“The School System as Sorting Mechanism”

By Mary Ann Zehr — September 09, 2008 2 min read
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I’m making good on my promise to skim a review copy of Inheriting the City: The Children of Immigrants Come of Age and tell you what it says about schooling in New York City. I’ve featured the study already for how it concludes that children of immigrants in New York City now in their 20s are generally doing very well work-wise and education-wise.

The book has a fascinating chapter reporting on how some immigrant groups tend to figure out how to enroll children in magnet schools and other top-of-the-line public schools in New York City while other immigrant groups do not. The chapter, “The School System as Sorting Mechanism,” says, for example, that Chinese immigrant parents are most likely to find the best options within the public school system. One in five Chinese students in the study attended a magnet high school in the city. Eight percent of Russian students attended such schools; 4.4 percent of West Indian students did. Even lower percentages of South American, Dominican, or Puerto Rican students attended such schools.

Even when it came to working-class families, Chinese immigrants “managed a striking degree of access to the better public high schools,” the book says. One factor is that the Chinese media informed Chinese parents about magnet schools. One Chinese participant in the study attended a Catholic elementary school when her family first lived in a low-income neighborhood with poor-quality schools. Then the family saved enough money to move to a middle-class neighborhood, where the girl attended a public school, which was of excellent quality. Such moves driven by education goals are typical among Chinese families, according to the book.

But that seems not to be the case with some other immigrant groups, such as Dominicans or Puerto Ricans, who had lower educational attainment by their 20s than other immigrant groups studied. Dominicans tend to buy homes in the Dominican Republic rather than use their resources to buy homes in New York City and thus move to the neighborhoods with better schools in the city. And Puerto Ricans, the book says, tend more than other immigrant groups to live in public housing, and consequently get “trapped” in low-income neighborhoods with low-performing schools.

I’m wondering what educators in New York City can do to combat some of these differences between immigrant groups that lead to very different levels of education attainment. For starters, it seems, the school system should make sure that all parents learn about magnet schools. The long-lasting solution, of course, would be to upgrade all public schools in New York City, so that no kid ends up in a low-performing school.

A version of this news article first appeared in the Learning the Language blog.