Special Report
Equity & Diversity

Educating Immigrant Students a Challenge in U.S., Elsewhere

January 09, 2012 9 min read
From left, 7th grader Ilya Monahov from Israel, 6th grader Maryam Ghalambor Dezfouli, from Iran, and 7th grader Mercedes Nyari, from Hungary, participate in an English-as-a-second-language support session at E.J. Sand Public School in Thornhill, Ontario.
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One out of every five children now enrolled in a U.S. public school speaks a language other than English at home. Many of them were born in other countries. Some have had little or no formal education before coming to the United States, even among those who are the age of American middle or high school students.

By 2030, the proportion of students learning English as a second language in American public schools will be more like two out of every five students, although not all of them will have been born outside the country. Data from the U.S. Census show that as of 2009, 22.5 percent of all public school students are either foreign-born or have at least one foreign-born parent.

While some quintessential American policies are in place to enable these students to succeed, the U.S. hasn’t yet mastered how to best teach children coming to school with an array of cultural and linguistic challenges endemic to a nation of great social diversity. And, at least in this respect, U.S. educators are far from alone.

“I don’t think anybody has found the perfect answer,” says Delia Pompa, a senior vice president for programs at the National Council of La Raza, the largest national Hispanic civil rights and advocacy organization in the United States. “I can’t think of a country where, if we just did ‘that,’ we’d be perfect.”

Teaching foreign-born students and students learning English is a complex task, further complicated by issues of race, culture, and ethnicity. Because defining these groups is difficult, measuring their performance and progress can also be a challenge.

One way of defining this challenge is to examine the academic performance of students in nations around the world who have at least one foreign-born parent, or who are non-natives themselves. A recent report from the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, in Paris, “Overcoming Social Background,” studied how well such students did in reading.

“Across OECD countries, first-generation students … score, on average, 52 points below students without an immigrant background,” the report noted. “Second-generation students outperform first-generation students by 18 score points in reading. These large gaps highlight the disadvantage of first-generation students.”

Statistical Snapshot

The performance of U.S. immigrant students is difficult to classify.

On the 2009 OECD Program for International Student Assessment, or PISA, given to 15- and 16-year-olds in 65 countries, about 60 percent of first- and second-generation immigrant students in the United States scored at proficiency level three out of seven in reading. That’s slightly better than the average for all OECD countries. (The participating countries make up 90 percent of the world economy, OECD says.)

Among countries classified as having an immigrant student population of between 15 percent and 30 percent, which is where the United States falls, students in Canada, New Zealand, Australia, and Switzerland do slightly better in reading on the PISA. In the United Kingdom, with a smaller percentage of immigrant students—between 5 percent and 15 percent—average reading scores are lower, as they are in Chile, Spain, Sweden, and Ireland, all of which have a smaller percentage of immigrant students.

Many countries with a similar proportion of nonnative students did worse than immigrants in America. Among Western European countries, for example, Germany had the largest gaps in performance between its native- and foreign-born students in all subjects.

Mahmuda Khatun, from Bangladesh, reads to her son Marzuq Rashid, 3, at the Parenting and Family Literacy Center in Crescent Town Public School in the Toronto school district. The center helps equip parents with the skills necessary to prepare their children for school.

“If you had to make a global judgment, the U.S. does not show up as really any better than the Western European countries. Germany is the exception—Germany does really poorly,” says Richard Alba of the City University of New York, where his teaching and research focus on international migration in the United States and Europe.

A quick analysis of the PISA data by Maki Park, a policy analyst at the Migration Policy Institute’s National Center on Immigrant Integration Policy, shows that American immigrant children score behind Canada’s foreign-born in reading and math, and behind those in the United Kingdom in some subjects. (Canada’s foreign-born students consistently outperformed all other countries’ foreign-born students in each subject by a significant margin, Park says.).

But what those results really mean as a road map for policy is unclear, says Margie McHugh, co-director of the institute.

“With the PISA data you’re just getting this snapshot,” says McHugh, whose organization is based in Washington. “You’ve got these other issues—first vs. second generation. You can’t capture, then, how long have these kids been in the school system.”

Immigration Policy

The performance of immigrant students varies from country to country not simply because of vast differences in education systems, but also because of unique immigration policy and strategy. Upon close examination, even countries that seem similar to the United States in some respects appear to become incomparable as a result.

In a report outlining lessons from PISA for the United States, the OECD wrote extensively about Canada’s success with immigrant students. The organization directly links the country’s immigration policies to that success.

“The majority of immigrants who come to the country are selected to fill economic needs. This means that they are not seen as a threat or as competing for jobs, and increases the political support for their arrival,” the report states.

