Shakira Addresses the Hispanic Academic Achievement Gap
News The Grammy award-winning pop icon opens up about her goal of improving education outcomes in classrooms across the globe.
Mediaplanet: You have done so much to help better the lives of millions around the globe in so many different ways and are internationally recognized for your humanitarian and advocacy work. What initially inspired you to take up such great responsibility and develop such powerful and impactful philanthropic initiatives?
Shakira: No matter how big the idea, or how vast the project; everything starts the same way—with one small moment. For me it was the moment that my family experienced a level of financial loss and hardship that we never had before and that was difficult for me to process in my youth. It was the first time I gained a real sense of perspective. I saw that just past my door there were children suffering extreme poverty who didn’t even have an education to count on to improve their situation. Even at a young age, seeing that gave me a profound sense of the injustice that something so arbitrary as the place you were born could determine your fate for the rest of your life. I knew there had to be a way to equalize that, and my parents had always taught me that education was the key. So to me, the solution was simple. Achieve education for everyone, and you level out the playing field. I would say that two things; the desire to become financially independent and succeed, and the sense of purpose that childhood experience gave me, to do something greater in the world, drove my career ambitions in those days.
MP: Your main focus in regards to these initiatives seems to be on early childhood development and universal education. Can you explain why you feel that educating the world's youth is the best way to improve their quality of life?
S: Education has an incredible return on investment. Investing in a child as early as possible is in some ways tantamount to buying an undervalued stock right at its initial public offering. Human potential is limitless; but not if it remains untapped. It’s a concept as old as time—like the old proverb goes; “Give a man a fish and he’ll eat for a day; teach him how to fish and he’ll never go hungry.” The earlier on in a child’s life that they understand the value of education and how it can change their lives, the earlier they form habits that end up yielding exponential benefits.
MP: You got your start in the entertainment industry at such a young age. How did that impact your personal education growing up?
S: I did start early, so after my teenage years my education was less traditional. I graduated high school but had already put out multiple albums by then. For me, so much of my learning was self-taught and came through a desire to absorb everything I possibly could. Traveling the world proves to be an invaluable education, and luckily my parents had always instilled in me a love of knowledge, so I think I took advantage to the fullest of all the learning opportunities that were afforded to me. I’ve taken lots of private courses and a couple in universities throughout the years, when and where I have time. I like to think of myself as a perennial student.
MP: Language learning is often viewed as a stepping stone to success for many immigrating to countries whose native language is different from their own. As a member of the President's Advisory Commission on Educational Excellence for Hispanics, what is currently being done to help reduce or eliminate disparities in education, health, and wealth throughout the Hispanic population in the United States?
S: Being bilingual is a competitive business advantage, and it is vital to America for our rising generation of Hispanics to learn English fluently and maintain their native language fluency. English learners are the fastest-growing major student population, with nearly 4.7 million of these students attending K-12 schools across the U.S. One in 7 children today starting kindergarten in this country has a primary language other than English. Particularly for Hispanic students, which make up the majority of the English learner population—limited English proficiency in the early years is associated with low achievement and other poor school outcomes.
As a member of the President’s Advisory Commission on Educational Excellence for Hispanics, we are working hard to improve these outcomes. Many Hispanic children enter kindergarten already behind, so it’s key to reach these children early and close the gap before it overshadows their entire educational career. In his State of the Union address, President Obama pledged to make access to high quality early learning a reality for every 4-year-old in America by making full-day preschool available to lower income families. This is key for much of the Hispanic population that falls within the parameters of “low income.” By understanding the importance of high quality early learning programs, the administration has made significant investments to help expand access for Hispanic children.
More concretely, the President’s budget also invests $1.4 billion in HHS’s proposed Early Head Start-Child Care Partnership Initiative to increase effective early care and education for infants through age three. The budget also seeks to expand the Maternal, Infant, and Early Childhood Home Visiting Program by providing a long-term $15 billion investment beginning in 2015. We believe that by starting as early as possible in getting these children on the right track, we can improve their chances of success later on in life.
MP: What, as a nation, can we collectively do to take steps towards reducing the achievement gap between Hispanic and non-Hispanic students throughout the United States?
S: The Hispanic population (nearly 54 million) constitutes the largest and fastest growing minority group in the United States and there are still a significant percentage of Latino families, living in or just above poverty. We already know that poverty is linked to negative outcomes such as school truancy, lower academic performance, earning lower wages as adults and having a greater chance to be involved in crime or reporting poor health across the life span.
"As a nation we must ensure every child a healthy and fair start in life and a successful passage to adulthood with the help of caring families and communities."
I believe more attention needs to be paid to the status of Latino education in the US. For instance, fifteen-year-old Hispanic students in the United States rank 43th in reading and 44th in science, while the national rank is 17th and 23th, respectively. Federal policies should acknowledge this variation on educational outcomes by race and ethnicity across the country and work to end this type of disparities.
Latino students need to be empowered for academic success, starting from early education. Today, fewer than 40 percent of Hispanic children, ages three to five, are enrolled in an early learning program; and only 13 percent of Latinos have attained a bachelor’s degree. It is time to get stronger in our commitment to reduce inequity by expanding educational opportunities for all. Their success or lack of success will have enormous consequences in the future of our society as a whole.
As a nation we must ensure every child a healthy and fair start in life and a successful passage to adulthood with the help of caring families and communities. Elected officials, policy makers, philanthropists, business leaders and social organizations must join efforts to reduce the social and economic barriers Latino children face to enroll and persevere in school.
While Hispanic children are a large and rapidly growing population in the United States, we cannot fail in equipping them with a high quality education now, so that they can pursue their dreams in a positive way and contribute on making this world a better place. Their success or lack of success will have enormous consequences in the future of our society as a whole.
MP: It is widely known that you speak several languages yourself. What languages do you speak? Was it a challenge for you to learn any of them? Which was most difficult for you to learn?
S: I speak Spanish, Portuguese, English, and some French and Italian. I’m now picking up more Catalan since I spend so much time in Barcelona. Portuguese was my second language but I have to say English was probably the hardest to master, and to write in creatively.
MP: If you had not learned to speak multiple languages, do you feel that you would have seen the same success you have seen thus far?
S: I really don’t. Language opens doors to other cultures in a way that nothing else does, except music. They are the two most universal things we share as humans, and both have allowed me to connect with people around the world in a way I don’t know that I ever could have imagined as a young girl just starting out.
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