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Published in Print: June 7, 2000, as Generation Gap

Generation Gap

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Newcomers are racking up high grades despite language barriers, overwhelming poverty, and personal hardship.

When Daleidy Grullon emigrated from the Dominican Republic six years ago, she could barely understand English. When she enrolled in school here, a 6th grade classmate translated the teacher's words for her. Daleidy coped by making a tattered English dictionary her constant companion.

Yet, by the end of middle school, Daleidy had managed to achieve a 90 average. In her class of mostly American-born students, she ranked among the best. Now a senior in high school, she has her eye on college.

Daleidy's academic success was a surprise to her, but to researchers studying immigrants and their children, it is hardly unexpected. Over the past decade, a batch of studies has shown that children whose parents are immigrants or who are themselves immigrants do better in school on average than youngsters whose families have been in the United States a generation or more longer. What's more, the newcomers are racking up high grades despite language barriers, overwhelming poverty, and personal hardship.

"I think immigrants bring hope and optimism and energy that is harnessed in the first generation," says Marcelo M. Suarez-Orozco, a Harvard University researcher who, with his wife, Carola Suarez-Orozco, has studied immigration for 20 years. In later generations, however, "that hope and optimism and energy are not sustained and harnessed," he says.

Those achievement patterns began in the 1960s but only recently began attracting the notice of researchers. They cut across almost all ethnic groups and stand in stark contrast to the conventional wisdom of the history of immigration to the United States.

Looking back on the waves of European immigration in the early 1900s, most Americans see a pattern of generational improvement. If the Italian, Irish, or Eastern European children who came off the boat at that time never made it through high school, surely their children would. And the children of those children might have gone to college.

But the current wave, which started with changes in immigration law dating back to 1965, is bigger and much more diverse than was the sea of newcomers of 100 years ago. Most of the 26.8 million immigrants living in the United States today hail from Latin America, the Caribbean, Asia, and the Middle East, according to Rubén G. Rumbaut, a sociologist at Michigan State University.

Daleidy Grullon and her Dominican-born counterparts, for example, now constitute the largest immigrant group in New York City.

Researchers such as Rumbaut and the Suarez-Orozcos are focusing on children in immigrant families because they are the heart and soul of the so-called "new immigration."

Of the newcomers arriving in this country since 1960, 40 percent came as children. In fact, one in five American children are now either immigrants or U.S.-born children of immigrants, says Rumbaut, who in the 1990's took part in a study tracking 5,200 "first generation" teenagers in South Florida and Southern California.

And research on their achievement patterns and adjustment experiences may offer clues for schools struggling now, as they did early in the century, to educate large numbers of first- and second-generation children of immigrants.

"The children of today's immigrants ... constitute the most consequential and lasting legacy of the new mass immigration to the United States," says Rumbaut, who was 12 when he emigrated from Cuba.

Both Ends of the Spectrum

These newcomers are not only doing well in school. A survey by the National Academy of Sciences suggests that they also are healthier than many of their U.S.-born peers. Foreign-born children or children with at least one immigrant parent are less likely to be obese, for example, to use drugs or alcohol, to smoke, to suffer from asthma, or to give birth to low-birth-weight babies.

Children from immigrant families are heavily distributed at both ends of the academic-achievement spectrum—even if their overall average grades are higher.

That many of these children initially do so well despite great odds is good news. But the findings, which are based on averages, also mask more complex achievement patterns among immigrants and their families, according to researchers. Children from immigrant families are heavily distributed at both ends of the academic-achievement spectrum—even if their overall average grades are higher.

"On average, these kids are more likely to go to college and graduate school, and they're also more likely to not graduate from high school," says Andrew J. Fuligni, an assistant professor of psychology at New York University. Children of immigrant families are winning prestigious science and mathematics prizes in record numbers, he notes, at the same their dropout rates are increasing.

Some of the dichotomy has to do with the children's backgrounds. Many of today's immigrant children may come from well-educated families with valuable technological skills. Others, though, are not even literate in their native languages.

But socioeconomic differences don't explain all the variation in academic outcomes for such children. For example, immigrant children from some Southeast Asian groups tend to be academic standouts even though many have had little or no formal schooling in their home countries.

Living up to the Dream

One point is clear: Virtually all children from immigrant families seem to place a higher value on education than U.S.-born children from nonimmigrant families do.

