Esther J. Cepeda


 Esther J. Cepeda is a nationally syndicated columnist with The Washington Post Writers Group. She was previously a a reporter and columnist for the Chicago Sun-Times. 
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(Advance for Sunday, Dec. 9, 2018, and thereafter. Web release Saturday, Dec. 8, 2018, at 8 p.m. Eastern time.)

(For Cepeda clients only)


CHICAGO -- It's tough being a teacher -- the unrealistic expectations, the high stakes, the low pay and the lack of respect for the profession. But, trust me, it's even harder being a teacher of color in a profession that is 80 percent non-Hispanic white nationally, and over 90 percent in most school districts outside of major urban centers.

It's not as though white teachers aren't professional, nice or supportive. It's more that, outside of the classroom, they often forget that not everyone in the room is white, and they let fly how they really feel about their students of color.

Over the years, I've heard some teachers talk serious trash about their students -- including cracks about who would land in jail or end up a lawn maintenance laborer. But even teachers who wouldn't dare let something so crass about a student leave their lips falter when it comes to complaining about parents.

Now, I'll be the first person to point out that teachers deal with flighty, rude, demanding and overly involved parents, as well as uncooperative and totally absent mothers and fathers.

But even though parents of all races and ethnicities fall short of the optimal amount of engagement with the school community, it always seems like teachers get extra irked when Hispanic students' parents fall short.

Unfortunately, what often looks like parental disengagement is actually family hardship.

"Most working low-income [Hispanic] parents have jobs with characteristics that can present challenges to raising children, such as low monthly earnings, nonstandard work schedules (i.e., work schedules outside of daytime hours during Monday through Friday), and limited access to employer-sponsored health insurance," according to a new report from the National Research Center on Hispanic Children and Families. "This is true across race, Hispanic ethnicity, and nativity status."

The authors, Elizabeth Wildsmith, María A. Ramos-Olazagasti and Marta Alvira-Hammond, go on to say that "job characteristics, such as number of hours worked, work schedules, commute time, and paid time off, can shape the amount of time and energy parents are able to invest in their children. For example, parents who work long or nonstandard schedules may spend less time with their children and have difficulties establishing and maintaining family routines."

(And the commute time mentioned above doesn't even take into account the phenomenon of immigrant and Latino families fleeing urban crime and poor schools for suburbs where there are often few public transportation options to get to and from work. But anyone who spends much time in outer-ring suburbs of major metropolitan areas can attest that despite rain, snow or sub-zero temperatures, Hispanic men and women can be seen riding bikes to work on major county roads that were not meant for bicycle traffic.)

The authors continue, "Research finds that nonstandard work schedules may reduce time spent with children and closeness between parent and child. Low wages, unstable jobs and variable or nonstandard work schedules can increase stress and take a toll on parental psychological well-being, increasing family conflict and harsh parenting."

I once had a heart-wrenching conversation with a Latina mom who worked as the night custodian at one of the schools where I taught. Her daughter was struggling in fourth grade, complaining of stomachaches and exhibiting signs of anxiety. Mom was deeply sad and worried that she wasn't available at night to go over homework or read bedtime stories because she was out working to ensure everyone at home was fed.

She wasn't alone. Among low-income Hispanic parents, nearly one-third of foreign-born fathers and one-quarter of U.S.-born fathers had three or more job stressors like irregular work hours, a long or difficult commute or multiple jobs. Roughly one-quarter of low-income Hispanic mothers (U.S.- and foreign-born) had three or more stressors. And yes, as the number of work stressors increases, so does the likelihood of adverse outcomes for the kids.

Policy fixes include incentives for more employers to provide full-time jobs and more flexible and reliable work hours. And for communities to offer more access to affordable, high-quality child care, with more weekend and evening coverage. Also, expanded access to non-employer health insurance or health care services and a transportation infrastructure that makes it possible for families to get to jobs, to midday or evening parent-teacher conferences, and to health services when needed.

