Immigrant Students

Vivian Tseng & Nonie K Lesaux. 21st Century Education: A Reference Handbook. Editor: Thomas L Good. Sage Publications. 2008.

Ana and her parents immigrated from Mexico when she was 2 years old. She has attended schools in Los Angeles since kindergarten. She has been schooled entirely in English and has received English language learner (ELL) support throughout her schooling. Now in the ninth grade, she is stuck at the intermediate level of language proficiency and has a lot of difficulty with reading comprehension. Ana speaks Spanish at home with her parents and siblings, and returns to Mexico regularly to see her extended family. As a result, her Spanish is well developed.

Chen was born in the United States and his parents immigrated from Fujian province in China. His father finished elementary school, but his mother went to school for only 2 years. Both his parents work until midnight in a restaurant in New York’s Chinatown. Chen, now 11, is asleep by the time they return home and at school by the time they are awake. His parents always tell him that he must study hard and do well in school, but they are not home to help him with his homework and don’t have the skills to help when they are home.

Natalia is an immigrant who arrived in Massachusetts with her parents at age 16. Her school records from Russia indicate no interruptions in her schooling and a very solid academic record. She was at the top of her class in Russia. Here, however, her performance suggests that her English proficiency is creating difficulties for her understanding of and access to the curriculum. Her teacher thinks that if Natalia works hard on her English over the summer, she may get to the top of her class here in the United States.

Yusuf, a Somali refugee, arrived at a U.S. middle school midway through seventh grade. Given his lack of previous formal schooling, Yusuf is having a hard time adjusting to the culture of U.S. schools while learning English and other subject matter. His teacher is well meaning and encouraging, and she sometimes calls on Yusuf for his insight and reflections. He is reluctant to provide his own opinion or “answer.” In his religion classes in the refugee camp, he was instructed only to repeat what the teacher had said. Yusuf also has had to adjust to a big change in his family. He came here with his mother and brother, but his father and young sister have not yet been able to come. His grandparents, who had raised him, are not planning to immigrate.

Ana, Chen, Natalia, and Yusuf are illustrative examples of the new wave of immigrant students who are transforming schools in the United States. As of the 2000 Census, children of immigrants constituted 20% of the child population, and their numbers are growing seven times faster than that for latter generation children (Schmidley, 2001; Shields & Behrman, 2004). Many of these students are ELLs whose first language is not English. ELLs are one of the fastest-growing school-aged groups. Together, they speak over 350 different languages and make up an estimated 10 million students. Across the nation, teachers and principals are grappling with how to teach immigrant students with limited knowledge of English and U.S. culture; superintendents are struggling with the demands of No Child Left Behind (NCLB) to increase test scores among ELLs; and college faculty and administrators are struggling to prepare teachers and school leaders to meet the educational needs of immigrant students.

We begin this chapter by providing a brief portrait of who today’s immigrants are and the contexts of reception they face in U.S. schools. The next two sections provide a more in-depth look at immigrant families and urban schools: two important settings shaping the educational experiences of children of immigrants. Last, we conclude the chapter by discussing pressing issues that are still on the horizon for researchers, practitioners, and policy makers to tackle in order to improve the educational experiences of these students.

In this chapter, we refer to “immigrant” students as those who are born outside of the United States. The term children of immigrants is broader, including both immigrant and U.S.-born students of foreign-born parents. “Latter-generation” students are U.S.-born children of U.S.-born parents. These are the students whose families have been in the United States for several generations. At times, we discuss how children of immigrants differ from latter-generation children, because parents’ nativity and immigration experiences create family contexts that shape students’ education. At other times, we discuss how immigrant and U.S.-born students differ, because students’ own nativity affects their skills and experiences. Of particular interest are ELLs—be they immigrants or U.S.-born children of immigrants. Since the NCLB Act of 2001, schools have come under greater pressure to increase the achievement of ELLs. Last, we use the term immigrants as inclusive of those who arrived as immigrants and refugees and who have undocumented and legal status in the United States.

Immigrants and Their Contexts of Reception

Immigrants are not of course a new constituency in this country. The first large wave of immigration occurred during the 1700s and included mostly White predominantly English-speaking and Protestant Europeans and African slaves. The second wave from the 1820s to the 1920s was more diverse and included Catholics and Jews, more southern Europeans and non-English speakers, African slaves, and smaller numbers of Asians. Today’s students are members of the third large wave of immigration to the United States that began in 1965 and extends to the present.

