Is Becoming an American a Developmental Risk? The Immigrant Paradox
The data recorded by Natalia Palacios regarding immigrant children’s early learning could have major ramifications for educators seeking answers to America’s high drop out rates.
Her findings in fact have caused some to ask, “Is the process of becoming an American a developmental risk for future generations?”
The recent work of Palacios is actually consistent with other studies done on immigrant adolescents. Palacios’ longitudinal study of 17,000 children from kindergarten through third grade examined the reading achievement levels of first-, second- and third-generation immigrant children.
Those unfamiliar with what has been dubbed the “Immigrant Paradox” will no doubt be startled by the researchers findings. Once she had controlled for English language proficiency, she found that first-generation children demonstrated higher performance reading levels than their second- or third-generation peers when measured at the end of kindergarten. Perhaps even more importantly, the gap grew even larger by third grade.
In addition to the reduced levels of academic success reported by Palacios, other studies have noted that the physical health and the ability to stay out of trouble also decline from first- to third-generation immigrant children. Once we control for socioeconomic status, the health of children from most immigrant groups worsens from the first to the third generations, the number of teenagers reporting substance abuse rises between generations and the levels of violent behavior increases.
What makes the data so difficult to understand is that new immigrants do extremely well in America particularly given the initial challenges they face. Despite limited language skills and little money, many first generation immigrants find success.
Of course, what makes the data interesting to educators is the fact that so many native-born American students are doing poorly in our schools. Moreover, it appears that the paradox does not exist in many other countries. In most other countries, the first generation does worse than the second and third generations – the exceptions being the US, New Zealand and Australia.
One Plausible Explanation
One simple explanation for the issue occurring here is that America is the land of immigrants. Therefore, there are potential networks in place for new immigrants to access and to help them make that initial transition. Such networks do not appear to be as well-established in other countries.
A second thought, one postulated by researchers, is that immigrants often come with a strong educational background. That background is likely more important than the socioeconomic status of those seeking entry into America.
Unfortunately, as the future generations become more acculturated and more language proficient, they seem to do worse in school. Researchers surmise that these individuals may begin to buy in to the stereotypical notion regarding minorities in the United States, the belief that even if one works hard, discrimination will prevail.
Ultimately, the result is that foreign-born students outperform their American-born counterparts. Foreign-born students test higher, have higher school attendance rates and lower rates of participation in special education programs. They also graduate from high school at higher rates than the native-born.
One Not So Positive Possibility
In a recent article for EdWeek, Scholars Mull the ‘Paradox’ of Immigrants, Mary Ann Zehr first reports on a perplexed parent from Providence. In trying to put his arms around the issue, Tony Mendez spoke of the cultural differences he currently sees.
Mendez, who came to the United States when he was 12, noted he was puzzled by the differences of family members still living in the Dominican Republic. There, youngsters “take it as a given that they will finish high school and go to college.” Yet here in America, Dominican parents “find it hard to persuade their children to stay in high school.”
In essence, Mendez offers that the lack of success in school is perhaps due to the fact that second and third generations may suffer from a diminished sense of urgency regarding trying to make a better life. It may be as simple as, dare we say it, that the acculturated students begin to do less homework.
Min Zhou, a UCLA sociology professor, has a very different perspective. In her eyes, these U.S.-born children are unlike their parents. They are not likely to simply take any job they can get.
Instead, they begin to have expectations, and when those expectations are not met, they respond negatively. In other words, these second and third generation immigrants become a victim of our stratified society of the haves and the have nots.
Critical Issue for America
The current student drop out rate in America represents one of the most significant issues facing our schools and our country. But we also fall significantly short when measured against other nations when it comes to child welfare.
Add to that fact the deteriorating results of second- and third-generation immigrants and one has to begin to wonder about the current fabric of our society. Certainly, with such data it is easy to see why some people are asking that incredibly poignant question:
Does becoming an American represent a developmental risk?