Empathy, too, will help.

Many times teachers get very frustrated when our young students come to school lacking focus for their learning. But, too often, people jump to conclusions without taking the difficult work lives of low-income parents and families into account.

Esther Cepeda's email address is, or follow her on Twitter: @estherjcepeda.

(c) 2018, Washington Post Writers Group


(Advance for Thursday, Dec. 6, 2018, and thereafter. Web release Wednesday, Dec. 5, 2018, at 8 p.m. Eastern time.)

(For Cepeda clients only)


CHICAGO -- It hardly seems possible, but it's happening: Students have gotten so fed up that they've resorted to legal action to get the education they need to become productive citizens.

As The Associated Press reported last week, a group of public school students and their parents filed a class-action lawsuit against Rhode Island's governor and the state's education officials, claiming that the state fails to prepare young people to fully participate in civic life.

The students are asking the federal courts to confirm the constitutional rights of all public-school students to a civics education that adequately prepares them to vote, exercise free speech, petition the government, serve on a jury, write a letter to a newspaper's editor, participate in a mock trial or otherwise actively engage in their communities.

Musah Mohammed Sesay, a high school senior and co-plaintiff in the suit, told the AP that he hasn't been exposed to the basics of how local government works or how decision-makers are held accountable by the citizens they govern.

It's a sad scene. Rhode Island doesn't have a civics-education requirement, doesn't require teachers to be trained in civics, and doesn't test students on their knowledge of civics and American history, according to Michael Rebell, a lead counsel in the case and a professor of law and educational practice at Teachers College, Columbia University in New York, who was interviewed by the Providence Journal.

Rebell said that the skill set is so low on the state's educational radar that the position of social-science coordinator within the Rhode Island Department of Education has been vacant for six months.

The department counters that it requires three years of history/social studies to graduate from high school, and that it has grade-level standards that specifically talk about civics. But having standards on the books is one thing. Ensuring that educators are knowledgeable enough to teach the subject and then having an assessment in place to gauge how well the students learned it is quite another.

The Rhode Island suit, which could go as far as the Supreme Court, is not the only instance of students demanding that their education meet the most basic standards of usefulness in the real world.

In November, students in Lowell, Massachusetts, notched a victory. After a nine-year advocacy campaign, they succeeded in pushing for a law requiring the state to strengthen civics-education requirements. The law mandates that American history, social sciences and civics be taught in public schools. It also requires the schools to implement student-led civics projects for children in eighth grade and high school that encourage students to work with public officials and learn how their government works.

Meanwhile, a nonprofit organization called the Civics Education Initiative is pushing for states to require high school students to pass a test of 100 basic facts about U.S. history and civics before they can graduate. The questions are pulled from the same test that all immigrants are required to take to gain citizenship.

So far, the organization has gotten 28 states to pass such a requirement -- or something similar -- and Texas is considering the move as well.

These changes to education policy can't come soon enough. The Nation's Report Card civics scores in 2014 among eighth-graders showed no improvement from their dismal level in 2010. Less than one-quarter of students scored at the level of "proficient" or better, and only about half said they found their civics coursework interesting "often" or "always."

Earlier this year, the Woodrow Wilson National Fellowship Foundation surveyed 1,000 randomly selected American adults with a multiple-choice quiz about civics. The results were appalling:

-- Only 13 percent knew when the U.S. Constitution was ratified, with most incorrectly thinking it occurred in 1776.

-- 60 percent didn't know which countries the United States fought in World War II.

-- 57 percent did not know how many justices serve on the Supreme Court.

These conditions -- the marginalization of a civics education and children having to sue to get one -- create a perfect storm.

They provide the right mix of ignorance, apathy and gullibility that can lead to the dismantling of our public institutions, our government and our democracy.

How are young people supposed to know that those who forget the past are doomed to repeat it if they never learn the adage to begin with?