The children of immigrants construct their educational experiences based on what they bring with them and their contexts of reception in this country. Like those before them, today’s immigrants bring with them their cultural beliefs and practices, native languages, ties to family and community in their native countries, and for some, experiences of war or persecution. Today’s immigrants, however, bring a greater diversity of cultural backgrounds and languages than did past waves of immigrants. Unlike past immigrants who hailed predominantly from Europe, today’s immigrants are largely from Mexico (39%), Central American and Caribbean countries (16%), and Asian and Pacific Islander countries (23%; Shields & Behrman, 2004).

Students’ educational experiences are also a reflection of their social, political, and economic contexts in this country. Like Irish, Italian, and eastern European immigrants in the early 1900s, today’s Asian, Latino, and Black immigrants encounter xenophobia, ethnic discrimination, and English-only movements. But while past immigrants from Europe largely became part of the White majority, 85% of today’s immigrants are incorporated as people of color in the United States (Shields & Behrman, 2004).

Immigrants today also face schools that have undergone a period of resegregation since the 1970s. While segregation in the 1950s and 1960s was framed as aBlack-and-White issue, many segregated schools today serve multiracial student populations (Orfield & Lee, 2006; Waters, 1999; Zhou & Bankston, 1998). “White flight” and changes in the economy have left urban centers as places of concentrated poverty and minority families. These are the same neighborhoods and schools that draw low-income immigrants and their children. Half of immigrants reside in only five metropolitan areas (Chicago, San Francisco, Miami, Los Angeles, New York) and a third of immigrants reside in Los Angeles and New York alone (Schmidley, 2001). Some children of immigrants attend suburban middle-class schools but most are concentrated in urban districts. These are often the same districts confronting fiscal challenges, dilapidated buildings, overcrowded classrooms, and a chronic record of poor achievement (Hakuta, 1999; McDonnell & Hill, 1993; Snow, Burns, & Griffin, 1998; Zhou & Bankston, 1998).

The concentration of children of immigrants and children of color in poor schools is troubling given the increasing significance of educational attainment for adult success. The economic context has changed dramatically in this country since the last wave of immigration. European immigrants in the early decades of the 1900s arrived during a time of growth in industry and manufacturing. Their children were able to acquire stable blue-collar jobs that provided middle-class security without high school or college degrees. Today’s immigrants face a very different labor market—one that has shifted away from manufacturing to service jobs. At the bottom of today’s economy are low-skill, low-wage service jobs that do not provide upward mobility or middle-class security. The real wages (wages adjusted for inflation) of men without high school degrees or General Educational Development (GED) diplomas has declined by about 25% in the past 3 decades (Nightingale & Fix, 2004). Moreover, the employment consequences of not completing high school are greater for men of color than for White men (Halperin, 1998). At the top of the new economy are high-skill, high-wage professional jobs in technology and communication. In order to “make it” in today’s economy, children of immigrants must acquire high school and college degrees.

Immigrant Families

Demographic Profile: Strengths and Challenges

Demographically, children of immigrants are more likely than latter-generation children to live in two-parent families and in extended households with grandparents, aunts, uncles, and cousins (Hernandez, 2004). Overcrowded homes can put a strain on families, but extended family members also provide child care as well as economic and emotional support for parents and children. Of course, not all immigrant families are the same. Diversity in family structures is driven by economic constraints, refugee challenges, and immigration laws around family reunification. Immigration often creates initial separation from family members as some relatives migrate first, but early arrivals are often followed by a chain migration of brothers and sisters, mothers and fathers, and aunts and uncles. The chain of migration can span long periods, and some immigrant children spend years living apart from one or both parents, residing with relatives in the United States until other family members can immigrate. Or children remain behind in their native countries until one or both parents are able to send for them. Family separation can cause stress and depression for children. Those who are reunified after a long period of separation also must deal with the complex renegotiation of getting to know parents from whom they have been separated.