Immigrant parents "feel it's absolutely critical to do well and to do very well in school," says Fuligni, who interviewed 1,100 teenagers with Hispanic, East Asian, Filipino, and European backgrounds in California for a 1997 study. "They don't have this feeling of security that American-born families do."

When Daleidy Grullon brings home a poor grade or misses a homework assignment, for example, her mother sometimes cries.

"That really hurts me," says the bright-eyed senior. "My father says, 'I sacrificed my life, and I do it for you so that you can have a good education.' That makes me think of having a career so that when my parents become old I can support them."

Virtually all children from immigrant families seem to place a higher value on education than U.S.-born children from nonimmigrant families do.

Daleidy's father, a taxi driver, lived and worked alone in New York for 10 years to save up enough money to bring the rest of his family here. He left the Dominican Republic for the first time when his daughter was 2. "It's not something your parents have to tell you," adds Soshi Anam, a schoolmate of Daleidy's from Bangladesh and the president of their school's student government. "You sort of know you have to live up to their dream."

Both students attend International High School, a charter school for recent arrivals run by the New York City school board and LaGuardia Community College. Its 400 students come from 60 countries and speak a total of 40 languages. Eighty percent of them are poor enough to qualify for the federal free and reduced-price lunch program.

Yet 70 percent of the students graduate in four years, compared with the New York City average of 50 percent, says Eric Nadelstern, who has been the school's principal since it was formed as an alternative school 15 years ago. Among those graduates, 95 percent go on to college.

Still, Nadelstern is skeptical of the new research findings about high achievement among first-generation students like those in his school.

"If that were the case, you would expect that all recent immigrants would be successful no matter where they went" to school, he says.

But the citywide four-year graduation rate for students with limited English proficiency is only 40 percent—far lower than at International High School. If there were a broad trend toward high achievement among recent arrivals, Nadelstern argues, "you wouldn't expect the graduation statistics to be that far below the citywide average.''

He attributes his students' successes to the specialized curriculum at the school, which focuses on interdisciplinary, thematic studies and project work.

But to some of Nadelstern's students, the findings make perfect sense. They say they've seen a downward slide in academic motivation in their own neighborhoods and ethnic communities—and sometimes within their own families.

"Students who were born here take education for granted. They don't really care," says Edwin Zambrano, a tall, lanky junior from the Dominican Republic. "They're hangin' out and chillin' around with friends.''

One reason American-born students take education for granted, these students say, is because it's free.

One reason American-born students take education for granted, these students say, is because it's free. In many of the countries from which these students emigrated, schooling costs money. Even if they don't have to pay tuition, these students say, their families might have to pay for books, uniforms, or lunches.

Another motivator is poverty. Once they get to the United States, the parents of immigrant children, even some who went to college in their home countries, are often forced to take low-paying jobs.

"Right now, my mom is cleaning banks, and I'm helping her at night," says Maria Gallon, a Colombian-born senior at International High. "I think, 'What if I turn 37 and I'm still doing this?' It makes me realize, 'Maria, you do not want to do this for the rest of your life.'"

Suarez-Orozco has also seen the deterioration in attitudes toward schooling over successive generations in his own research. He first documented the phenomenon in Transformations: Immigration, Family Life, and Achievement Motivation Among Latino Adolescents, a 1995 book he wrote with his wife.

Now the Suarez-Orozcos, who also co-direct the Harvard Immigration Project, are midway through a 10-year national study of 400 children from immigrant families. As part of the study, the researchers asked students to fill in the blank in the sentence, "My school is______." The most common response to that question from nonimmigrant children with European backgrounds was "boring," Suarez-Orozco says.

"Immigrant children will say lots of things, all generally positive, but they will not say school is boring," says the Argentinean-born professor. "I think there is a culture here where doing well in school is not cool."

Students at International High School say the decline in academic motivation may even start within the same generation as students quickly assimilate to their new culture. They told of younger brothers and sisters who refuse to do homework and who speak just a few words of their native languages.

Students at International High School say the decline in academic motivation may even start within the same generation as students quickly assimilate to their new culture.

In Rumbaut's study, for example, 73 percent of teenagers, when first interviewed at age 14 or 15 in 1992, said they preferred speaking English to their native languages. Three years later, when the students were surveyed again, that percentage had climbed to 88 percent, underscoring their degree of assimilation.

"In no other society in the world has the shift to monolingual English taken place more rapidly than it has in the U.S.," Rumbaut says.

