What Do Immigrants Want from Schools? Then and Now

By Mary Ann Zehr — April 17, 2009 1 min read

Americans who perceive that immigrants who come to the United States these days are resistant to learning English and making new demands of schools to cultivate their native languages are wrong, argues a sociologist in the May 2009 issue of American Journal of Education. His article about immigrant trends is called: “What Have Immigrants Wanted from American Schools? What Do They Want Now? Historical and Contemporary Perspectives on Immigrants, Language, and American Schooling.” (Only an abstract is available free online.)

Michael R. Olneck, a professor of educational policy studies and sociology at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, contends that Mexican-Americans and Puerto Ricans who support bilingual education in schools are part of a continuum of immigrant groups who have made the transition to learning English while also retaining their ethnic identity. Latino immigrants, he writes, “appear akin to late 19th-century Germans in welcoming the public schools’ assistance in language maintenance.” He adds that Latinos today don’t expect full developmental bilingual education. Rather, a limited program for Spanish speakers in the elementary grades, such as what Cubans have in Miami, is satisfactory to them.

He notes, however, that Asians tend to oppose bilingual education.

Olneck goes on to say that support for bilingual education among Latinos has declined. He cites a 1989-90 National Latino Political Survey that found about 80 percent of Mexican, Puerto Rican, and Cuban respondents said they “strongly support” or “support” bilingual education. But a 1999 poll by another polling group found that 59 percent of Latino respondents believed that students should be able to take some courses in their native language in public schools.

Olneck says that immigrant groups historically and now have sought to use American schools to help them integrate into American society. Contrary to what some scholars argue or what some Americans may believe, immigrants are not seeking support from schools for “cultural and linguistic separatism,” he said.

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

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