English-Language Learners

Do Immigrant Students Help the Academic Outcomes of U.S.-Born Peers? One Study Says Yes

By Ileana Najarro — January 31, 2024 5 min read
Eric Parker teaches a class NW Classen High that has immigrant students and he has a flag representing each, which is a way to make them feel welcome, Tuesday, September 10, 2019.
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Researchers have found that an increasing number of immigrant students have enrolled in schools across the country over the last few years, including in districts with traditionally smaller immigrant populations. Researchers wanted to know whether the growing presence of these students has any impact on the educational outcomes of their U.S.-born peers.

David Figlio, provost and professor of economics and education at the University of Rochester, and fellow economists found in past social science literature that the presence of immigrant students had a negative impact on the academic outcomes of U.S.-born students.

However, Figlio and his colleagues recognized that non-immigrant families have greater leeway in terms of selecting where to enroll students (public, private, or charter schools). Immigrant families, meanwhile, typically enroll students in their local neighborhood schools. And past research found that well-resourced white families often move out of schools with growing immigrant student populations, while Black and Latino U.S.-born families and lower-income families stay, Figlio said.

So how can the impact of immigrant students on U.S.-born peers’ academic outcomes accurately be measured when there are cases of families with more resources moving out when they move in?

In a study published in the Review of Economic Studies last year, Figlio and his co-authors—Paola Giuliano with the University of California, Los Angeles, Riccardo Marchingiglio with the Analysis Group consulting firm, Umut Ozek with the RAND Corporation, Paola Sapienza with Northwestern University—analyzed population-level school records and birth records from Florida—a state with one of the largest immigrant student populations in the country across many schools.

In their analysis, they focused on the outcomes of U.S.-born siblings over time, comparing those siblings who had greater and less exposure to immigrant peers. They focused on siblings because these children come from the same families and are in the same educational environment, with the only difference being one sibling might have more immigrant classmates than the other. The study involved about 1.3 million native-born students and the average native-born student in the data had about 6 percent foreign-born classmates.

They found that, in most cases, greater exposure to immigrant peers correlated with better math and reading scores among U.S.-born students.

“Our study puts the lie to the narrative that immigrant kids bring your classroom down,” Figlio said. “We looked at all sorts of different subgroups. We never found any evidence of a negative. The worst-case scenario we found for native-born students was a zero effect, that more immigrant kids in the classroom didn’t hurt or help. But the prevailing evidence we found was that immigrant students help.”

What immigrant students offer U.S.-born peers

While the study focused more on whether the growing presence of immigrant students had any impact on U.S.-born peers, and less on why, Figlio and other researchers do propose theories.

Their study found that the correlation between the presence of immigrants and U.S.-born students’ academic achievement is not explained by the demographic and socioeconomic status composition of schools, level of school resources, diversity of the school body, or class segregation.

“These findings suggest that our main results are likely to be driven by specific traits, behavior, or attitudes of immigrants,” according to the study.

Specifically, immigrant students are more likely to be well-behaved in school, Figlio said. So greater immigrant student presence, on average, tends to reduce levels of classroom misbehavior overall. And research points to classrooms with fewer behavioral disruptions as also having higher academic outcomes.

Another theory Figlio suggests is that a greater number of immigrant students with high motivation to perform well academically in a classroom could boost classroom morale and desire to perform well overall.

“It takes just an extraordinary degree of motivation and desire to make a better life for yourself and your family or for a family to uproot themselves from their home and their culture and make a home in another culture, another country,” Figlio said.

Other hypotheses for why immigrant students’ presence in the classroom has a positive academic impact on U.S.-born students involve spill-over effects, said Julie Sugarman, associate director for K-12 Education Research at the Migration Policy Institute.

For instance, schools with large numbers of immigrant English learners are likely to have more teachers trained in instructional practices that benefit both English learners, and non-English-learner students, Sugarman said.

And through federal and state funding designated for immigrant students, schools can end up investing in resources that benefit all students, Sugarman added. For instance, a school can hire an additional school counselor to support a growing immigrant student and English-learner population but that counselor can also be available to non-immigrants.

Why more schools are enrolling more immigrants

Findings like the one from Figlio’s study are relevant today because of how many more immigrant families are moving into schools that traditionally have not enrolled large numbers of immigrant students at a time, Sugarman said.

“You’re dealing with native populations that are worried, that don’t know what the impact is going to be,” she said. “So it’s really important that people understand this is not something that should be worrying them in terms of their children’s achievement, that diversity in the classroom can be really beneficial.”

While it’s too early to tell exactly how many new immigrant students have enrolled since the start of the pandemic—in large part due to procedural lags in data collection times for federal agencies and delays in immigration proceedings—Sugarman and other researchers have found anecdotal evidence in individual schools and districts across the country navigating influxes.

Some of the growth is tied to refugee families from Afghanistan and Ukraine. There are also families from Venezuela and Haiti fleeing ongoing humanitarian crises, Sugarman said.

Looking ahead, Figlio would like to see his study replicated by using data from other states, though he cautions that any future research must take into account the reality that some U.S.-born families do select out of schools when immigrant populations grow. Researchers must follow a methodological approach such as observing U.S.-born siblings’ exposure to immigrant students over time to ensure they are getting an accurate picture of potential impact.

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