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Introduction: Educating Immigrant Youth: The Role of Institutions and Agency

by Jennifer Holdaway & Richard Alba - 2009

This introduction to the special issue lays out a framework for the articles to follow by outlining the ways in which the governance structures of education from national authorities that set federal policy, down to individual schools and administrative practices shape the opportunities open to children of immigrants. The authors outline some of the main features of educational governance and discuss their relevance to the education of immigrants. It concludes with an overview of the articles in the issue.

The huge and latest wave of immigration to the United States is washing over schools and shows no sign of abating. Children in immigrant families, who may be United States-born or immigrants themselves, now account for one fifth of all children (Hernandez, Denton, & Macartney, 2009), and despite the continuing concentration of immigrant groups in a small number of metropolitan areas and states, these children are now found in virtually every corner of the country. The great majority of them are growing up in families or communities in which the language of everyday use is not English, and many enter the American school system with limited proficiency in the majority tongue. Educating these children to enter the economy and society of 21st century America is a task of immense challenge and critical importance (Myers, 2007).

The facts just cited have been widely recognized, and accordingly, major studies have been tracking the educational trajectories of students from immigrant families (e.g., Portes & Rumbaut, 2001) and comparing their educational outcomes with those of children from native families (Kasinitz, Mollenkopf, Waters, & Holdaway, 2008). Important as these studies are, they generally fail to take account of some key dimensions that we address in this special issue. Broadly speaking, these constitute the governance system of schools, which determines the educational contexts that students from all families confront. This system extends from national authorities that determine federal policy, such as the No Child Left Behind Act of 2002, and oversee its implementation; to state governments, which have both policy-making and regulatory responsibilities toward schools; to school districts, which make everyday policies with respect to schools and classrooms and are responsible for hiring teachers and providing supplies; down to the lowest level of school administrators and teachers, who interpret and carry out educational policies but may also thwart or distort them. Insofar as students from immigrant families have different needs from other students—and in terms of language, many of them certainly do—then these contexts may or may not serve them well.

The American system, more than most of the educational systems found in advanced economies, is not unitary but a patchwork. The French system, with its national curriculum and its insistence on parity of funding across locales (except for policies aiming to compensate for inequalities of social origins), offers a very different model of organization. By contrast, the U.S. system is a conglomerate of many localized schools and school districts with distinctive curricula and practices, and different approaches to the education of children. Given this highly varied topography for the schooling of the children of immigrants, large-scale studies of educational achievement by youthful populations that do not take these contextual contingencies into account cannot fully inform us about the processes producing academic outcomes, nor reveal the policy levers that would be most effective in ameliorating immigrant–native disparities. This special issue, then, intends to start filling this void.


Schools are key institutions in the incorporation of immigrants and the second generation. This was always true, but it is undoubtedly truer today than it was in the past, when more and better jobs were available to youth who left school with no educational credentials. Today, decent jobs demand far more in the way of schooling and qualifications, and the student who completes only the high school diploma is largely confined to jobs near the bottom of the labor market unless he or she has some special talents. Remarkable as this may seem, one estimate has it that, a century ago in New York City, as many as 10% of the children of southern Italian immigrants were kept out of school by their parents, and only a minority stayed in school long enough to receive a high school diploma (Covello, 1972; Kessner, 1977; Perlmann, 2005). Yet although these limited educational horizons meant that most of the second generation remained in the working class, the evidence shows that the economic position of Italian Americans was sufficient for its members to lead respectable lives and to raise a new generation that was poised to catch up to White American norms (Alba, 1985; Gans, 1962/1982).

Such a path of incorporation is highly unlikely today. The labor market of 21st-century America offers many fewer stable, well-paying positions than did that of the mid-20th century. The unionized industrial jobs that were common then have dwindled in number and have been replaced with poorer paying and less stable service sector slots. Today, the youngster without a high school diploma would be hard put to find a job that is stable and that pays enough to found a family—even less one that, like many factory jobs in the past, offers some sort of ladder of mobility. Rather, in the more polarized labor market of today, some level of college education is essential, and a 4-year college degree is almost so. (For the children of the native-born White middle class, the expectations are even higher: A postbaccalaureate credential, especially in a profession, is optimal.) Consequently, immigrant families feel challenged to help their children make the leap to higher education in a single generation. School systems that fail the students coming from these families are condemning them in many cases to irregular careers, if not to long spells of unemployment and perhaps to illegal ways of making a living. The stakes, in other words, are very high.


