The Pew Research Center has predicted that by 2050 more than a third of schoolchildren “younger than 17 will either be immigrants themselves or the children of at least one parent who is an immigrant,” (Harvard). Still, schools find themselves unable to help immigrant students overcome the educational barriers they face (Pong). Research has found “a significant academic achievement gap among immigrant children”  when compared to the native-born population (Lemu, 35). A survey by the Census Bureau concluded that less than half of US immigrants report speaking English “Very Well” (Dinan). The inability of students and/or their parents to speak English adequately contributes significantly to the educational achievement gap (Turney). The current United States education system fails to address the demands of learning English, the barriers to parental involvement in education, and the concentrated socioeconomic disadvantage that causes students to academically underachieve.

Decreased school funding and the lower socioeconomic status of immigrants compared to natives create barriers to academic success. Immigrants tend to settle in existing immigrant communities based on family, social, or ethnic connections to the area (Portes).  While this provides a familiar and often valuable social network for people of immigrant status (Zhou), it tends to concentrate socioeconomic disadvantage into immigrant neighborhoods (Saiz, 169). Poverty rates among immigrants are higher on average than those of US natives (Van Hook), so immigrant communities tend to have a large proportion of socioeconomically disadvantaged individuals (Saiz). Also, evidence supports a “causal interpretation of an impact from growing immigrant density to native flight and relatively slower housing value appreciation” (Saiz, 169). As immigrants move into an area, native whites tend to find those areas less valuable because of a desire for “residential segregation based on ethnicity and education” (Saiz, 169). Property values for immigrant communities then decline due to natives’ decreased desire to settle in the area (Saiz). A lowering of immigrant community property values when compared with those of native communities directly decreases the relative school funding within those communities, as school funding is derived from property tax (Augenblick). Meta-analysis shows that “Latino immigrant adolescents of Mexican, Cuban, and Puerto Rican descent tend to attend low SES schools” (Pong). Students that go to poorly funded schools in socioeconomically disadvantaged areas “not only suffer from lack of resources at home, but their schools must also scrape by on the minimum” (Lynch). These students have fewer community resources, less individual attention in larger class sizes, and less access to the arts and after school activities that require funding (Lynch).  Without these resources, immigrant students have significantly lower GPAs than natives, and tend to have less long term academic success (Banerjee). Because “educational achievement has substantial consequences for future SES,” low academic achievement is passed down to future generations, decreasing social mobility (Banerjee).

Immigrant students also suffer when their parents are unable to take an active role in their education (Turney). “Research finds that parental involvement in children’s education is linked to academic or behavioral success” in early academic development (Turney, 257), and influences long-term success (Banerjee, 5). Research indicates that parental involvement increases the benefits parents can receive from social networks established at the school (Turney). By attending parent-teacher conferences, attending Parent Teacher Organization meetings, or otherwise participating in school events, “parents get to know other parents teachers and administrators who may discuss their children’s performance with them” (Turney, 258). Through these sources, parents gain information about how and when to intervene in their children’s education (Turney). In doing so, parents demonstrate their interest in their children’s education so that students may understand the value of it (Turney).

A disproportionate amount of immigrants face cultural, linguistic, and economic barriers to participation in their children’s education (Van Hoot). As parental participation often requires significant time and resources, “families living in high poverty, high unemployment and low-education neighbourhoods, are known to employ fewer education-oriented practices with their children” (Banerjee, 5). Families who cannot afford child care and a means of safe transportation to the school cannot enjoy the benefits of school events. Parents who are not comfortable with English are not able to gain the full benefits of meetings conducted in English, just as “parents who have not lived in the United States for a long time are less familiar with the educational system and, therefore, less likely to get involved” (Banerjee 260). In this way, immigrant families are at a cross section of disadvantage that limits the ability of parents to participate in their children’s education, thereby worsening their educational and occupational achievement.

Many immigrants who do not speak English are placed into English as a Second Language programs where they are segregated from the other students. While immigrants are not necessarily the only students in the ESL programs, a significant proportion of immigrants do qualify for these programs (Arias). The idea of these programs is ostensibly to help to students by teaching them in terms they will understand and quickly catching them up to their non-ESL classmates (Yackle). In reality it can takes 4-7 years to learn the academic English necessary to succeed in secondary school classrooms. (Yackle) In the meantime students’ “curriculum consists primarily of English as a second language (ESL) and sheltered content classes for most of their day” (Faltis). This “sheltered content” tends to be fairly rudimentary, limiting students exposure to challenging academics (Yackle).