Immigrant families, like other U.S. families, are economically diverse. On average, however, immigrants have lower household incomes than do nonimmigrants. Immigrant parents are overrepresented in the low-wage labor force and work in such jobs as busboys, waiters, housekeeping and janitorial staff, taxi drivers, construction workers, and home health-care workers. The children of immigrants are almost twice as likely to be living in poverty as are latter-generation children (Schmidley, 2001). They are also less likely to have health insurance (Hernandez, 2004). At the other end of the economic spectrum, immigration policy has favored the migration of highly educated health, engineering, and science professionals to fill our nation’s labor shortages and of wealthy immigrants with capital to invest (Ong, Bonacich, & Cheng, 1994). This economic and educational diversity varies across and within ethnic groups. Mexicans, Cambodians, and Hmongs are most likely to live in poverty. Chinese are economically bifurcated: 40% of immigrants from mainland China do not have high school degrees compared to 8% of those from Taiwan and 18% of those from Hong Kong (Reeves & Bennett, 2004; Zhou, 2003).

Influence of Immigrant Families on Education

Immigration scholars Carola and Marcelo Suârez-Orozco and Irina Todorova (2008) write that “immigrant families frame migration as a familial project in which everyone shares responsibility” (p. 73). Within this context, parents make sacrifices and investments to provide their children with better opportunities, and children are expected to study hard and do well in school to repay their parents. Researchers’ understanding of how immigrant families influence their children’s education largely stem from three kinds of research studies: quantitative analyses of national data sets sponsored by the U.S. Department of Education, smaller survey and interview studies in local schools or school districts, and ethnographic studies of local communities. The majority of these studies focus on middle and high school students, and less is known about younger students in elementary schools and older students in postsecondary schools.

Despite wide variation in parents’ educational backgrounds, immigrant families share striking similarities in the importance they place on education. Studies find that immigrant parents have higher academic motivation, aspirations, and expectations for their children’s education than do U.S.-born parents (Fuligni, 1998). Because immigrant parents’ upward mobility is limited by cultural and language barriers in this country, they channel their greatest hopes for mobility into their children (Chao, 1996; Kim, 1993; Matute-Bianchi, 1991). Their children learn English and U.S. culture more quickly, and parents hope their children can translate those assets into greater educational and economic attainment. Some immigrant parents immigrate to the United States specifically to enhance their children’s educational opportunities, but even those who immigrate for other reasons believe a “better future for their children hinge on the children doing well in school” (Waters, 1999, p. 253). Immigrant parents view education as the central way for their children to “make it” in the United States and working-class parents socialize their children toward educational success by using their own low-wage, low-status work as a reference point. For example, in her ethnography of Punjabi Sikh farm workers, Margaret Gibson (1988) describes parents warning their children that they must do well in school or “the fields [will be] waiting” for them. Even middle-class immigrants express aspirations that their children will attain greater mobility because they face fewer cultural and language barriers than do their parents (Kim, 1993). Immigrant Punjabi Sikh and Vietnamese parents’ emphasis on education is reinforced by tight-knit immigrant communities with strong norms for academic success and sanctions for poor performance as negative reflections on youth’s families (Gibson, 1988; Zhou & Bankston, 1998).

Research suggests that children of immigrants share the importance their parents place on education. Like their parents, students from immigrant families express higher academic motivation, aspirations, and expectations than do students with U.S.-born parents (Fuligni, 1997; Kao & Tienda, 1995; Rumbaut, 1997; Suârez-Orozco & Suârez-Orozco, 1995; Vernez & Abrahamse, 1996). In part, children of immigrants are likely internalizing their parents’ views. In addition, children of immigrants are seeking to repay their parents’ investments and sacrifices. In ethnographies of Punjabi, Mexican, and Central American immigrants, adolescents express strong desires to do well in school so that they can repay their parents (Gibson, 1988; Matute-Bianchi, 1991; Suârez-Orozco, 1991). Immigration raises difficult cultural, language, and economic challenges for immigrant families, and children within these households must rise to the forefront in facilitating their families’ welfare. Children of immigrants’ academic motivation to do well in school is often associated with this sense of family responsibility (Tseng, 2004).

