school, there is no question that
Hispanic students have higher dropout rates: 30 percent of Hispanic young adults were
classified as dropouts, compared to 8.6% for non-Hispanic whites and 12.1% for non
Among Hispanic young adults, however, dropout figures include many who never enrolled
in school, foreign born immigrants who apparently came to the US for work and not
education (p. 31). The government report calculates that about one-third of the 30%
dropout figure for Hispanic young adults is due to non-enrollees. The true dropout rate
is thus about 20%.
Is bilingual education to blame?
It is true that most students in bilingual education speak Spanish, but not all Spanish
speaking children are in bilingual education. Far from it. Fewer than half of the Spanish
speaking children in school in California are limited English proficient (Han, Baker, and
Rogriquez 1997, Snyder and Hoffman, 1996). Of these, not all are in programs that
provide instruction in the primary language; according to Macias (1997), about 30%
were in programs that had academic instruction in the primary language while another
22% had "informal" support in the first language. Thus, most Spanish speaking children
are NOT in bilingual education. The 20% dropout figure applies to all Spanish speaking
What accounts for dropout rates?
Not surprisingly, English language speaking ability is a factor. Again limiting the
analysis to those who actually enrolled in school, those who reported speaking English
"not well" had a 32.9% dropout rate, while those who spoke English well or very well
had a 19.2% dropout rate (McMillan, Kaufman and Klein, 1997). This is , once again,
not an argument against bilingual education, because studies have shown that children in
well-designed bilingual programs do well in English.
Several "background factors" have been identified as consistent predictors of dropping
out: Socioeconomic class, time spent in the US, the presence of print, and family factors.
Students in wealthier families drop out less, those who have been here longer and who
live in a more print-rich environment drop out less, those who live with both parents,
and whose parents monitor school work drop out less, and those who do not become teen
parents drop out less.
What is of great interest to us is that these background factors appear to be responsible
for the difference in dropout rates among different ethnic groups. In other words, when
researchers control for these factors, there is no difference in dropout rates between
Hispanics and other groups. This result holds for those who drop out between grades 8
and 10 (Rumberger, 1995) as well as for those who drop out later (Rumberger, 1983;
White and Kaufman, 1997; Pirog and Magee, 1997).
Rumberger (1995), for example, concluded: "Changes in the predicted odds of dropping
out associated with demographic variables become insignificant after controlling for
other factors. For example, Black, Hispanic, and Native American students have twice
the odds of dropping out compared to White students ... however, after controlling for the
structural characteristics of family background - particularly, socioeconomic status -
the predicted odds of dropping out are no different than those for White students" (p.
Hispanic students are well behind majority children in these areas. Approximately 40%
of Hispanic children live in poverty, compared to 15% of white non-Hispanic children,
and 45% live with parents who have completed high school, compared to 81% of non
Hispanic white children. Only 68% live with both parents, compared to 81% of non
Hispanic white children (Rumberger, 1991).
White and Kaufman (1997), in their study of high school dropouts between 1980 and
1986 provide a clear example of the impact of these factors.
Probabilities of dropping out of high school: impact of SES,
social capital, generation
White - low SES, low social capital = .23
Black - low SES, low social capital = .22
White - high SES, high social capital = .08
Black - high SES, high social capital = .08
Mexican - immigrant, less than 6 years in US, low SES, low social capital = .40
Mexican - immigrant, more than 6 years, high SES, high social capital = .12
Mexican- second generation or native, high SES, high social capital = .10
Asian - immigrant, less than 6 years in US, low SES, low social capital = .31
Asian - immigrant, more than 6 years in US, high SES, high social capital = .08
Asian - second generation or native, high SES, high social capital = .07
social capital = living with both parents,parents monitor schoolwork,siblings in
college from: White and Kaufman (1997)
Note that Hispanic lower social class new immigrants without family factors working in
their favor have a high probability of dropping out, but when factors are more
favorable, there is no significant difference in the probability of dropping out among the
Additional evidence that there is strong economic pressure on many Hispanic students
comes from Rumberger (1983), who listed the reasons students gave for dropping out.