Given the issues with ESL programs, it is unsurprising that ESL students lag behind in reading and math when compared with their non-ESL counterparts, even when including factors like race and socioeconomic status (Fry). While African Americans and Hispanics often face similar socioeconomic and racial barriers to academic success as immigrants, ESL students perform significantly worse in school than native minorities (Fry). By 8th Grade, while 49 and 45 percent of African Americans and Hispanics, respectively, were below the basic levels for competency in reading and math, over 70 percent of ESL students were below the basic level (Fry). Given that “English mastery is the single most important prerequisite for academic success and socioeconomic assimilation of immigrant children” it may be difficult for the US education system to instruct students who speak limited English to keep pace academically with non-ESL students (Arias). However, segregating the students worsens the problem by removing the immersive language experience under which language learning is fastest (Yackle). When schools keep students “physically and socially separated from the rest of the students,” they are “perpetuating a larger linguistic isolation that is occurring in society as a result of language barriers” (Yackle, 3). Many immigrant ESL families speak their language of origin at home, so when ESL programs take students away from native English speaking classmates, they remove immigrant students’ ability to learn outside the classroom, hindering their linguistic development (Yackle). Segregating students into an isolated program because they are unable to take traditional courses, unjustifiably stigmatizes them as not just incapable of understanding English, but also as incapable of the complex thought required for that material. This assumption of intellectual inferiority is reflected in the “sheltered content” most ESL students encounter. Not only does remedial content limit students’ intellectual growth, but the segregation into ESL programs itself subjects students to the stereotype threat (Suárez-Orozco). According to the theory of stereotype threat, people tend to act in ways consistent with perceived stereotypes about them, so when ESL students assume that placement into an ESL program marks them as intellectually inferior, they unconsciously act according to that expectation (Suárez-Orozco).

Two-way immersion programs better suit the needs of students, often from immigrant families, who qualify as ESLs (Yackle). They allow advanced coursework at the same time as language learning, participation is less stigmatized and participants are able to interact with peers who speak the language they want to learn (Yackle). Two-way immersion programs “involve placing English speakers and Spanish speakers in the same classroom, with instruction given in both languages” (Yackle, 7). Students are able to use peers as tutors for their non-native language, thereby helping Native English speakers and non-native speakers alike to learn and collaborate. Research has shown that “exposure to native English speakers through daily formal and informal contact is a prerequisite for acquisition of academic English” (Arias). TWI programs help students develop interpersonal relationships with speakers of their non-native language, so that they may also practice English outside the classroom (Yackle). This form of language immersion allows students to focus on the challenging core material of the course rather than “attend four-hour long English Language Development (EDL) classes” like in an ESL class (Yackle, 3). Two Way Immersion programs provide opportunities for native and non-native English speakers to learn a new language in addition to their normal school work, without the social stigmatization inherent in isolating one group (Yackle). In this way, TWI programs avoid the stereotyping threat that affects many ESL students (Suárez-Orozco).

Immigrants often have lower socioeconomic outcomes partly because of the education achievement gap between immigrants and US natives (Deary). While socioeconomic and linguistic challenges are themselves barriers to success, the educational disadvantages they help cause also have significant effect on future life income (Banerjee). Even controlling for race, gender, SES, and IQ, “education significantly influenced upward social mobility” (Deary, 455). By extension, immigrants who do not have the same access to quality education have limited upward mobility. In fact, some studies have shown “the second‐generation immigrants, who were expected to outperform their parents, had higher poverty rates” (Kazemipur, 1129). In this way, the education gap contributes to the self-perpetuation and intensification of socioeconomic disadvantage for immigrants. Lower socioeconomic status correlates to higher risk of health complications (Health Affairs), worse living conditions (Kearns), and decreased ratings of personal happiness (Feeny).  

Because of obstacles against parent involvement in student education, language barriers that are poorly addressed by ESL programs, and socioeconomic challenges, immigrants are centered in a cross section of disadvantage in the current United States Education System. Immigrant communities are often socioeconomically underprivileged and are serviced by underfunded schools (Pong). When parents cannot fully participate in their children’s education because they can’t afford child care, have no means of transportation to school meetings, or do not speak the language of those meetings, the disadvantage compounds (Turney). When students cannot speak English well enough to perform in a traditional classroom they are placed in ESL programs that hinder their academic performance when compared to Two-Way Immersion programs. (Yackle) All of these factors translate to a massive academic achievement gap between US natives and the rapidly growing immigrant community (Fry). Without education as a means of social mobility, a system of intergenerational poverty is reinforced and immigrant families suffer.


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May 1, 2018