School Success of Immigrants’ Children Tracked


A five-year study of the educational progress of 2,400 children of immigrants in San Diego has found that they quickly embrace English over their parents’ native tongues--contrary to the fears of anti-immigration groups.

The study--part of the largest long-range survey of immigrants’ children in the United States--also found that these youths had better grades and lower dropout rates than fellow public school students whose parents were born in the United States.

But the study also found stark disparities in ambition among various immigrant groups, and that many resist identifying themselves merely as Americans, thus providing ammunition to both sides in the debate over whether immigration is a blessing or a curse.


The study is part of a massive effort by researchers from Michigan State and Princeton universities to follow 5,000 children in San Diego and Miami, two centers of immigrant settlement. It focused on “the new second generation” in the belief that these youths, more than their parents, hold the answers to hotly contested questions about the long-term effects of immigration, such as: Will English lose dominance? Do immigrant children drag down test scores?

“Some immigrant groups and their children are doing well and seem poised to join the middle-class mainstream--if they are not there already,” said Michigan State sociologist Ruben G. Rumbaut, who coordinated the project in the San Diego Unified School District.

But others risk “joining downtrodden native groups in the inner cities,” he said, a possibility that lends urgency to efforts to understand the prospects of 8 million immigrant youths nationwide.

Anti-immigration groups, in attacking the study’s hopeful findings, said there is plenty of evidence that immigrants of the last two decades have not been good for America. “What they have found is in direct contradiction to what other studies have found . . . that children of less-educated immigrants tend not to do well in school,” said Ira Mehlman of the Federation for American Immigration Reform in Los Angeles.

Yet even some of these critics agreed with one of the study’s conclusions--that American culture may erode the work ethic of immigrants. The study found, for instance, that immigrant students spend less time on homework the longer they live here.

San Diego Unified, with 133,000 students, is the eighth-largest school district in the nation. It was chosen for the study in part because white students make up nearly a third of the enrollment, Latinos another third, and blacks and Asians most of the rest.


Starting in 1991, Rumbaut chose as his subjects the 2,420 students in the eighth and ninth grades who had at least one foreign-born parent, then followed them until 1995, when they were near the end of high school. The students represented more than 60 nationalities. About half were born in the United States and half in another country. Mirroring the immigrant pool in California and the nation as a whole, they were about evenly divided among Latinos--the vast majority from Mexico--Filipinos, and Indochinese and other Asians.

Analyzing district data on grade-point averages, Rumbaut found that the children of immigrants were not driving down achievement but outperforming the district as a whole. For example, 29% of all ninth-graders in the district had GPAs higher than 3.0, contrasted with 44% of immigrant children. In the 12th grade, 46% of all students had a 3.0 or better, while 50% of immigrant kids performed that well.

Rumbaut said the gaps may, in fact, be wider because the district averages were based on students who were actively enrolled, while the immigrant averages included those who became dropouts.

Numerous studies have found that Latino students are more likely to drop out than others. In San Diego Unified, they have a 26.5% dropout rate over the four years of high school. But when Rumbaut isolated Latino immigrant children, he found a different story: Only 8.5% dropped out. The same was true when Rumbaut compared immigrant and U.S.-born Filipinos, Indochinese and other Asians.

In fact, the average dropout rate for all immigrant students was only 5.7%. The district’s white students dropped out at almost twice that rate (10.5%), and the overall district rate was three times as high (16.2%).

Across the board, Rumbaut found that the immigrant youths placed a high value on schooling, with more than 90% agreeing that a good education is essential to upward mobility. Forty-six percent aspired to occupations such as doctor and lawyer, with Filipinos, Vietnamese and other Asians having the loftiest goals.


But far fewer Mexicans, Cambodians, Laotians and Hmong set goals that high. Only 22% of Laotians and Cambodians and 24% of Mexicans said they would like to earn an advanced degree, contrasted with 63% of Asians, 52% of non-Mexican Latinos and 47% of Vietnamese.

Lia Thao, 16, a top student at San Diego’s Hoover High School, said that Hmong girls like herself are expected to marry young and so are discouraged from pursuing education much beyond high school. But this former refugee who loves to read and play powder puff football has her sights set on college and a possible career in pediatric medicine. “My dad is more Americanized,” she said. “He believes education is the key to success.”

