Areas of Expertise


Achievement Gaps
Literature Library


What are the Achievement Gaps?

  1. Achievement Gap in Race

    1. Hispanic Students

Confronting Segregation and Stereotypes: Latinos’ High School Experience

Gilberto Conchas reports on the negative factors that shape Latino high school students’ academic performance.

This reports some of the ideas and findings from the following source:

Conchas, G. Q. (2001). Structuring failure and success: Understanding the variability in Latino school engagement.Harvard Educational Review, 71,475-504. Retrieved August 8, 2002 from ProQuest database.

To see other reports that originated from this same citation, go to the bibliography.

Gilberto Conchas studied a high school in California to find out what factors positively and negatively affect Latino students’ academic performance. He wanted to gain first-hand knowledge of how Latinos experience school, and so his research included interviews with a variety of students, both high achievers and those in remedial programs.

Programs and conditions in school can unwittingly construct failure and success for Latino students, he found. Conchas identifies three broad areas of the Latino students’ experience of school that affects their achievement:

  1. racial segmentation in the school
  2. segmentation within the racial groups
  3. the variance of institutional support the students receive

Racial Segregation in School

Conchas writes:

"According to my observations, structural and cultural processes at Baldwin High School divided students by race and distributed opportunities among students in a way that reproduced social inequities. These racial hierarchies reinforced immigrant pessimism among involuntary minorities, such as U.S.-born Mexican-American students." (School Opportunity Structure and Racial Perceptions section, ¶ 2)

He points to three ways this segregation is reproduced in the school.

1.Perceptions of ability based on race. Racial stereotypes influence how teachers and students view different groups and their academic abilities. As one student, Rocio, explained:

"Well, if society says that . . . you are Latino and lazy, that [if] you are Asian, you are smart, if you are White, Oh God, the best, and if you are Black, you are bad, horrific. If you walk into a class full of Asians and White students ... you think that this is a really good class, because they are Asian and White. It must be a good class. If you walk into a class that is majority African American and Latino, you know it's bad, because they are lazy and dumb . . . . It is like a pyramid, you know, the supreme of the supreme on top and the rest down the way. The classes are set and they are there, who embodies them is different. That makes the difference." (School Opportunity Structure and Racial Perceptions section, ¶ 10)

2.Teachers’ attitudes. Teachers can operate consciously or unconsciously on such stereotypes, which influences how they treat students. One student, Diego, believes that teachers have been exposed to stereotypes for so long that they “help in making stereotypes come true” (School Opportunity Structure and Racial Perceptionssection, ¶13).In other words, teachers are both passive and active agents in perpetuating inequality, as Conchas explains. They are passive in that they adhere to common perceptions of racial and ethnic groups, and at the same time they are active in that they reinforce racial and ethnic divisions.

3.Student self-segregation. Social relations in the school were highly segmented along racial lines. In classrooms, white students tended to sit with white students, Asians with Asians, blacks with blacks, and so on. This pattern held true throughout the school: a student’s friends tended to come largely from his or her own racial group. Little mixing occurred.

Division within Racial Groups

Especially among Latino students, Conchas found that deep divisions existed between high-achieving students and those in remedial classes. This is a significant problem since past research has shown that integrated students tend to do better in school. If students from remedial programs have little opportunity to interact with high-achieving students, they will lack role models and social encouragement to perform better.

  • Achievement hierarchy among Latino students. Conchas found that U.S.-born Mexican-American students were at the bottom of the ladder, overwhelmingly located in remedial programs. First-generation and immigrant students were more often found in the advanced programs.
  • Latino students’ attitudes toward each other. The high-achieving Latino students preferred not to associate with the students from remedial classes. As one AP student—an immigrant from Peru—put it,
"I don't associate with those other Latinos because . . . they belong to this gang or that gang and they don't even go to class. I mean, they bring their mess to our school, they bring their mess to our learning environment."(AP Program and Graphics Academy Student Responses section, ¶ 4)
  • Lack of community among Latino students. The result of such hierarchies and attitudes is that a sense of community was generally lacking among Latino students. Even among some of the advanced programs in the school, Latino students were not closely knit. In the AP and Graphics Academy programs, for instance, students reported strong feelings of competition among the Latinos that prevented them from helping each other out and building support networks.

Variance of Institutional Support

Still, though, the high-achieving Latino students had some degree of institutional support by virtue of belonging to the advanced school programs. These supports gave students a more rigorous education, the desire and chance to attend college, and a head start on a career.

For the Latino students at the bottom end of the ladder—the U.S.-born Mexican-Americans, above all—such supports were almost totally lacking. They were the most marginalized and the most pessimistic about their opportunities, Conchas found. Miguel, a Mexican-American student, commented that “I have no support, man, no way of doing it [meeting his career goals]” (General School Program section, ¶ 12).


There are two prime conclusions to draw from Conchas’s survey of Latino students’ high school experience:

  1. The diversity of experience. Conchas’s findings clearly demonstrate that there is not a monolithic, homogeneous “Latino experience” of high school. Many determining differences exist, such as whether the student is a U.S.-born Mexican-American or a recently arrived immigrant. These differences are an important factor in Latino students’ attitudes toward schooling.
  2. School structures and practices make a big impact on students’ opportunities. The racial segmentation in the school as a whole, within the racial groups themselves, and the variance of institutional support all help determine how Latino students perform in school. Racial stereotypes hamper students’ opportunity structures, depriving them of the institutional support that could improve their academic achievement.

Research Design: This study is based on ethnographic data collected at a California high school. The data consist of observation of daily student-student and student-teacher interactions, interviews with students and teachers, maps of class seating arrangements, and documents such as report cards, student work, and teacher evaluations. The specific subjects of the data-gathering were 26 Latino students in the tenth through twelfth grades. Interviews and focus groups were semi-structured, tended to last from one to two hours, and then were taped and transcribed.


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