Although youths’ sense of family responsibility contributes to their academic motivation, the demands of taking care of their families can detract from academic achievement. Because many immigrant parents face significant language and cultural barriers, their children carry out important responsibilities such as interpreting for their parents, caretaking of younger siblings and grandparents, helping parents with their jobs or working in family businesses, and contributing to household work (Caplan, Choy, & Whitmore, 1991; Suârez-Orozco, 1991; Valenzu-ela, 1998). The greater time children of immigrants spend on these activities as compared to their latter-generation peers has been found to be associated with lower grades in college (Tseng, 2004). In addition, immigrant adolescents can feel torn between their desires to succeed in school for the sake of their families and to work to help their families with financial hardships (Suârez-Orozco, 1991).

Family-School Connections

A likely challenge to children of immigrants’ schooling is lack of strong family-school connections. In part, school staff and immigrant parents may have differing expectations for parental involvement. U.S. teachers and school officials often view parent attendance at school functions and parent-teacher meetings as key aspects of parent involvement. They also hope parents will read with their children and assist them with their homework. These expectations, however, may not fit with the expectations some immigrant parents have for involvement. Some immigrant parents come from countries where it is not normative for parents to go to their children’s schools and ask questions of teachers. Instead, some immigrant parents view their role as instilling their children with values about the importance of school, providing structure at home to support their children’s education, and then entrusting schools to meet their children’s educational needs.

Socioeconomic challenges pose additional barriers to parent involvement. The poor urban schools which enroll children of immigrants are under considerable strain and are often less likely than wealthier schools to engage parents in school activities. Immigrant parents’ work, lack of English proficiency, and lack of formal education also pose barriers. Parents employed in low-wage work with little flexibility and job security have difficulty attending meetings at their children’s schools. These are often the same parents who work late into the evenings in low-wage jobs and are unavailable to directly assist their children with homework. Moreover, a quarter of immigrant mothers and 40% of immigrant fathers do not have high school degrees, and thus lack the formal education and English skills to directly assist their children with homework (Hernandez, 2004; Suârez-Orozco, Suârez-Orozco, & Todorova, 2008).

More research is needed to test effective ways to improve family-school connections. Researchers suggest various strategies, which may be complementary. One set of strategies focus on building stronger understanding between school staff and families such that school staff better understand the different ways parents are involved in promoting their children’s academic endeavors and immigrant parents better understand what goes on in their children’s schools (Chao, 2007). Another set of strategies involves building stronger relationships between families and school staff, perhaps especially around school transitions (Crosnoe, 2007; Pianta, Cox, Taylor, & Early, 1999). A third set of strategies involves finding ways to compensate for situations in which parents are unable to provide support such as homework assistance (Hill, 2004).


Academic Context of Schooling

Since the NCLB Act of 2001, school districts—particularly urban ones—have been pressed to produce better educational outcomes for minority groups. ELLs, whose first language is not English, is one such group. Passage of NCLB has created heightened awareness of ELLs’ academic needs and achievement. Schools are now held accountable for teaching English and content knowledge to these students. This is important, because the achievement gap between ELLs and native speakers of English is staggeringly large in most districts. On a national assessment of reading comprehension in 2005, only 7% of fourth-grade language-minority learners receiving language support services scored at or above the proficient level compared with 32% of native English speakers (NCES, 2005). The largest and fastest-growing populations of ELLs in the United States consist of students who immigrated before kindergarten and U.S.-born children of immigrants. Many of these learners have been in U.S. schools since kindergarten.

The students we profiled at the beginning of this chapter highlight the diversity that exists within the ELL population. Differences in their native language oral proficiency levels, native language literacy levels, prior schooling experiences, age of arrival, and reasons for immigration must factor into instructional planning to effectively meet ELLs’ needs. Among older students, one student may quickly gain the English necessary to succeed in a mainstream classroom with little support because he or she has high levels of native language and literacy, while another student may need extensive support because of limited former schooling. The student with high levels of language and literacy in the native language has developed a lot of knowledge, academic skills, and concepts that readily apply in the United States. She or he often just needs the English language to demonstrate this knowledge. Here, one can think of needing new “labels” for existing knowledge and concepts. In contrast, immigrant children who enter with limited formal schooling and/or gaps in their schooling need significant support to develop English proficiency and acquire the knowledge and skills needed for school success.