Only 4% of Hispanic male dropouts said that the reason was "poor performance" in
school (compared to 8% of male non-Hispanic white students). On the other hand, 38%
of the Hispanic students gave economic reasons (desire to work, financial difficulties,
home responsibilities), compared to 22% of the non-Hispanic white students. Similar
tendencies were present for female dropouts.
Does Spanish language development increase the odds of
Maintenance of Spanish language and culture may prevent dropping out. The US
Government report found that for those Hispanic young adults who were enrolled in
school in the US, there is no difference in dropout rates between those who said they
spoke Spanish at home (20.3%) and those who said they spoke English at home
(17.5%). White and Kaufman (1997) and Rumberger (1995) report similar results.
Rumbaut (1995) examined the progress of over 15,000 high school students in San
Diego from language minority groups. Predictably, those classified as limited English
proficient had lower grade point averages and were more likely to drop out. What is very
interesting, however, is that those classified as "fluent English proficient" (in other
words, bilingual), had better grades and slightly lower dropout rates than those rated
English-only. This was the case even though parents of "English-only" students were of
higher socio-economic status than parents of the bilingual students.
The dropout rate among Hispanic students is not linked to bilingual education, and there
is no "Hispanic dropout mystery" (Headden, 1997).
No direct link has been reported between dropout rates and participation in bilingual
education. Less than a third of Hispanic children in California are in bilingual programs,
and the reported dropout rates refer to all Hispanic children. In fact, because well
designed bilingual programs produce better academic English (Krashen, 1996),
bilingual education is part of the cure, not the disease.
Some factors predicting dropout rates have, however, been identified: Low English
language ability, poverty, length of residence in the US, the print environment, and
family factors. The important finding from the research is that when these factors are
controlled statistically, there is no difference among groups in dropout rates. Hispanics
do not drop out anymore than other groups do, when one considers socio-economic class
and other background factors.
Finally, there is evidence showing that development of the first language, in addition to
fluent and proficient English, is advantageous: Those who speak Spanish at home do not
drop out significantly more than those who speak English at home, the results of one
study suggest that those who continue to develop their primary language after achieving
proficiency in English drop out less.
Han, M., Baker, D., and Rodriguez, C. 1997. A Profile of Policies and Practices
for Limited English Proficient Students: Screening Methods, Program Support, and
Teacher Training. Washington, DC: US Department of Education, NCES 97-472.
Headden, S. 1997. The Hispanic dropout mystery. US News and World Report,
October 20: 64-65.
Krashen, S. 1996. Under Attack: The Case Against Bilingual Education. Culver
City: Language Education Associates.
Macias, R. 1997. CA LEP enrollment slows but continues to rise. LMRI
(Linguistic Minority Research Institute), 7,1: 1-2.
McMillen, M., Kaufman, P. and Klein, S. 1997. Dropout Rates in the United
States: 1995. Washington: US Dept of Education. NCES 97-473.
Pirog, M. and Magee, C. 1997. High school completion: The influence of schools,
families, and adolescent parenting. Social Science Quarterly 78: 710-724.
Rumberger, R. 1983. Dropping out of high school: The influence of race, sex, and
family background. American Educational Research Journal 20 (2): 199-220.
Rumberger, R. 1991. Chicano dropouts: A review of research and policy issues.
In R. Valencia (Ed.) Chicano School Failure and Success. New York: Falmer Press.
Rumberger, R. 1995. Dropping out of middle school: A multilevel analysis of
students and schools. American Educational Research Journal 32 (3): 583-625.
Snyder, T. and Hoffman, D. 1966. Digest of Educational Statistics.Washington,
DC: National Center for Educational Statistics, US Department of Education.
White, M. and Kaufman, G. 1997. Language usage, social capital, and school
completion among immigrants and native-born ethnic groups. Social Science Quarterly
78 (2): 385-398.
Stephen Krashen is a Professor of Education at the University of Southern