Mary C. Waters, a Harvard sociologist, has seen the pattern of declining academic motivation, too. She studied West Indian immigrants living in New York City from the late 1980s through the mid-1990s. "The kids who had recently arrived tended to be the valedictorians," she says. "The longer they spent in New York City, the worse they did." The bottom line, she adds, is that "for some groups, especially nonwhite, non-European immigrants, assimilation is bad for you."

One explanation for the worsening outcomes, Waters argues, is pervasive discrimination in the larger American society. The more the West Indian immigrants in her study began to resemble African-American students in language and dress, she says, the more likely they were to encounter discrimination. The most successful students clung to their West Indian identities, intentionally retaining the accent of their homeland and choosing other West Indians as friends.

The West Indian immigrant children had not just internalized the anti-school attitudes of their American-born peers, she theorizes in a new book on her study, Black Identities: West Indian Immigrant Dreams and Realities. They were also picking up on the subtler message that racism was blocking their paths to upward mobility. Faced with that perception, Waters argues, they become skeptical that the returns from any academic success would be worth the effort they invested. In Rumbaut's study, reports of discrimination increased over time among students in virtually every ethnic group.

The percentage of students who said they had experienced prejudice in his sample increased from an average of 54 percent to 62 percent over three years. Afro-Caribbean and Asian youths reported experiencing the most discrimination. Cuban students living in Miami, which has a high concentration of successful Cubans and Cuban-Americans, experienced the least.

The research has also turned up some differences associated with national origins.

Researchers said other factors can contribute to this immigrant generation's degree of academic success. Predictably, for example, students whose parents are more educated, whose families are intact, and whose friends are academically oriented do better than average.

The research has also turned up some differences associated with national origins. In Rumbaut's study, which was conducted with Princeton University sociologist Alejandro Portes, students of Chinese origin finished high school with the highest grade averages and the lowest dropout rates. They were followed closely by children from India, Japan, and Korea. Students from Latin America tended to turn in the poorest academic performance, particularly those from Mexico, the Dominican Republic, and Central America.

But such findings still fall short of definitive, Marcelo Suarez-Orozco says. The problem, he says, is that most of the studies completed up to now have been cross-sectional.

In other words, researchers have looked at how students do in a particular district at a given period of time and compared those findings with the academic records for native-born students attending school at the same time in the same districts.

What's missing in those samples, Suarez-Orozco argues, are the third-generation children whose families have moved out of the urban school districts that were under the researchers' microscopes. Economic success may have enabled those families to head for more affluent, suburban systems. "There's a built-in [research] bias against the third generation," he says, and the research may overstate the extent of academic decline.

Tracking Generations

Children also disappear from the sample because of the tendency of some immigrants to marry outside their ethnic groups over subsequent generations, Suarez-Orozco says.

Both are research holes that the Suarez-Orozcos hope to fill with their current study, which will track the same group of children over 10 years. Likewise, Rumbaut is seeking funding for another round of interviews with the 5,200 young people he and his colleagues have been tracking. This time around, the participants will be in their 20s.

Longer-term studies are needed to see whether the academic promise shown by these immigrant children holds up after high school.

Longer-term studies are needed, says Fuligni of NYU, to see whether the academic promise shown by these immigrant children holds up after high school. "I can imagine one kid from an immigrant family who has done well enough in high school so he can keep going," he says. "But another might have to postpone college to get a job and help his family out."

In a similar vein, Suarez-Orozco suspects that students' self-reports of their growing fluency in English may be inflated.

"It's one thing to know how to say, 'Good morning,' or 'Good afternoon,' or 'I'd like some coffee, please,'" he says. "It's another to develop the linguistic skills required in a globalized economy." In his current study, for example, he is using an independent test to gauge students' language skills.

Most researchers agree, however, that focusing on immigrant children's schooling experiences is becoming more important than ever. That's because of the number of children involved and the higher stakes involved in earning at least a high school diploma.

The Italian immigrant who dropped out of school at the turn of the century, for example, could often land a well-paying factory job requiring only quick hands and a strong back. The Hispanic girl of today, however, who flunks the required high school exit test in Texas faces much dimmer prospects in an economy that increasingly rewards skillful use of information and advanced technology.

"You drop out today, and you're facing bad odds," says Suarez-Orozco. "You're doomed to more or less permanent poverty."

The Research section is underwritten by a grant from the Spencer Foundation.

Vol. 19, Issue 39, Pages 28-30

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