The conceptual apparatus for studying immigration is not entirely settled, and it may be helpful for some readers to review the usage that will be employed throughout this special issue. To start with the most essential, an immigrant is someone born in another country who has come to the United States, regardless of the age at which arrival takes place. Such a person does not initially possess U.S. citizenship, as do some other migrants, such as those from Puerto Rico. According to recent census data (the American Community Survey of 2005), about 12% of the U.S. population is made up of immigrants. This group encompasses those who have become U.S. citizens through naturalization; those who are not citizens but reside in the United States legally (sometimes only for a limited period and not always with the right to work); and those who do not have a legal right to reside and work in the United States. The last category, containing the so-called undocumented, is thought to account for a third of current immigrants (Passel, 2006).

A child from an immigrant family is therefore someone who grows up in a household in which one or both parents are immigrants; the child may also be an immigrant. The legal status of the child’s parents is irrelevant to this definition, though it is obviously quite relevant to the circumstances in which the child lives. The children of undocumented immigrants may have been born in the United States, in which case they are U.S. citizens according to American law, or outside the United States, in which case they share the undocumented status of their parents. An indeterminate number of children are growing up in such legally mixed families, in which by chance, some children have a virtually irrevocable right to remain in the United States, and others have no such right. One estimate, by the Pew Hispanic Center, is that as of 2005, nearly 2 million undocumented children are growing up in the United States (Passel); however, unless they or their parents are successful in changing their legal status, any educational credentials they earn in the United States will be not be useful to them in the American labor market.

United States-born children from immigrant families are generally referred to as the second generation. But the fact that many immigrant families contain children of mixed nativities—some born here, some born in the home country—who are growing up in similar circumstances demonstrates that the distinction between the second and the immigrant generations can be overdrawn when applied to children. Many researchers have therefore adopted the suggestion of Ruben Rumbaut to describe children who arrive in the United States during the ages of schooling as the 1.5 generation. There has been no consensus over the age at which to draw the line, but the core of the idea is that the 1.5 generation contains individuals who were mostly, if not entirely, educated in the United States and therefore should be able to speak English fluently. Presumably, then, this generational grouping should not include children who arrived after primary school (after the sixth grade, say). Sometimes, the children of the 1.5 generation are included in research on the second generation, and certainly they must be included in studies of the children from immigrant families in schools.

Some other immigrant children are not relevant to the study of educational trajectories. Increasingly, teenage children come to the United States in search of work and do not attend school at all. The great majority of these young immigrants are undocumented, and they have been included in some statistical portraits of the educational attainment of the children of immigrants, which accordingly paint an overly pessimistic picture.


The accumulated evidence about the educational careers of students from immigrant families reveals an enormous dispersion in their trajectories, with the students from some immigrant origins outperforming native-born White students on average, whereas those from other origins are dropping out of high schools in large numbers (Portes & Rumbaut, 2001). Because the students who are not doing well in the American system come, in many cases, from the largest immigrant groups, such as the Mexicans, these low-achieving trajectories have raised fears about the emergence of a rainbow-hued underclass possessing little sense of identification with the larger society (Portes & Zhou, 1993).

The educational successes of many students from immigrant families are a heralded part of the contemporary story of immigration. Native-born Americans cannot help but notice news items about high school valedictorians and Ivy League academic standouts who were born abroad or whose parents and siblings were born outside the United States. The numbers of these cases are sufficient to make clear that their successes are not just a matter of a few exceptional individuals. Yet, many of these students come from a narrow band of the spectrum of immigrant backgrounds. The success of children of immigrants from the former Soviet Union and India, for example, is no surprise, given that their parents generally have advanced degrees and hold professional jobs. The same is true of the children of highly skilled migrants from China.

