Equity & Diversity

Mixed Needs of Immigrants Pose Challenges for Schools

September 27, 2000 5 min read
Changing Face

Immigration has dramatically shaped American society throughout the country’s history, and it will help drive the United States’ economy for decades to come. “The U.S. is the only country in the world where immigration is both our history and our destiny,” says Marcelo Suarez-Orozco, a co-director of the Harvard Immigration Project.

Today, the United States is experiencing the largest wave of immigration since the turn of the 20th century. In 1990, about 13.7 percent of the U.S. population was foreign-born, about the same as in 1900. But while yesterday’s immigrants came primarily from European countries, today’s immigrants—about 1 million each year—come primarily from Asia and Central and South America.

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About This

Over the past 30 years, the country has seen another important shift in the demographics of immigrants: They’re getting younger. In 1997, 44 percent were between the ages of 25 and 44, up from just 19 percent in 1960. About 22 percent were under age 25, up from 10 percent in 1960.

The trend toward younger and larger immigrant households has made it easier for many immigrants to join the middle class, since households with younger members and more wage earners have a better chance of improving their financial situation over time. In 1998, 17.4 percent of foreign-born workers earned more than $50,000, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.

But not all immigrant groups fare equally well. Also in 1998, 39.1 percent of foreign-born, full-time, year-round workers earned less than $20,000. The largest share of new arrivals came from Mexico, accounting for nearly one in five of the nation’s legal immigrants that year. Mexican-Americans are the worst off financially of any immigrant group—in part, because of their lower-than-average education levels.

Largest Foreign-Born Populations in the U.S. 1960 and 1999

The Immigration Wave

Where Are Immigrants Settling?

Parents’ Education Levels

Drawing on data from the 1994 to 1999 Current Population Surveys conducted by the Census Bureau, demographer Hans P. Johnson of the Public Policy Institute of California estimates that among first-generation Mexican-Americans, fewer than one-third had graduated from high school. Only 3 percent had graduated from college. Among second-generation Mexican-Americans, 63 percent had graduated from high school, but only 7 percent had graduated from college.

“So there’s dramatic improvement from the first generation to the second generation, but still far short of other U.S. natives,” Johnson says. “The future is quite uncertain, I think, as to what’s going to happen to the educational levels of Mexican-Americans in California and in the United States.”

“In California,” he adds, “we have a bipolar distribution of educational attainment among immigrants. We have many immigrants who have college degrees. The flow of immigrants into Silicon Valley, for example, is one that tends to be highly educated. But we have many more immigrants who are very poorly educated—in many cases, less than 8th grade.”

The big challenge, according to George Vernez, the director of the center for research on immigration policy at the RAND Corp. in Santa Monica, Calif., will be how to improve the educational prospects for the children of foreign-born parents with low levels of education and income.

“Schools have a relatively low level of effect on student achievement once you control for these factors,” Vernez says. “I’m not sure that we yet know how to compensate for that. The only thing that we do know is that if we don’t do any better than we are doing now, the educational gap between Hispanics and African-Americans, on the one hand, and whites and Asian-Americans on the other, is going to increase.”

‘Best and Worst of Times’

For many immigrant children “it is the best of times and the worst of times,” Suarez-Orozco says.

“Never before in the history of the United States have so many immigrant children done so well in terms of entry into our most exclusive scholarly and academic institutions,” he says. On the other hand, immigrant students are also more likely than others to drop out of school, to come into contact with the criminal-justice system, or to leave school without the skills needed in a global marketplace.

“Demographically, these folks are going to be very important for the future, not only of their regions but also of the entire country,” says William H. Frey, a demographer at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor.

For example, in Broward County, Fla.—the nation’s fifth-largest district, with nearly 242,000 students—young people come from at least 52 different countries and speak 52 different languages, ranging from Spanish and Haitian-Creole to Tagalog. The number of children identified as having limited fluency in English has nearly doubled since 1993-94, from 12,039 to 23,459.

That mix offers children a rich, melting-pot experience. But it also poses a challenge for schools.

At the 1,100-student Tedder Elementary School, for example, where about half the children come from households headed by immigrants, and 85 percent qualify for free- or reduced-price meals, the school has changed its ways in order to reach out to newcomers, Principal Linda C. Goltzer says. The school runs parent-teacher meetings and publishes newsletters in three languages: English, Spanish, and Creole. It serves breakfast at 6:30 a.m., and it has expanded its preschool offerings. Teachers also have adopted new teaching techniques, such as more small-group instruction and hands-on activities, to better provide individual attention to students.

“I will say this,” says Goltzer, “the foreign-born parents have the most middle-class values I’ve seen in ages. If you call them to come in, they’re there.”

— Lynn Olson


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