Equity & Diversity

Prior Education Determines How Refugee ELLs Adjust to U.S. Schools

By Corey Mitchell — October 28, 2015 2 min read
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Refugee children’s prior educational experiences, not their academic aptitude, may be the most significant indicator of how they’ll perform in U.S. schools, according to an analysis from the Migration Policy Institute.

Sarah Dryden-Peterson, an assistant professor at the Harvard Graduate School of Education, found that refugee children—many of them English-language learners—spend a “disproportionate amount of their time learning languages,” which can contribute to falling behind in age-appropriate academic content.

“The histories of resettled refugee children are often hidden from their teachers and other school staff in the United States by factors such as language barriers, privacy concerns, cultural misunderstandings, and stereotypes,” she wrote. “These gaps in understanding have implications for refugee children’s academic performance, psychosocial service needs, sense of belonging in school, and relationships with teachers and peers.”

Dryden-Peterson lists four aspects of refugees’ educational experiences that are most important for U.S. teachers and schools:

  • Limited and disrupted educational opportunities. Refugees are often “students with interrupted formal education,” who entered school later than most U.S. students, if they have formal education experiences at all, or have significant gaps in their schooling.
  • Language barriers to educational access. In some cases, refugee students are exposed to multiple languages, but in environments with “limited resources to support language learning.” So even if students had prior exposure to English, the instruction was likely poor and they likely didn’t master the language.
  • Inadequate quality of instruction. Because the quality of refugee education is uneven, students who have had access to education may still initially not meet grade-level expectations for their age.
  • Discrimination in school settings. Refugees may have been singled out in first-asylum countries because of their nationality so helping them develop a positive ethnic and cultural identity once they arrive to the U.S. is key.

Dryden-Peterson’s analysis drew on United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees reports on education quality and access along with field-based case studies on the educational experiences of refugee children in their countries of first asylum before arrival to the United States. The studies involved children originally from the Democratic Republic of Congo, Myanamar, Somalia, and Syria.

The analysis is the latest in a series of reports from the Migration Policy Institute on the educational experiences of refugee children in K-12 settings, including a ethnographic examination of the education of Somali Bantu refugees in a Chicago elementary school after spending most or all of their lives in Kenyan refugee camps.

Educational Experiences Refugee Children Countries First Asylum

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