Harder to understand is the remarkable educational success of the children of working-class Chinese immigrant parents, whom studies have found to be graduating high school and attending college at higher rates than native-born Whites (Kasinitz et al., 2008). A number of explanations have been advanced to account for these successes—aspects of the Confucian ethos, family cultures that emphasize high educational aspirations and parents who insist that children do their schoolwork, and slow acculturation to American norms regarding homework and risky adolescent behavior are among them. Social capital—in the form of networks that allow for the circulation of information and resources, high community expectations, and the availability of tutoring and cram schools—also seems to be important (Kasinitz et al., 2008; Louie, 2004; Zhou, 2005; Zhou & Cai, 2002; Zhou & Li, 2003).

For the students from some of the most numerous immigrant groups, such as those from Latin America, educational pathways in the United States appear to be strewn with far more stumbling blocks. Statistical studies reveal that almost a quarter of all the second-generation students from Mexican and Central American families drop out of high school, a rate that is more than twice as high as that for native-born White students, whereas only about an eighth complete a 4-year college degree, compared with about a third of Whites (see, e.g., Alba, 2006). Students from the Caribbean present a more mixed picture, with children of immigrants from the West Indies showing higher graduation and college attendance rates than native-born Blacks, and children of immigrants from the Dominican Republic doing better than U.S.-born Puerto Ricans. Yet both groups still have much lower attainment than native-born Whites, and those who do attend college generally go to 2-year or low-ranking 4-year institutions, from which the return on the degree is lower as compared with elite colleges and universities (Kasinitz et al., 2008).

Children in some immigrant families are particularly disadvantaged. The article in this special issue by Gibson and Hidalgo (2009) discusses young people who grow up in migrant worker families. Many of the students from these families have disrupted schooling because their parents move frequently to find agricultural work or return to Mexico for long holidays. Many of these students face additional problems if their parents are undocumented and wary of engagement with official institutions. Those who are undocumented themselves may be deterred from pursuing an education because of difficulty accessing financial aid and finding employment in the future.

Nevertheless, there is a risk of overstating the extent of educational failure experienced by these young people. The great attention given to high school dropout by a minority of Mexican Americans, for instance, frequently eclipses the fact that nearly half of the Mexican American second generation attends college for some period and has therefore prepared for middle-class jobs, broadly understood, from store manager to laboratory technician (Alba, 2006). Furthermore, most 1.5 and second-generation Latin American immigrant families are coming from homes in which parents had very limited education—the typical Mexican adult immigrant has had 8 years of schooling. They are, in general, making a large advance beyond the educational levels of their parents, even if this does not bring them up to the norm for native White Americans.

A lot of attention has been given to the problem of children from immigrant families who do not do well in school. Without question, a considerable part of the explanation lies in the socioeconomic inequalities and racial disparities that are woven into the fabric of American society. Many of these young people grow up in low-income families, and their parents work long hours at low-wage jobs. This, in addition to their own lack of education and their limited ability to speak English, makes it hard for parents to give their children much help with schoolwork or to know how to guide their children’s educational careers toward college. Because of low family income and residential segregation, the children often attend schools that have much more limited resources and less experienced or qualified teachers than the schools attended by middle-class majority children (Orfield & Lee, 2006). And students from these backgrounds are often viewed by teachers in the classroom through the prism of soft stereotypes about the limited academic achievements of young people with their origins.

One of the most contentious issues, addressed in this issue in the articles by Gándara and Rumberger (2009) and Olsen (2009), has concerned the educational role of immigrant mother tongues, which are often the first languages spoken by students from immigrant homes. The questions involved are complex, and there are three levels at which they have been posed: One is the division of languages during the school day that will be most helpful to immigrant students with limited proficiency in English; another, the potential benefits of some education in the mother tongue and a positive school valuation of the ethnic culture for students from minority backgrounds regardless of their English proficiency; and finally, the intellectual advantages to students of all backgrounds of achieving biliteracy at an early age. On all these planes, the term bilingual education has been applied, although it obviously must mean something different on each.