See Also

Read about Toronto’s Crescent Town Public School, which serves a diverse population of students who speak more than 50 different languages, in this Quality Counts 2012 story: “School, Community Backing Bolsters Immigrant Students”

A prior report from the OECD found that first-generation Canadian students had parents with as many or more years of education as native-born parents. In addition, Canada was one of only a few countries where immigrant students had access to the same or better school conditions than native-born students, such as lower student-teacher ratios, higher teacher morale, and better school infrastructure.

Is the United States’ neighbor to the north, then, a source of ideas and inspiration for educating American immigrant students?

The OECD’s Andreas Schleicher says yes.

“It’s true, Canada has many immigrant children from relatively rich backgrounds. But you can also look at the immigrant children from poor backgrounds and [look at] comparable immigrant children between Canada and the United States. And if you do that, you’ll actually see that immigration makes much less of a difference than it does in the United States,” Schleicher says.

While German immigrant students’ performance still lags behind that their U.S. peers, even that country’s policies provide an example to follow, he adds. Germany’s immigrant students’ performance has improved over the last decade.

“In 2000, Germany’s situation looked a lot worse than the United States. There were a lot of policy initiatives—greater emphasis on primary schools, establishment of universal early-childhood education,” says Schleicher. “The question is: Does this always come down to culture? No, Germany didn’t change its culture; it changed the way it dealt with immigrant students.”

For example, the country has tried to better integrate immigrants, extending naturalized citizenship to many immigrants and emphasizing language education, notes a report from the Centre for Eastern Studies, based in Poland.

More broadly, there are other ways the U.S. education system can work more effectively with immigrant students, says Alba, of CUNY.

“Unlike a lot of European systems, kids start school here relatively late. Pre-K is not universal; we know that the children of some immigrant groups are less likely to be in preschool than some middle-class whites,” he says.

In France, by contrast, pre-K is universal. “By the age of 3, and often by the age of 2, all kids are in educationally rich settings, playing with other kids, supervised by other adults, probably speaking French with these other kids,” Alba says. Learning the native language is part of the foundation of their academic success.

Another factor may be the length of the school year, which tends to be shorter in the United States, says Alba. Students have been shown to lose ground over the summer, and it’s often the students struggling the most in school, including non-native English-speakers, who lose the most ground.

Distinct Policies

Test scores aside, America’s immigrant roots and history, along with modern policies, position its educational system to work with immigrant students in a way few other countries can. In the United States, the issue of educating immigrants often is synonymous with educating students learning English, which has drawn increasing federal attention and priority in recent years.

In 2000, then-President Bill Clinton signed an executive order that required the federal government to improve access for those with limited English skills to federal services and programs.

Then the 2002 No Child Left Behind law cemented the status of students learning English in the U.S. as a group of children whose performance must be tracked. The law requires schools, districts, and states to test these students in math and reading and report their scores on tests that are the same as their English-speaking classmates. These students must also take English-language proficiency exams every year, another requirement of NCLB.

Despite those policies, data on those students make for a truly alarming picture.

On the 2009 National Assessment of Educational Progress, in reading, just 6 percent of 4th graders learning English were proficient, along with 3 percent of 8th-grade English-learners. In math, 12 percent of students learning English were at or above proficiency, as were 5 percent of 8th graders.

While American educational policies, in theory, should position many students for success, the manifestation of those policies varies widely from school to school, district to district, and state to state. And whatever federal policies and laws may say, the federal Education and Justice departments have investigated, and continue to look into, school districts that fail students learning English.

In October, for example, the Education Department unveiled the results of a 19-month investigation of the Los Angeles Unified School District, the nation’s second-largest district. The 670,000-student district agreed to remedy disparities in the quality of education for students learning English through measures including a complete overhaul of its English-learning program. Only 5 percent of the scores of high school English-language learners registered as proficient in either English or math, the district’s 2009-10 state exam scores show, compared to an overall district average of 37 percent proficient in English and 17 percent in math. Other department investigations in recent years have yielded settlements with the Philadelphia and Boston school districts.

Underlying all of that, says Pompa, of the National Council of La Raza, is the requirement that all children—regardless of their immigration status—be accepted into public schools. However, she says, “the implementation is another matter.”

The hurdles in providing a quality education to students learning English exist at every facet of public school systems, from communicating and engaging parents, training teachers, and testing students, says McHugh of the Migration Policy Institute.

“It does seem to me when one looks at many of the [European Union] countries. ... they seem to think more about discrimination and cultural differences between [immigrant] students and their teachers, addressing prejudice and cultural bias,” she says. “In the U.S. we have almost none of that. We focus mostly on the process of language acquisition.”

“I think the ideal is having both.”

Assistant Project Editor Sean Cavanagh contributed to this article.
Nirvi Shah, Writer contributed to this article.


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