Among students in U.S. schools, ELLs may be the most vulnerable to the challenges that urban districts face in providing effective schooling for all learners. There are three major considerations: (1) the classification system for providing support services for ELLs; (2) the distinction between conversational and academic language; and (3) the fact that a large proportion of ELLs attend schools in low-income urban neighborhoods.

ELL Classification

There are about 10 million students in the United States who come from homes where a language other than English is used regularly. Only about 5.5 million of these students receive formal support services to increase their English proficiency to handle the “mainstream” curriculum. Within the ELL support service classification system, there are three different designations used to classify ELLs based on their language proficiency, determined by combining parent questionnaire data, teacher judgments, and language assessments given to children.

One classification is initial fluent English proficient (I-FEP). This group of students come from homes where a language other than English is spoken and enter school—in kindergarten or later—with levels of English proficiency that are considered high enough to integrate into mainstream classrooms without specialized language support. A second classification is limited English proficient (LEP) or ELL. This group of students is considered in need of English proficiency support while learning in mainstream classrooms. Their progress is monitored regularly, and once they have developed English skills at a level considered high enough to independently access and learn from the mainstream curriculum, they are redesignated as fluent English proficient (R-FEP). When classified as R-FEP, these students no longer receive language support.

Although this classification system is a logical one, it is not without problems because of the range of ELLs’ language proficiency and the requirement that all children receive the needed supports to access grade-level curriculum. Coined by Robert Linquanti (2001) as the “redesignation dilemma,” some ELLs are misclassified. These students might be overlooked for language support services, reclassified before they can thrive in the mainstream classroom, or placed in classes that provide language support but fail to match their academic ability.

For example, students may be misclassified as initially I-FEP when they enter school, because they have generally good basic conversational proficiency in English. However, these students might not have the English needed for classroom success. Research shows that many ELLs who are classified as I-FEP when they enter kindergarten are at the same level as their native-English speaking classmates, but they fall behind by third grade and do not catch up (Gândara & Rumberger, 2002). As kindergartners they have enough basic language to be classified as “proficient” for their age based on the tests and language skills needed for kindergarten success. The problem is that they may not develop English quickly enough to keep up with the language demands of the curriculum as it dramatically increases across the grades. As reading and writing become central to classroom instruction and school access, many ELLs start to lose ground, and they are never reassessed for language proficiency. ELLs’ English proficiency may be developing without formal support but not quickly enough to keep up with the expectations of the curriculum (see below for a discussion of academic language). A student’s initial (mis)designation of I-FEP might mean a long-term academic struggle that goes unrecognized as stemming from lack of language skills.

Misclassification may also result in the placement of students in language classes that do not match their academic abilities. For some ELLs—such as Natalia whom we met at the beginning of the chapter—the language support classrooms in which ELLs or LEPs are placed are important because these students need to acquire English language skills. In these classes, however, learners like Natalia sometimes receive a watered-down or modified curriculum that is not rigorous or challenging enough to keep her academic development at grade level. Students classified as R-FEP and placed in mainstream classrooms without support are likely to encounter more difficult and abstract content, especially with increasing grade levels (De George, 1988). It is very important for language support services to be academically challenging so that when ELL or LEP students are reclassified to be in mainstream classrooms without support, they are prepared to succeed. A strong relationship between the content in ELL and mainstream classrooms is crucial. In the next section, we discuss how academic language is often a barrier to ELLs’ school success.

Conversational versus Academic Language

School success—largely driven by the ability to read with understanding and write in a sophisticated way— requires many skills. Some of the most important skills involve vocabulary and academic language, the language of text. While other factors such as motivation and drive, persistence, and quantitative skills are important for much learning, we cannot overstate the role of language in determining students’ academic success.

Throughout the upper elementary, middle, and high school years, teachers rely heavily on textbooks to structure their lessons, deliver content to students, and plan student homework. Most ELLs do not need instruction in basic English, but many lack the academic English vocabulary needed to learn from classroom texts. As we noted earlier, many ELLs with academic challenges have been enrolled in U.S. schools since kindergarten, but by the upper elementary years do not have the formal classification needed to receive language or academic support. Instead, they are learners who typically have good conversational English skills, but lack much of the academic language that is important for success with reading texts.