The disputes over bilingual education demonstrate how political processes of policy making can run across the grain of well-grounded educational research. Considerable psychological research indicates that there are some cognitive advantages, even for young children, in knowing more than one language (although whether these advantages are universal or specific to particular contexts or conditions is open to question). The decision making, however, has often been dictated by political events, such as the passage of Proposition 187 in California—which can be described, at best, as uninformed by research-generated knowledge about the realities of bilingual education.



This special issue is concerned with the role of institutions and agency in shaping the education received by children from immigrant families. Understanding the interplay between them entails an understanding of the structure of the education system and of the various actors and stakeholders who contribute to the formulation and implementation of policy. Mapping this terrain is no easy matter, largely because there is great deal of variation across states and even localities in terms of institutional structures and policy- and decision-making processes and in the roles of key actors, including not only state and local governments but also courts, advocacy organizations, and citizens. This diversity has historical origins: Public school systems and their religious and secular alternatives developed at different times and in different ways across the country, leaving strong institutional legacies, coalitions of stakeholders, and lines of debate, all of which have evolved in complex ways in response to subsequent economic, demographic, and social change. As a result, states, cities, school districts, and even the schools within them vary widely in terms of requirements, curriculum, and levels of funding.

In contrast to countries with highly centralized national systems, involvement of the federal government came late in the United States and continues to be spotty and inconsistent. In 2005, only 10% of funding for education came from federal agencies, and only 8% from the Department of Education (U.S. Department of Education, 2005). Primary responsibility for the funding, planning, and quality control of education remains at the state and local levels.

The basic unit at which these responsibilities are exercised is the local school district, whose boundaries often (but not always) coincide with those of the lowest level of political administration, whether this is a municipality, town, or county. The school boards that run these districts were initially composed of local elites, but over time, they have come to be more representative and now often include parents of students, or former students. The elections to these boards are often the entry point for people aspiring to a political career. Property tax revenues have historically been the major source of local district funding, but school districts also receive state funding, generally allocated on a formula based on the size of the district's pupil enrollment and the size of the local share of the state tax base. The power wielded by local districts and boards varies according to state laws, but most have direct authority to hire school personnel, allocate income, establish operational policies, approve new projects, and contract for services. Curriculum and academic standards are usually influenced by state policy to a greater or lesser extent.

Under the U.S. Constitution, which allocates the responsibility for education in a federal system to the states, state governments must play a central role. Education is the largest component in the budgets of the states, which have powers equivalent to those held by ministries of education in more centralized systems. State governments have the authority to regulate public preschool, primary, and secondary education; license private preschool, primary, and secondary schools; and license or otherwise regulate parents providing home schooling. In many cases, they also establish and oversee curricula, as well as the standards and procedures for the evaluation of students. Most state governance occurs via state departments and boards of education, but certain other aspects are often regulated through specialized agencies. Unlike local school boards, state boards of education are bodies of prominent citizens appointed by either the legislature or the governor for fixed terms. Their job is to conduct oversight of statewide educational policies and operations, determine budget priorities, approve new policies and guidelines (such as for curricula), approve certain professional appointments and new schools, consider requests from local education agencies, and investigate problems.

The role of the federal government in education in the United States has traditionally been quite limited both in terms of the amount of money involved and the scope of authority. The first Department of Education was not formed until 1867, and its goal was primarily to collect and circulate information that would be useful to states in establishing effective school systems. The department has undergone a number of changes of name and role since then, but unlike countries in which the central government has been active in standardizing curriculum and requirements, the federal government has concentrated primarily on questions of national competitiveness, access, and equity. For example, following the World War II, the GI Bill authorized federal assistance that enabled almost 8 million veterans, many of them from working-class and immigrant families, to attend college, and the National Defense Education Act of 1958 responded to the Russian launch of Sputnik with an initiative to improve science, mathematics, and foreign language and area studies.

