Making the grade: Immigrant children keep academic pace with peers

TALLAHASSEE, Fla. -- Far from being a burden on the educational system, research from Florida State University shows immigrant children perform as well or better than their same-race, American-born counterparts.

FSU Sociology Professor Kathryn Harker Tillman found that first- and second- generation children are no more likely than their third-generation peers to have to repeat a grade despite the many social and economic disadvantages they face. The finding is true for immigrant youth of all racial and ethnic backgrounds or countries of origin. The study, co-authored by colleagues Guang Guo and Kathleen Mullan Harris from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, was published in the journal Social Science Research.

"Immigrant children are more successful navigating the educational system than would be expected," Tillman said. "Against the odds, these children are performing as well as or better than their same-race, third-generation peers."

The researchers used both the Panel Study of Income Dynamics and the National Longitudinal Study of Adolescent Health to look at grade retention among a total of nearly 20,000 school-age children. They focused on grade retention rather than more traditional markers of educational performance, such as high school graduation, dropout rates or grades in order to see how immigrant children navigate the educational system, not just the end result.

Not only are immigrant children no more likely to have to repeat a grade than American-born children, first-generation boys are 54 percent less likely to be held back than their male peers of similar demographic, family background and ability/language characteristics, according to the study. There is no such distinction among girls. Tillman found that girls of all generations and backgrounds have the same rate of being held back.

"Our findings run counter to expectations derived from traditional assimilation theory, which posits that outcomes should improve across time and generation spent in the United States," Tillman said. "The findings also run counter to expectations based upon immigrant children's over-representation in high-risk background categories and general public perceptions of immigrant students."

The results suggest that immigrant children are able to overcome many of the disadvantages that have been found to place children at high risk for grade retention, such as being a racial or ethic minority, having parents with very low levels of education, having low levels of English proficiency and attending schools in urban areas. The researchers theorized that immigrant children may benefit from factors such as higher than average levels of ambition and motivation, high parental expectations, strong beliefs in the importance of education, and/or high levels of family and community support for educational achievement.

"Our finding that males tend to experience more of an immigrant advantage than females leads us to question, however, whether the family and community contexts of immigrant children are equally beneficial for girls and boys," Tillman said. "Given the traditional gender ideologies of many immigrant groups' native cultures, high expectations and high levels of encouragement and support for educational endeavors may be aimed disproportionately at male children."

Although other researchers have found that immigrant children generally do as well as non-immigrants in school, this is the first nationally representative study to show that it is not achieved at the cost of additional years of schooling because of grade failure or policies that hold back students who are adjusting to a new language and culture, she said. Instead, immigrant students succeed while keeping pace with their American-born peers.

About one-fifth of the children in this country are either immigrants or the children of immigrants. This group is expected to account for more than 50 percent of the growth in the school-aged population between 1990 and 2010.

"If we can gain a better understanding of the mechanisms that currently protect socio-economically disadvantaged immigrant children from grade failure we could incorporate that knowledge into the curriculum, policies and intervention strategies and enhance the academic success of all children," Tillman said.

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Last reviewed: By John M. Grohol, Psy.D. on 21 Feb 2009
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