EdMedia Commons Archive

Five Questions For … Dylan Conger on Immigrant Students

  1. When reporters get data about immigrant student achievement, it’s typically lumped into one category. Do we need to start asking districts to break down the data into more specified categories, such as the length of time a student has been in the local school system?

    It is true that there are large differences between immigrant groups and those distinctions are often not clarified in education news stories.  Researchers tend to focus on differences by race, country of origin, generational status, and age of entry.  For instance, Asian immigrants and their children tend to fare relatively well in school and the labor market, in part, because they migrate with higher levels of education and skill.  Hispanic immigrants, in contrast, particularly those from Mexico and other Latin American countries, fare worse. This is why there is such a large emphasis on policies that promote Latino education. One popular policy, which has received widespread support in the research community, is access to quality and affordable preschool, which many immigrants (and particularly Latinos) have less access to.

    As far as whether a district should break down the data into more specified categories, I would point out that most districts and schools currently do not examine the performance of immigrant students separately from native-born.  And, I’m not sure immigrant students should be treated as an additional category.  In my reading of the literature, most of the variation in achievement among immigrants can be explained by the same things that explain variation among native-born: Big ticket items are parental education, poverty, language proficiency, and race.  Black and Hispanic immigrants fare worse than Asian and white immigrants.  Poor immigrants fare worse than non-poor immigrants. Immigrants who are English language learners fare worse than immigrants who are not ELL. These are the current subcategories under NCLB and I believe they reflect the kinds of disparities we worry about among the immigrant population.

  2. What are your thoughts about the increasing popularity of dual-language programs, where entire schools, made up of both native and non-native speakers, divide instructional time between English and a second language?

    As a person who values multilingualism and integration, I appreciate dual language programs for their goals. They aim to increase bi-literacy and foster cross-cultural understanding for all students.  What is unique and, I think, potentially valuable about dual language programs is their emphasis on promoting these outcomes for all students, including white students who would otherwise have limited exposure and knowledge of other ethnic groups, cultures and languages.

    Whether dual language programs are more effective at teaching English to ELL students than English-only instruction or bilingual education remains an open question and, as you know, there is a great deal of debate over this subject. To my knowledge, there are no experimental studies on the relative effectiveness of dual language programs; thus, the causal effect of these programs on students’ English acquisition and other outcomes is unknown.  My understanding of the latest experimental research in English language instruction is that the quality of the teacher (and the teacher’s effectiveness in working with ELL students) can be equally, or perhaps more, important than whether the students’ native language is used. Robert Slavin’s work (as founder of the Success for All initiative) is a good source for this area of research.

    More work needs to be conducted to determine the relative effectiveness of the programs on English language acquisition but also other important outcomes, including knowledge of subject matter, native-language literacy, and cross-cultural understanding. We need better data on how much these programs cost to determine the most cost effective approach.

  3. Have you seen Race to the Top or any of the other new federal grant programs spurring new reforms related to ELL or programs related to immigrant students? What should education writers and reporters be watching for in the coming months?

    The RTT Assessment grants, which provide grants to two consortia of states to develop comprehensive assessment systems based on common standards, includes English language proficiency testing.  The DOE just had a public meeting on August 10 that focused on students with disabilities and English learners.  This is an important step and will help to reduce the variation across states in how ELL is defined.

  4. Immigrant students are often blamed for supposedly dragging down overall school achievement. But your research has found some immigrant students, particularly in younger grades, actually outperform their English-only peers. Can you elaborate?

    Immigrant students are often blamed for pulling districts down.  The reality is a bit more nuanced.  Many immigrant students tend to achieve lower than the average, white, native-born, middle to high income student.  However, this is not always true of Asian immigrants, who often perform higher than white students from high resource backgrounds.  In addition, when black and Hispanic immigrants are compared to black and Hispanic native-born students who have similar socioeconomic backgrounds, they often perform better in school.  This means that it is not their immigrant status that leads to low achievement, but rather their status as poor, racial minorities.  In fact, being an immigrant or an immediate descendent of an immigrant might actually be a protective factor.  There has been a lot of research trying to understand this “immigrant paradox” – some researchers focus on the cultural values that immigrant groups possess regarding academic achievement, work, family, and authority figures that might help them succeed even in the face of low levels of human capital.

  5. When you read stories about English language learners or immigrant students, is there a common theme or area where reporters are missing the mark, or trends you would encourage them to watch for?

Most of the mainstream reporting on immigrants tends to portray them as a drain on school resources. I’d like to see a little less reporting on their deficits and a little more reporting on the positive attributes that immigrant students bring to schools. In fact, there may be something to be learned from immigrant families about how to protect children from the challenges associated with being poor, minority and in under-resourced schools and neighborhoods. Such reporting might help to reduce anti-immigrant sentiment and help persuade legislators to remove barriers to immigrant students’ educational success; for instance, policies that charge out-of-state tuition to undocumented immigrant students who have lived in the U.S. for most of their youth may prevent them from pursuing and completing a college degree.


This post originally appeared on EWA’s now-defunct online community, EdMedia Commons. Old content from EMC will appear in the Ed Beat archives.