The 1960s and 1970s saw an expanded role for the federal government’s efforts to bring about equal access to education. Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972, and Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 prohibited discrimination against participants in publicly funded programs based on race, sex, and disability and made civil rights enforcement a focus of the Department of Education. In 1965, the Elementary and Secondary Education Act launched a comprehensive set of programs, including the Title I program of federal aid to disadvantaged children, to address the problems of poor urban and rural areas. In that same year, the Higher Education Act authorized assistance for postsecondary education, including financial aid programs for needy students.

The most recent federal initiative is the controversial No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB), which became law in 2002, during George W. Bush’s first term. The main principle of the law involves raising the standards in elementary and secondary education, most importantly through the regular standardized testing of the reading and mathematics skills of students through Grade 8. Schools that are found to be deficient (in the sense that a large fraction of their students fail to meet minimum standards) must allow students to transfer elsewhere. The law is controversial because, among other reasons, the federal government has, in the view of many education advocates, failed to provide the funds necessary for adequate implementation of the NCLB provisions.

Courts have also been vehicles for education reform, especially with regard to issues of equity and school finance. Perhaps the most important decision of the U.S. Supreme Court during the 20th century was Brown v. the Board of Education of Topeka (1954), in which schools that were racially segregated by law were found to be “inherently unequal” and unconstitutional. More recently, the large disparities in school financing across districts that result from dependence on property taxes prompted a spate of litigation in the 1970s, with cases arguing that funding inequity violated equal protection clauses in state and federal constitutions (the 14th Amendment in the case of the U.S. Constitution). By 1998, legal cases had been brought against school finance systems in 43 states, and supreme courts in 19 states had found school funding systems unconstitutional. In other states, the threat of litigation led to reform even without court intervention (Ladd & Hansen, 1999). These successes led reformers to examine the potential of other clauses in state constitutions to promote reform, including those that require legislatures to maintain public schools that provide "thorough and efficient," "ample," or "adequate" education. The most famous case (Rose v. Council for Better Education) was that in which the Kentucky Supreme Court declared the entire state's education system inadequate and unconstitutional and insisted that the state had a legal obligation to provide students with the opportunity to develop a number of specific capabilities. The case served as a precedent for decisions in several other cases and prompted a shift from a focus on funding disparities to one on adequacy and accountability (Ladd & Hansen).

Educational policies and decisions are also influenced by a variety of stakeholders, such as teachers’ unions, school superintendents’ associations, parents’ groups, advocacy organizations, and educational researchers, who wield varying amounts of influence, though they may lack formal authority. As a practical matter, few decisions with significant consequences can be made without taking the views of these stakeholders into account, but the amount of influence they can exert depends on the state; on the level of decision-making, from the state to the school district; and on the substantive domain. These stakeholders, who often represent the viewpoints and interests of specific constituencies, play essential roles as external legitimizing agents, house critics, suppliers of ideas, and sounding boards for those of school personnel and administrators.

The discussion has concentrated so far on primary and secondary education. The governance of tertiary educational institutions and its relationship to political decision-making bodies introduce new complexities, which we will consider only briefly here because they go beyond the material covered in the articles that make up this special issue. More so than is the case at the lower levels of schooling, the public–private divide is a critical axis of differentiation in tertiary education because in many states, there is a large private sector of postsecondary education, which can include institutions that are truly national and international in their abilities to attract students. On the public side, moreover, every state has a comprehensive and multicampus university that is funded and managed at the state level. In addition, some large cities can boast of local universities, such as the City University of New York, with a student body of over 400,000, and public 2-year colleges are often managed and funded in ways that mix the contributions and authority of states and localities.

Public and private postsecondary institutions enjoy more autonomy and are more internally self-governing than are primary and secondary schools. Colleges and universities receive accreditation from states, which exercise oversight and coordinating authority over higher education within their jurisdictions, issue corporate charters to institutions, and regulate standards and quality to varying degrees, and which may have regulatory authority over various aspects of the operation of public institutions (once again, depending on state law). They may also impose policies regarding financial aid, transfer from 2- to 4-year schools, and affirmative action. Some of these policies—for example, those regarding the eligibility of undocumented immigrant students for financial aid or for the low tuition available to other state and local residents—can have significant implications for immigrant students.