There are many skills and factors wrapped up in academic language. Language in texts differs greatly from language in day-to-day conversations. In reading, students encounter many words (e.g., analyze, sustain, estimate) that are not part of everyday classroom conversation, yet are key to students’ abilities to comprehend and learn from texts. In addition, many English words have multiple meanings. The rare meaning of a word is used in texts much more often than in conversation. Texts use words that are much longer and more complex than those used in conversation. Moreover, texts include the abundant use of figurative language and idiomatic expressions. Some textbook authors use metaphors to convey concepts (e.g., a science text may state that the earth is a bit like a soft-boiled egg, with a hard shell and a semiliquid core). To read for meaning, students need to understand complex sentence structures and grammatical constructions. This is not an exhaustive list of the ways that the language of text differs from the language of everyday conversation, but it gives an idea of the linguistic challenges facing all students, especially ELLs.

Having academic language skills becomes especially important with increasing years of schooling because students need to read effectively in order to gain concepts, ideas, and facts in content areas such as math, science, and social studies. It is important to keep in mind that exposure to more linguistically challenging text often happens long after ELLs have received formal language support services. It is also important to consider that many ELLs are attending low-performing schools; we discuss the implications of this in the next section.

The Context of Instruction in Urban Schools

Educating ELLs is a challenge within urban schools that are under considerable strain and have limited resources. These schools have high teacher turnover. Their teaching forces often lack the specialized knowledge of second language development and the experience and teaching credentials necessary to effectively meet ELLs’ needs. Like many of their native English-speaking classmates in urban schools, many ELLs do not have access to high-quality instruction, and their specific needs go unmet. A study conducted in California—the state with the highest number of ELLs in the country—showed that ELLs are subject to more inferior teaching practices than their native English-speaking peers, even within the same schools (Gândara & Rumberger, 2002). Other research has shown that approximately 76% of district special education administrators do not have services specially designed for ELLs with academic difficulties (Zehler et al., 2003). Having formal support services in place is a critical element in serving at-risk learners and increases the likelihood of ongoing formal and informal professional development for teachers serving diverse groups of students. A challenge for every urban district in the nation is to infuse more expertise into their systems in order to meet ELLs’ needs. Effective instruction, assessment, and judgment on the part of teachers are central to the academic achievement of all learners, but particularly those, such as ELLs, who are especially at risk for school difficulties.

The Context of Violence in Urban Schools

NCLB has focused considerable attention on academic achievement in public schools, but less research and policy attention has focused on the alarming reports of violence in urban schools. These schools do not represent the entire population of schools serving immigrants, but very often immigrants are concentrated in these schools. Ethnographers who have spent months and years in these schools describe them as places of overwhelming violence and interracial tension. In her work in New York City, Mary Waters (1999) describes her observations of two high-poverty and segregated Black high schools serving both West Indian and latter-generation African American students. She goes so far as to write that “violence and the fear of violence dominated school life” (p. 259). During her year of fieldwork, over 1,700 weapons were confiscated and almost 4,000 incidents of assaults, robberies, sex offenses, and drug and weapon possessions were reported to the New York City Board of Education.

In schools with multiracial populations, ethnographers describe violent and racialized school contexts. Suârez-Orozco, Suârez-Orozco, and Todorova (2008) describe one Boston high school in terms of daily taunting and racial epithets, as a school where fighting and threats of violence are ever present. Gibson (1988) found that immigrant Punjabi students in an agricultural community were abused physically and verbally, with some students refusing to sit next to Punjabis in class, crowding ahead of them in lines, throwing food at them, sticking them with pins, telling them they stink, and harassing boys for wearing turbans. Zhou and Bankston (1998) describe armed guards and violent fights in the New Orleans schools that serve Vietnamese immigrants. Portes and Rumbaut (2001) found that four out of ten children of immigrants in their San Diego study reported many gangs and frequent fights between racial-ethnic groups.

Research by Rosenbloom and Way (2004) suggests that there may be ethnic differences in how discrimination is manifested in multiracial schools. In their study of a New York City school, immigrant Chinese students most often described discrimination involving their peers. They described “slappings”—quick strikes to the head or body— by male and female peers as they walked through hallways and reported being pushed, punched, teased, and mocked with slurs such as “chino” or “geek.” African American, Puerto Rican, and immigrant Dominican adolescents, in contrast, more often described discrimination involving adults including teachers, storekeepers, and police officers. From the perspective of African American and Latino students, teachers favored and had higher expectations for Chinese students than they did for African American and Latino students. This situation, in turn, contributed to interracial tensions between Chinese students and their African American and Latino peers.

