Curriculum

Immigrant Students Find U.S. Schools Less Demanding

By Mary Ann Zehr — January 17, 2001 7 min read
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When 16-year-old Vitola Kola is asked to compare the rigor of schooling at English High School here with that of Albania, her home country, she replies without hesitation, “It’s easier.”

During her six months in the United States, the 9th grader says, she has had fewer academic subjects, shorter school days, and less homework than she did in Albania. Albanian is her native tongue, but in her homeland she took all her subjects in French—and also studied Italian and English.

In America, she says, “the teacher makes it so easy—you can do it with your eyes closed. ... You have all day to learn one thing. You go over and over it so you learn it.”

The view that school in America is less demanding than in other countries is common among immigrant teenagers at English High. Students who moved here in the past two years from countries as varied as Nigeria, Ethiopia, Poland, Guinea, Israel, the Dominican Republic, and Pakistan all recently described U.S. schooling as “easy.”

Immigrant students interviewed within the past year at Central High School in Providence, R.I.; Annandale High School in Fairfax, Va.; and International High School in New York City expressed the same opinion.

The characterization is prevalent and is probably on target for many secondary students who move to the United States, said John H. Bishop, an economist at Cornell University. He once taught school in Nigeria and has conducted research comparing education in the United States with that in Canada, Europe, and Asia. “The amount of work is generally higher in most of Europe and dramatically higher in East Asia,” he said.

“We have to worry about Americans,” agreed Herbert J. Walberg, a research professor of education and psychology at the University of Illinois at Chicago. He has compared education in Asia with that in the United States and examined data from the Third International Mathematics and Science Study. On the most recent round of that cross-national study, U.S. 8th graders scored significantly lower in mathematics and science than their peers in 14 of the 38 participating countries. (“U.S. Students’ Scores Drop by 8th Grade,” Dec. 13, 2000.)

“My view is that if our students studied harder, had more homework, had external exams they were competing on, and had a longer school year, they would do substantially better,” Mr. Walberg said.

Different Atmosphere

Teachers at Boston’s English High point out that school isn’t easy for all immigrant teenagers here. They note, for example, that the school has a lot of Dominican students whose academic backgrounds fall along a wide spectrum. Some aren’t used to doing homework and balk at being assigned it. And some students from war-torn African countries, such as Somalia, may not have had any schooling before coming here.

But school is less rigorous for many of the school’s immigrant students, said Lisa Pred-Sosa, an English-as-a-second-language teacher at English High. “For a lot of kids, they have fewer subjects, shorter days, and less homework. They have to study less for tests. Tests are easier here.”

Education experts and some teachers caution against reading too much into such a straw poll of students’ views, saying the education of many students who end up in this country may not be typical of their peers’ schooling back home.

“There’s always a possibility they are comparing the school they have in the United States with an above- average school in their own country,” Mr. Bishop said.

Overall, English High’s students have poor scores on the standardized state tests for Massachusetts. But the school’s level of academic instruction for immigrant students is typical of Boston public schools, said Jane E. Lopez, a staff lawyer for Multicultural Education, Training, and Advocacy, an independent group that monitors services to limited-English-proficient students in the 64,000-student system as part of a court consent decree. Twenty-nine percent of English High’s 1,300 students have limited proficiency in English.

Others suggest that immigrants’ perceptions of their high school courses as being easy may reflect a less formal, but still effective, learning environment in American classrooms than they were accustomed to in their native countries.

“It doesn’t surprise me that students come and see cooperative- learning groups and more interaction with the teacher, and may view it as easier than the more didactic system that many countries have, where teachers lecture and students copy and memorize information,” said Deborah J. Short, the director for language education and academic development for the Center for Applied Linguistics, a Washington research organization.

But the experts also give credence to the students’ comments.

Mr. Bishop said his research shows that secondary-level students in many countries work harder than American students, in part because they must take national curriculum-based exams. He believes states should adopt standardized, end-of-course exams for specific subjects similar to those required in Europe, for example, and have the scores factored into students’ grades.

According to Ms. Short, many U.S. educators are coming to realize they must increase the rigor of the academic content offered to immigrant students, given new pressure from the academic-standards movement and the federal government to include LEP students in state systems of testing and accountability.

A typical new immigrant student at English High has three periods a day of core academic subjects taught in rudimentary English, plus two periods of English-language instruction, a computer-literacy course, and an elective. The schedule is not uncommon for immigrants attending a high school that offers sheltered-English courses, which provide regular academic subjects in simplified English, and ESL classes, Ms. Short said.

Pass or Fail

Of 13 immigrant students interviewed at English High, 10 said school was easier overall here than it was back home. The three students who said school in the United States was harder were from the Dominican Republic, though another Dominican characterized school here as easier.

“Maybe they do it easier for me here because I don’t know English,” said 11th grader Lev Sachakov, a 17-year-old native of Russia. He attended school for four years in Israel before his family moved to Boston several months ago.

In Israel, he went to school six days a week and for more hours per day, though a part of the day was spent in an engineering apprenticeship. Mr. Sachakov said he spent an average of four hours a night on homework or studying, rather than two as he does here.

Another 11th grader, Oumar Camara, said anticipation of national exams given three times each year in core academic subjects made schooling in his native Guinea, in West Africa, tougher than in the United States.

“In my country, they have a lot of rules,” he said. “They don’t give a D. There is no makeup. If you pass, you pass. If you fail, you fail. You have to review every day.”

One student’s perception that school is easier in America, however, seemed to have more to do with resources than rigor. “It’s easier than in Ethiopia because here there are a lot of materials,” said Negus Neguse, an 11th grader at English High. “Back in Ethiopia, the teachers write on the board, and we have to copy it.”

Most students said mathematics, in particular, is easier in the United States than in their home countries.

Mr. Sachakov demonstrated that point recently when he caught an error on the blackboard in a mainstream class of advanced algebra. After failing to get the message across in English that his teacher had accidentally overlooked a negative sign on a number, he slipped up to the board and corrected the problem.

English High’s immigrant students, especially those from Eastern European countries such as Albania, are often way ahead of American students in math, said Jerry Howland, a calculus teacher and math coach for the high school. He said teachers try to move immigrant students along to harder courses if they believe the students are ready for them.

Unfortunately, he said, some of the highest achievers immigrating to the United States don’t get the best education Boston has to offer because they arrive too old to qualify for entry into the city’s strongest high schools. The prestigious Boston Latin School, for example, enrolls students according to their performance on an entrance exam taken either in the 6th or 8th grade.

“If Vitola had come here in the 1st grade,” Mr. Howland said, “she’d be at Boston Latin.”

A version of this article appeared in the January 17, 2001 edition of Education Week as Immigrant Students Find U.S. Schools Less Demanding

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