This quick sketch of educational governance underscores the localized and fragmented nature of funding, policy making, and implementation, and the diversity of actors involved. The range of forces involved reveals the enormity of the task facing any account of the impact of educational context on the children of immigrants. It is certainly true that the high and growing segregation of public schools by race and ethnicity implies that the children of immigrants, mostly non-White, are concentrated in schools that are different from those in which the majority of middle-class White students are enrolled (Orfield & Lee, 2006). Even so, the range of these contexts is great, as is the variety of state and local policies that impinge on them. For example, despite the long history of writing about Catholic schools and the role that they evidently played in the mobility of earlier waves of immigrants, we know little about the ways in which these schools serve the children of immigrants today (see Louie & Holdaway, 2009).

Yet the federal nature of the U.S. education system provides an opening for comparative analysis that might shed light on the effectiveness of policies directed at students from immigrant families. One is bilingual education, which has been designed and implemented very differently across the various states, as Rumberger and Gándara (2009) make clear in their contribution to this issue. Indeed, the very term bilingual education is potentially misleading because the educational arrangements that it can cover vary in fundamental purpose, from providing a transition into an English-language classroom to preparing students to be proficient in two languages. In addition, the specifics of the arrangements—the qualifications of teachers, the number of years that students can spend on a bilingual track, and the division of the school day between language instruction and other subjects—vary greatly as well.

Actual classroom practice is another area about which our knowledge is sorely limited, but the qualitative interviews conducted in the course of the Children of Immigrants Longitudinal Study, the Longitudinal Immigrant Student Adaptation study, and the Immigrant Second Generation in Metropolitan New York study indicate that the children of immigrants are often discouraged by the insensitivity and sometimes outright discrimination that they encounter from teachers, counselors, and other school personnel and that they seem to benefit from the presence of mentors and nonparental adults who show concern about their education. The article by Suárez-Orozco, Pimentel, and Martin (2009) in this special issue builds on the analysis of such qualitative studies to show a statistical relationship between students’ supportive relationships in schools and their academic engagement.

At the same time, although institutions and policies provide a framework, they are themselves products of the past actions of individual and collective actors—of voting publics and their elected representatives in state and city legislatures and on school boards, of teachers and their unions, and of immigrant families and their children. As the articles by Olsen (2009) and Fraga and Elis (2009) in this special issue show, understanding why institutions and policies developed into their current forms requires an examination of the agents that have been instrumental in shaping them and the lines along which conflict and consensus have been drawn.

It is also important to recognize that immigrant families are not passive, but draw on a variety of resources, including not only human and financial capital but also social networks and community-based resources, to navigate school systems and try to secure a good education for their children. In the process, they may opt out of public systems, sending their children to private or religious schools in the United States, or even back to the home country. They may also mobilize to push for improvements within the system by increasing their political representation, by putting pressure on schools, or by providing supplemental education and resources outside the school system through mechanisms like community-based after-school programs.

This special issue does not seek to provide a comprehensive analysis of these issues; research on many of them is limited. Instead, the articles included here highlight the complex interaction between institutions and agency in a number of different domains and, in doing so, point to ways in which analysis of this kind can further our understanding of the factors that shape educational attainment for the children of immigrants.

The collection opens with a demographic overview by Donald Hernandez, Nancy Denton, and Suzanne Macartney (2009), which presents a survey, as comprehensive as can be attained with census data, of the characteristics of the children of immigrants and their families. One of the well-known features that is sharply etched in this portrait is the diversity of the contemporary immigration population, which comes in significant numbers from far more countries than ever before in American history. Included are groups with educational attainment and professional qualifications superior to those of the average native-born American, as well as groups with educational levels well below those common in the U.S. mainstream. The challenge to schools comes principally from the children in this latter group, who, moreover, are spread in many regions across a large number of different language groups and frequently live in families with meager financial resources. In addition, it appears that these children do not have the same degree of access to pre-K education as do the children in native-born groups, even though they have a much greater need for structured programs to prepare them for school. However, as the authors note, these young people are not without other resources, including families with two or more adults present to provide emotional and other forms of support. The article concludes that the future of American society hinges importantly on what happens to the young people growing up in immigrant families; a wise society will invest in their futures just as it would invest in those of children from long-established groups.