Interracial tensions within schools likely reflect relationships in the broader community. In Los Angeles and New York where African American and Latino neighborhood residents and Korean American store owners have experienced conflict, community tensions may manifest themselves among youth in schools. Lee (1996), for example, argues that intergroup tension between Korean American and African American students parallels the tensions involving Korean-owned businesses in African American neighborhoods, with some African American students describing Asian American students’ success as being at the expense of African Americans. Lee (1996) quotes an African American informant who explains, “a lot of people I know don’t like Asian people…. They say, they came over here and they bought up everything and now look at them in school” (p. 99).


We conclude this chapter by looking ahead to additional issues on the horizon for researchers, policy makers, and practitioners as they seek to improve the educational experiences of children of immigrants.

First, there is a need to better understand and address the barriers for educational attainment among subgroups of children of immigrants. Southeast Asian and Latino youth have alarmingly low rates of high school and college completion. Immigrant Latino youth have the lowest rates of high school completion—about 50%. Some of these youth drop out of U.S. schools, but others never attended U.S. schools, having either immigrated after the traditional school age or having gone straight into work. Paralleling the pattern of high school completion are similarly low rates of college enrollment and completion among Latino immigrants and U.S.-born children of immigrants. Like Latinos, only 6-7% of Cambodians, Laotians, and Hmongs 25 years and older have bachelor’s degrees. For southeast Asians, their educational needs are often overlooked because of the stereotype of all Asian Americans as a “model minority” who succeed in school (Yang, 2004). Data that aggregate Asian groups together mask the educational difficulties facing southeast Asians. Similarly, data aggregating all Latino groups together mask a nuanced reality wherein some groups such as early Cuban immigrants are faring much better than later Cuban immigrants and Mexican immigrants.

In addition, more attention should be directed to the increasing presence of immigrants in new receiving states. From 1990 to 2000, 12 states experienced 100-200% increases in their immigrant populations (Hernandez, 2004). Unlike schools in California and New York, school districts in these largely Midwestern and Southeastern states do not have the infrastructure to meet the educational needs of immigrant students. Given the requirements of NCLB, these schools are under pressure to quickly learn how to serve their new ELLs (Perez, 2004).

Third, reform efforts may need to consider a longer education pipeline that includes K-12 and postsecondary education. Focusing narrowly on K-12 schooling will not be sufficient for immigrants’ economic prosperity in today’s knowledge economy. Today, high school graduates have more limited job prospects than they did in the past. College graduates are likely to earn $500,000-$ 1,000,000 more than high school graduates over their lifetimes (Geske & Cohn, 1998). The monetary returns tend to be even greater for African Americans and women. Students’ high school diplomas must provide them access to higher education programs. Access here implies more than admission to college and includes an understanding of college programs and structures, college application processes including Scholastic Assessment Test (SAT) exams, and financial aid applications. It also implies rigorous academic preparation in high school that sets up students to succeed in college. A major problem today is that many students—especially those from low-income, minority backgrounds—who enroll in 2- and 4-year public colleges are not academically prepared to succeed. Many of these students are assigned to remedial classes and drop out of college before earning a degree (Biancarosa & Snow, 2006).

Immigrant students with undocumented status face greater difficulties with college access because of barriers to financial aid. Each June, local news stations across the nation report on high school valedictorians whose undocumented status prohibits access to in-state tuition. Undocumented students are charged fees as international students, thereby obstructing their abilities to afford higher education. Advocates argue that policies providing undocumented immigrants access to in-state tuition would increase their education rates, but policy enactment may not in and of itself be sufficient. In states where policies have been enacted to allow in-state tuition fees for undocumented immigrants, research does not show an influx of children of immigrants enrolling in college. Researchers and politicians speculate many causes for this, including lack of awareness that the policy exists, limited access to effective college counseling in high school, lack of academic preparation, and reluctance to self-identify on government records as an undocumented immigrant for fear of negative ramifications.