March 30, 1995
Vol. 14, No. 14

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    Tienda: Much to learn from educational success of immigrants' children

    Minority children whose mothers are immigrants outperform students from the same ethnic group whose mothers were born in the United States, University researchers have shown.

    The findings demonstrate that family optimism about the future, an attribute of the immigrant home, plays an important role in determining school success, the scholars said. The research also suggests that immigrant families and their values provide an unappreciated resource for policy-makers interested in improving schools.

    "Most efforts to improve the educational performance of immigrant and minority youths focus on the students themselves," said Marta Tienda, the Ralph Lewis Professor and Chairman of Sociology and an author of the study.

    The study emphasizes the need to involve parents in programs and policies designed to improve educational opportunities for minority youths.

    "Diversity of the school-aged population need not be seen as a liability," Tienda said. "The principal policy challenge is to generate the optimism of immigrant parents among U.S.-born parents."

    Tienda's conclusions were reported in the March issue of the journal Social Science Quarterly. The paper, "Optimism and Achievement: The Educational Performance of Immigrant Youth," was co-authored by Grace Kao, a University graduate student in Sociology.

    The researchers studied educational performance among Hispanic, Asian and black youths from families that were first-generation (both parents and children were born abroad), second-generation (parents born abroad and children born in the United States) and third-generation (both parents and children were born in the United States).

    Although immigrant status had little impact on the white children studied, it did influence success in school for minority immigrant children, Asian youths in particular. Second-generation students generally fared best, as they had both the advantage of an optimistic immigrant mother and the language skills necessary to be successful in school. Attitudes about the future, as well as use of time, seemed to be important in determining success, the researchers found.

    "Foreign-born parents have significantly higher educational aspirations for their children than do native-born parents. Thus, parental immigrant status appears to be a crucial factor shaping the educational aspirations of immigrant youth," according to the report.

    "International migrants are self-selected and predisposed, if not outright anxious, to adapt to the host society," Tienda said. "Although many find themselves at the bottom of the socioeconomic ladder initially, they generally expect that they or their offspring will eventually experience upward mobility." The immigrants view their adjustment problems as temporary and are "creative in inventing pragmatic solutions to their current predicaments."

    In order to help their children achieve, for example, the parents relieve children of household chores, encourage older siblings to tutor younger children, and limit television time to encourage study, the report said. Immigrant mothers are more likely than native-born mothers to attend parent-teacher conferences.

    The research disputes earlier studies that suggest immigrant groups tend to improve their educational status in successive generations. According to the new study, many Asian groups begin at an educationally advantaged position as immigrants and then decline in achievement in successive generations as the families adopt mainstream American values. Third-generation Asian-Americans, for instance, have lower reading scores than first-generation Asians.

    The researchers found that youths who were Asian immigrants or children of Asian immigrants earned a grade-point average almost 0.5 points (on a 4.0 grading scale) above that of children of native-born mothers from similar social backgrounds. Among blacks, second-generation youths scored about three points higher than third-generation youths on a standardized reading test where the range for the entire sample was 50 points.

    First- and second-generation Hispanic youths had higher educational aspirations than third-generation Hispanic youths. About 10 percent more of the first- and second-generation Hispanic youths were likely to aspire to graduate from college.

    First-generation black immigrants, who come largely from the Caribbean, earn higher test scores in mathematics than native-born blacks. Second-generation blacks had the highest reading scores of the three groups. As black immigrants spend more time in their adopted country and become more aware of the ways in which society has limited the options of African-Americans, their achievement falters, the researchers found.

    Immigrant parents are less likely to participate in school activities not directly related to their child's performance. "Instead, they manifest their valuation of education by attending meetings that directly impact on their child's achievement," the researchers wrote.

    The data for the study were collected by the National Opinion Research Center from a representative sample of 24,599 students in 1,052 randomly selected schools nationwide. The work was part of the center's National Education Longitudinal Study of 1988, which follows the progress of students who were in eighth grade that year. The survey includes interviews with students, parents and teachers. Tienda's research was supported by the Spencer Foundation.

    -- William Harms