An obvious intersection between the political and educational systems is through school board elections. The article by Luis Fraga and Roy Elis (2009) examines the election of Latinos to California school boards and the differences, if any, that their election makes for the classrooms in which Latino students are being educated. The authors observe that a growing number of Latinos are being elected to California school boards, though they remain numerically a modest-sized minority despite the huge population of Latino students in the state. In fact, the size of the Latino population makes a major difference in the election of Latinos to school boards, which is much more likely in school districts where Latinos constitute a majority of the population. One might expect that Latino representation on boards would lead to more hiring of Latino administrators and teachers. It does, in fact, but principally where the majority of the population is Latino. Given this condition, the link of Latino school board representation to the hiring of Latino administrators is clear; the link to the hiring of Latino teachers is more tenuous, but the role of Latino administrators in hiring Latino teachers is statistically demonstrable, so an indirect effect is established. However, in contrast to previous research, the analysis of Fraga and Elis is not able to identify a positive relationship between Latino teachers and the test scores of Latino students. The ultimate benefit of the election of Latino school board members for the educational experiences of students remains uncertain.

The article by Patricia Gándara and Russell Rumberger (2009) is a study of one of the most critical domains in which policies formulated at the national and state levels impinge on the educational life chances of the children from immigrant families: namely, language. Because a very high proportion of these children come from families in which a language other than English is in common use and they enter a school system in which English is the dominant language at all levels, the role of language policy is both obvious and subtle. Because of the national anxieties about English as the cement that holds the society together, a reorientation of the system as a whole toward support for bilingualism is highly improbable. In this context, Gándara and Rumberger underscore that the large number of students who enter the school system as English language learners (about 8% of all public school students) need extra help to master a new language (and culture). But in general, they do not get the help, and frequently they get less instruction in basic subjects such as mathematics and history because so much of their school day is devoted to learning English; as a consequence, they fall behind. Moreover, according to the authors, it is doubtful that the language instruction that these children receive, which is frequently pitched at a low common denominator level, prepares them to perform well in academic English, which they will need to advance very far in the system.

Nevertheless, there are some hopeful signs that Gándara and Rumberger (2009) detect in a comparison of the policies of California and Texas regarding addressing the needs of students with limited English proficiency (LEP). Texas is much more likely to place these students in some sort of bilingual program (which, in accordance with its need for teachers in such programs, has lower standards for qualifying them) and protects these students for a longer period from testing in English. It also shifts a higher proportion of LEP students into the English-proficient category, and its LEP students perform better on national assessment tests. The comparison demonstrates that state policies can make a difference.

Catholic schools have been a feature of the educational landscape in the United States since the mid-19th century, initially serving immigrant communities from South and Central Europe and later serving as an alternative to public school for low-income and minority students from non-Catholic backgrounds. The article by Vivian Louie and Jennifer Holdaway (2009) draws on quantitative and qualitative data to examine the role of Catholic schools in the educational experience of the current generation of children of immigrants. The article shows that Latino immigrant families make the most use of Catholic schools, along with mostly non-Catholic West Indians. Chinese families more often try to seek out good schools within the public system. Their choices are rooted not only in religious traditions but also in their perceptions of the public school system and the choices they have within it, which differ considerably. The authors find that attendance and completion of Catholic school is strongly linked to household resources, with many students from poorer families forced to leave before graduating. Although attending Catholic school generally has a positive effect on educational and other outcomes, there are interesting differences across groups that invite further exploration and suggest the existence of a hierarchy within the Catholic school system. The authors conclude that although Catholic school provides a viable alternative for immigrant families with greater resources, it cannot substitute for strengthening the public school system, which continues to serve the majority of children of immigrants.

