The conventional wisdom about immigrant children suggests they bring substandard skills and poor attitudes to school, and that assimilation - the embracing of mainstream American values and lifestyles - is their salvation.
But a new national study of 25,000 eighth-graders offers compelling evidence to the contrary. The findings are likely to stir further debate about how well immigrant youths learn and whether they are a boon for - or a drag on - the nation’s economy and public schools.
The analysis by two University of Chicago researchers found that Asian, Latino and black children with immigrant parents perform better in school than minorities whose parents were born here. Their grades are superior, they score higher on standardized tests, and they aspire to college at a greater rate than their third-generation peers.
The defining difference, the researchers believe, is the hopeful outlook of their immigrant parents.
Immigrant mothers and fathers generally “harbor optimism about the advantages of playing by the rules and the benefits that will occur through education,” said University of Chicago sociology professor Marta Tienda, one of the authors of the study.
Thus, even though they may occupy the bottom rungs of the socioeconomic ladder, immigrant parents expect to improve their status and strive to ensure their children’s upward mobility. Compared to American-born minority parents, they have a greater tendency to relieve their children of household chores to give them more study time, encourage older siblings to tutor younger children, and restrict television viewing, the study found.
These findings reinforce conclusions reported recently by other immigrant experts that contradict the popular belief that assimilation leads to greater success in school and in life.
“A number of these studies suggest there is a very funny paradox at work,” said Marcelo Suarez-Orozco, visiting professor of human development and psychology at the Harvard Graduate School of Education, whose studies have compared the attitudes and aspirations of Mexican children with successive generations of Mexican migrants to this country.
“New immigrants in general … are reported to be very eager to do well in school, to learn English, as a way of enhancing their status. But there is this paradox that the longer they are in the U.S., the more ambivalent they become in their attitude toward school.”
Suarez-Orozco, whose permanent post is associate professor of anthropology at the University of California, San Diego, says the emerging research indicates that the academic difficulties encountered by many Latino, black and Asian youths may have more to do with their negative experiences as ethnic minorities in this country than with the cultural systems their families brought from their native lands.
The optimism of immigrant parents and children stems from their ability to contrast their new lives against the hardships of life in their old country. But native-born children, says SuarezOrozco, have only the standards of mainstream American society to measure themselves against. They run a greater risk of viewing their future through a “prism of deprivation” and developing a skepticism about the advantages of schooling.
The positive view of the educational attainments of immigrant children may surprise leaders in the anti-immigration movement, who argue that newcomers and their offspring are straining public resources and lowering the quality of life.
Glenn Spenser, founder of a Los Angeles-based group that supports California’s Proposition 187, which restricts access to public services for that state’s illegal immigrants, said he is “totally skeptical” of the findings.
“With California receiving such a large percentage of immigrants from around world,” he said, “we should be experiencing outstanding performances in our schools. I don’t see it, do you?”
But studies by Tienda and others strongly suggest that the debate over immigration is poorly framed, Suarez-Orozco said. “Perhaps the question is, are we (America) still good for immigrants? It may be that assimilation is dangerous to your health.”