Lia, who immigrated to the United States with her family in 1986, is not surprised by the study’s findings about her fellow immigrants’ scholastic devotion. “One of the reasons why my parents took us to America is they wanted us to have an education,” she said. “Education here is free. We have more opportunities. That’s why we take advantage of it.”

Youths such as Lia are “earning their successes in school the old-fashioned way--they work for it,” Rumbaut said, noting that the immigrant youths spent more than two hours a day on homework. But the more recent immigrants--those who arrived in the United States after 1985--devoted four hours a day to it, more than those whose families had arrived earlier. Rumbaut said this raises concern about whether “Americanization may be a double-edged sword.”

Whatever the impact on them, the San Diego youths seem to be making quick strides toward joining mainstream American culture. More than 90% of the immigrant students spoke a language other than English at home. Yet the proportion who preferred English grew from 66% in 1992 to 82% in 1995. This shift was pronounced even among the children of California’s largest immigrant population, Mexicans. Among youths born in the United States who had at least one native Mexican parent, the rate of English preference grew from 53% to 79% over the three years. Among the Mexico-born students, it nearly doubled from 32% to 61%.

Using self-reports as well as test scores, Rumbaut also found that 68% of the immigrant students read English “very well” and that only 23% read another language more fluently. Rumbaut said these findings are proof that “contrary to nativist alarms about the perpetuation of foreign language enclaves . . . English easily remains the language of the land.”


The Michigan State sociologist predicted that fluency in the foreign languages will decline to the point that immigrants’ grandchildren will speak only English.

The study’s portrait of rapid English fluency mirrors the trajectories of European newcomers to the United States at the turn of the century. Where the findings clash with traditional notions about the lure of mainstream American culture is in the area of self-identity.

Rumbaut asked the youths what they called themselves--just American, for example, or hyphenated American? In 1992, the largest proportion--43%--chose a hyphenated identity (such as “Chinese-American”) while 32% preferred a national origin label (“Chinese”) and 16% chose “pan-ethnic” labels (“Asian,” “Hispanic”). Only 3% chose the plain American identity.

According to conventional wisdom, the longer they live in the United States, the more immigrants and their children prefer American or hyphenated American identities. But the opposite happened in San Diego. By 1995, the percentage preferring to call themselves merely Americans dropped by half, to 1.6%, while those favoring hyphenated labels dropped by a quarter, to 30%.

The biggest growth was in those identifying with their nation of origin. Among students born in Mexico, the percentage describing themselves as Mexican doubled over the three years, to 67.9%.

Perceptions, experiences and expectations of racial discrimination also increased between 1992 and 1995. By 1995, the percentage saying they expect to be discriminated against--despite their educational level--grew from 36% to 40%.


Rumbaut speculated that the shifts in identity and reports of bias may be consequences of the anti-immigrant rhetoric that flourished during the campaign for Proposition 187, the ballot measure passed by voters in 1994 to cut back on state services--such as public education--to immigrants.

“If [immigrant youths’] ambitions are dashed and thwarted by repeated experiences of unjust treatment, that could combine with other economic obstacles to derail potential achievement and produce long-lasting generational damage,” he said.

But Mark Krikorian, executive director of the Center for Immigration Studies in Washington, questioned some of the findings, especially the claim that immigrants quickly become fluent in English. He said the issue is not whether they eventually learn English but how much their needs for English training strain public schools.

Krikorian said he does not dispute findings by Rumbaut and other experts that immigrants bring good values to this country. But that alone, he argued, is not a good reason to condone lax immigration policies. “You can’t import family values,” he said. “You’re only going to import people who are going to go through the same moral dissolution we’ve undergone over the last 30 years.”


A Profile of Immigrant Offspring

A study of 2,400 children of immigrants in grades nine through 12 in the San Diego Unified School District found that they surpassed district averages in grade point average and had far lower dropout rates. It also found sharp differences in academic aspirations among the groups studied, but immigrant parents generally had loftier goals for their children than the students had for themselves.

Source: Ruben G. Rumbaut, Michigan State University, and Alejandro Portes, Princeton University