One way in which the United States differs from many other developed nations is that nongovernmental organizations play a relatively important role in the formation and implementation of policy. Third-sector organizations, including parents’ and professional associations and community-based groups, are very active in the area of education and provide an important channel through which immigrants and the native born express their opinions regarding the role that schools should play in the integration of the children of immigrants. Laurie Olsen’s (2009) article focuses on the role of advocacy organizations in shaping immigrant education with a case study of struggles over bilingual education in California. The article shows how immigrant parents, advocacy organizations, and researchers were instrumental in bringing lawsuits and lobbying for legislation that resulted in California’s Bilingual Bicultural Education Act of 1978. The article also traces the struggle over Proposition 227, which radically curtailed bilingual education in the state. Olsen explores the way in which bilingual education came to be a lightning rod in debates on immigration, with supporters seeing it not just as a response to a practical need but also as reflecting recognition and respect for their cultural traditions. In contrast, opponents saw it as a policy that discouraged immigrant students from integrating into American society. Written from the perspective of an insider, the analysis provides an unusually detailed picture of the stakeholders involved in the debate over bilingual education, the resources and channels of influence they used, and the ways in which changing demographics and broader political debates over immigration changed the context in which the struggle over bilingual education took place.

Margaret Gibson and Nicole Hidalgo’s (2009) article discusses the challenges faced by a particularly disadvantaged group of children of immigrants: those whose parents are migrant farm workers. Because of their highly mobile lives, many of these children do not enroll in school, and of those who do, many fail to graduate partly because local differences in curriculum and instructional methods make it hard for them to move from one school to another. Their parents are generally poor and work long hours, making it hard for them to support their children’s education, and migrant families are often socially isolated because they do not stay in one place long enough to put down roots. Drawing on research in five California schools, the authors discuss an intervention designed to provide a package of supports to these students—the Migrant Education Program (MEP). Through a combination of academic tutoring, personal counseling, medical assistance, work experience, and leadership programs, the MEP has been remarkably successful in helping migrant children stay in school and graduate. The program demonstrates the importance of not only providing financial and academic support but also building students’ personal connections to school through relationships with individuals who can transmit knowledge about the workings of the school system, help them develop a sense of confidence and efficacy, and serve as advocates for them—effectively providing the social capital that is available to middle-class students through their families and social networks.

The article by Carola Suárez-Orozco, Allyson Pimentel, and Margary Martin (2009) echoes the Gibson and Hidalgo (2009) article. Using quantitative analysis, Suárez-Orozco and colleagues address the importance of school-based relationships for preventing the academic disengagement of immigrant students. The authors’ point of departure is the risks that these youth face in the U.S. school system, particularly that of disengaging in the face of the many challenges they encounter. These challenges stem from their lack of familiarity with the English language and American ways, their racial/ethnic minority status, and their attendance at segregated schools, where violence is all too common. Analyzing the academic performance of recently arrived students, the authors find that one key is what they call “behavioral engagement”: a willingness to carry out the mundane activities, such as attending classes and doing homework, that lead to good grades. This engagement in turn is dependent on the relational supports that these students can find. Although relationships that give utilitarian forms of support—help with homework, for example—are important, far more critical, it appears, are relationships that are emotionally supportive. Relationships with caring adults such as teachers are quite effective in helping students to surmount the educational hurdles during their early years in the United States, when they feel most vulnerable.


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Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record Volume 111 Number 3, 2009, p. 597-615
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 15339, Date Accessed: 1/22/2022 9:39:31 PM

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About the Author
  • Jennifer Holdaway
    Social Science Research Council
    JENNIFER HOLDAWAY is a program director at the Social Science Research Council. Since 2003, she has led the Working Group on Education and Migration. She is coordinator and co–principal investigator for the Children of Immigrants in Schools, an international collaborative research project that examines the impact of cross-national differences in educational institutions, policies, and practices on the integration of children of immigrants in the United States and Europe. With Philip Kasinitz, John Mollenkopf, and Mary Waters, she is an author of the book, Inheriting the City: The Children of Immigrants Come of Age.
  • Richard Alba
    City University of New York
    E-mail Author
    RICHARD ALBA is Distinguished Professor of Sociology at the Graduate Center, City University of New York. His most recent book is the award-winning Remaking the American Mainstream (2003), which he coauthored with Victor Nee.
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