Research Notes

September 10, 1997 5 min read

Solving an Immigrant Puzzle

Researchers have learned from recent studies that immigrant students may not score high on standardized tests, but they get better grades in school than peers whose families have been in this country a generation or two longer. What they didn’t know was why.

Now another study points to one possible reason: First- and second-generation immigrant families and their children place a stronger emphasis on education than third-generation families do.

Andrew J. Fuligni, a psychology professor at New York University, came to that conclusion after surveying 1,100 teenagers from Hispanic, East Asian, Filipino, and European families in two California schools.

Regardless of ethnic background, he found, students from first- and second-generation immigrant families earned higher grades in English and in mathematics than did students from native-born families in those same ethnic groups. This was true, he found, even though the immigrant students were more likely to come from homes where English was not the main language.

Some parents--particularly those from East Asian and Filipino families--were more highly educated or wealthier than parents in the native-born families. But, when Mr. Fuligni made statistical adjustments for those kinds of variations in his sample, he found that the generational achievement differences still held.

The bigger influences instead were the attitudes and behaviors of the students.

“Generally speaking, adolescents from immigrant families approached their schooling with a strong motivation that was supported by both their parents and peers whether their families emigrated from Asia, Latin America, or Europe,” Mr. Fuligni writes in the April issue of the journal Child Development.

Assessment Payoff

Maryland’s 4-year-old assessment program has been a force for change in schools that have shown big improvements in student achievement, according to a team of University of Maryland researchers.

The researchers studied 10 schools where students made bigger gains on the tests than expected given their socioeconomic status, and five schools where students were doing worse than expected. As part of their state-financed study, the researchers spent time observing classes in the schools and interviewing teachers and administrators. A 5th grader and a teacher at each of the schools also wrote about their experiences at their schools.

In the big-gaining schools, the researchers found, the Maryland State Performance Assessment Program, or MSPAP, had become a focus of instruction. The assessment is among a new generation of tests in a number of states that go beyond traditional multiple-choice questions to ask students to show what they can do with what they know.

“A lot of teachers said this was the spark that really began to help schools recognize that there were things in the instructional process that they needed to be attending to,” said Francine Hultgren, a professor of educational policy, planning, and administration at the university and a study author. Her research partners were William D. Schafer, Willis D. Hawley, Andrew L. Abrams, Carole C. Seubert, and Susan Mazzoni.

But the tests were among a web of factors that the researchers identified as key to the improvements at the more successful schools. One overwhelming factor was having principals who took the lead in changing the instruction that went on in their schools.

“And that was related to collaborative problem-solving,” Ms. Hultgren added. “In the more successful schools, teachers were trusted to address their classroom concerns and there was a feeling that it was all right to take a risk.”

Professional development in those schools was also more focused. The teachers and administrators jointly decided on the topics for staff seminars, and teachers were expected to use what they learned throughout the year.

Having clear goals, adequate support services, and a curriculum aligned with the state testing program were among other factors the investigators identified as contributing to achievement gains.

The study has not yet been published, but the researchers are sharing their findings now with school districts throughout the state.

Charters and Contracts

Are parent-involvement contracts a way of excluding some families from charter schools? Possibly, according to three researchers who studied the use of such contracts in charter elementary and middle schools in California.

The researchers—Henry J. Becker of the University of California, Irvine, Kathryn Nakagawa of Arizona State University, and Ronald G. Corwin, formerly of WestEd, a research firm in Los Alamitos, Calif.—offered no hard evidence suggesting that the charter schools they studied were actively screening out some families. But their study is among the first to take a look at the language in the parent contracts used by this new generation of schools and to raise questions about the potential impact of that practice.

The researchers found that, in 27 of the 34 schools that responded to their survey, parents were asked to sign contracts pledging they would be active in their children’s schools. The contracts stipulated, for example, that parents spend a median of 30 hours a year working in the schools, and a few specified the kind of work that parents should do there and at home.

But some of the schools did not stop there. Thirteen of the contracts, for example, threatened to expel students whose parents did not comply with the service requirements. Most school administrators, however, said such expulsions were rare.

The schools that had the strictest parent contracts tended to have higher percentages of children with limited English-speaking skills, lower achievement, and fewer professional parents than the other charter schools in the study.

The contracts were among a number of ways that the schools were trying to draw parents into their buildings.

And, for the most part, parents were more involved in the daily life of those charter schools than were their counterparts at neighboring public schools.

But some of that involvement may have come about because families that were unable to play more of a role in their children’s schooling were being screened out.

“I suspect it’s more self-selection than explicit exclusion,” the study’s lead author, Mr. Becker, said in an interview. “But there’s a difference between saying we think parent involvement is important and therefore we’re going to work very strongly with parents in a respectful way, and mandating it.”

“This is just a reminder that your goal should not be tailoring the clientele you work with,” he added. The researchers’ report was published in the spring issue of Teachers College Record.