Esther Cepeda's email address is, or follow her on Twitter: @estherjcepeda.

(c) 2018, Washington Post Writers Group


(Advance for Sunday, Dec. 2, 2018, and thereafter. Web release Saturday, Dec. 1, 2018, at 8 p.m. Eastern time.)

(For Cepeda clients only)


CHICAGO -- If it seems like "fake news" is evolving into an epidemic, it's due to the calamitous lack of a crucial skill: critical thinking.

What's worse is that critical thinking is one of those abilities that most people mistakenly believe they're good at -- leading them to fall for and spread fake news even more.

Sixty-seven percent of U.S. adults say they've improved their ability to reflect and use evidence, logic and analysis to make decisions since graduating from high school, according to a new survey by the Reboot Foundation, a Paris-based nonprofit that is pushing the teaching of evidence-based reasoning skills.

Yet almost 50 percent of respondents said they don't typically plan where they'll get their information before engaging in research -- the very practice that suggests they are weak critical thinkers. About one-third of respondents said they will usually use only one source of information when making a decision.

Part of the reason is that while most people think that critical thinking skills are a necessary tool to navigate today's fast-moving, complex world, the very topic can be a dense, impenetrable snooze.

"As I started to do this research, I bought 40 to 60 books, including 'Critical Thinking Skills for Dummies' and, trust me, if you open these books you'll find yourself falling asleep after not too many pages," said Helen Lee Bouygues, the foundation's co-founder and president.

Bouygues took on the Sisyphean mission of bringing critical thinking to the masses after observing her own 7-year-old daughter completing a homework assignment. Though her daughter was sitting inches away from a book that she'd already read about King Francis I of France, she turned to a web search to complete her homework task of finding some basic facts -- Wikipedia was simply easier.

"I realized that my daughter is fundamentally growing up differently than I did," Bouygues told me. "Not only do we need to impart these critical thinking skills to children at an earlier age because of the easy access to information and misinformation they have at their fingertips, but research on neurological brain development is very clear that children are actually capable of learning these skills at a young age. This should give us some urgency about trying to figure out how to get parents and teachers to teach critical thinking in concrete ways that won't put kids to sleep."

Sure, it would be nice if more people had the ability to quickly and easily synthesize different ideas, seek out opposing viewpoints and engage in fact-based debates. But it's also imperative to our democracy and our intertwined fortunes. In a future that will require better skills at teasing out fact from fiction, the gulf between the haves and the have-nots threatens to grow exponentially.

"Our goal is to do this survey every year -- so this one serves as our baseline -- but already we have found that people with incomes over $100,000 per year are about twice as likely as those making under $50,000 per year to believe that it's important to teach critical thinking skills to children," Bouygues said. She also noted that people with higher incomes were likelier to say that it is important to debate with people who hold opposing views and people with lower incomes were likelier to avoid people with whom they disagree.

It will be an uphill battle to give the topic of critical thinking mass appeal, but the Reboot Foundation hopes that it will be able to eventually disseminate simple tips for integrating some of the skills into everyday school and home life.

"We know that parents and teachers are very busy, and we're all just trying to get through the day," Bouygues acknowledged. "But it doesn't take a whole lot of effort to make little adjustments. Have conversations about what kinds of sources of information are reliable. Ask your kids to explain to you how they made a decision that day. Practice having discussions in positive, rational ways."

This is the same advice I give to parents when they ask how they can improve their students' reading or math skills: Forget about highly structured lessons or purchasing study materials, just focus on having meaningful conversations with your kids that focus on them getting the opportunity to explain their thinking.

(It works wonders on adults, too.)

Esther Cepeda's email address is, or follow her on Twitter: @estherjcepeda.

(c) 2018, Washington Post Writers Group

Esther J. Cepeda is a nationally syndicated columnist with The Washington Post Writers Group. She was previously a a reporter and columnist for the Chicago Sun-Times.