Diversity and the New Immigrants


by Lamar P. Miller & Lisa A. Tanners - 1995

Schools are inadequately prepared to serve the needs of increasing numbers of culturally diverse students. Problems relate to desegregation, multicultural education, higher quality education, and bilingual education. New York City is used as an example, noting the school system's role in serving New York's immigrant students. (Source: ERIC)

New immigrants in the United States are enlivening the schools at the same time as they are overwhelming them. The waves of immigration have led to an increasingly diverse school population and have created a new set of problems. Today, with children from such diverse backgrounds, schools are inadequately prepared to serve the needs of the students who are arriving in increasing numbers. The challenges associated with the new immigrants are numerous. Problems now exist that are related to desegregation, multicultural education, higher-quality education, and bilingual education. As the population of our schools becomes more and more diverse, the most appropriate ways to educate this fascinating heterogeneous population must be sought.


The mid-1900s marked a turning point in the history of segregated schools in the United States. The emergence of a number of black leaders, such as Roy Wilkins of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, A. Phillip Randolph of the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters, Whitney Young of the Urban League, and Martin Luther King, Jr., of the Southern Christian Leadership Council, escalated the fight by African Americans for equal opportunities. Their leadership was supported by an unprecedented number of black and white Americans, and this persistent black initiative forced a reformulation of public policies in education. The most important result was the 1954 Supreme Court decision in Brown v . Board of Education of Topeka, Kansas.


The Brown decision struck down a kind of school segregation that is different from the type of segregation that exists today. The Warren Court of 1954 outlawed any segregation that was either sanctioned by state law or traceable to school board policies. Today, school segregation is usually blamed on demographic changes, differential birth rates, and patterns of immigration. The influx of new immigrants, in particular those who fit our outdated definition of “minority,” has led to an increasingly diverse school population and created a new set of problems related to desegregation. This article will address some of these new concerns.


For most of the last forty years, the desegregation issue has been centered largely on the fight for equal opportunity by African Americans. The issue was race, and race was defined in terms of black and white. Now, with so many different ethnic groups, some with both black and white members, the issue can no longer be confined to a simple definition of race.


In this country, we have a unique way of describing and defining race. We ascribe to race characteristics that other cultures view very differently. For example, race and ethnicity appear to influence expectations and judgments at all levels of the spectrum of our society. Skin color has long been a factor that influences judgment and behavior.


In 1993, in a series of congressional hearings on the census, Congressman Tom Sawyer of Ohio pointed out that


the country is in the midst of its most profound demographic shift since the 1890s, a time that opened a period of the greatest immigration we have ever seen, whose numbers have not been matched until right now. A deluge of new Americans from every part of the world is overwhelming our traditional distinctions. . . . The categories themselves inevitably reflect the temporal bias of every age and that becomes a problem when the nation itself is undergoing deep and historic diversification.1


Although we still have the black-versus-white issue, there is the question of the categories of racial groups as defined by government agencies. Do we look at groups on the basis of color or language or other categories?


Whether ethnic categories protect or divide us is a question that requires profound analysis, but clearly the growing heterogeneity of American society is having an impact on the educational system. What happens in our educational system may depend on our ability to address the issue of ethnic categories. We are being challenged to reexamine education in general, and more specifically, the way in which large numbers of youngsters in urban areas, who differ widely in their cultural backgrounds, are educated.


New patterns of immigration are also forcing us to examine the idea and concept of diversity or what we often call multiculturalism. The terms multiculturalism and diversity are often used interchangeably. They are sometimes not clearly differentiated, and are selected for their symbolic value rather than for their precise definition. Nevertheless, the idea of developing a concept of diversity, as opposed to a state of being, is the state we want to get to. Diversity has evolved from a concept of moral, social, legal, and educational responsibility to issues motivated by and linked with changes in the global economy and the makeup of our work force. Philosophically, it evolved from the concept of improving access to the work place for women and minorities in the 1960s and 1970s, adding the goal of valuing the diversity of groups in the work place in the 1980s. A definition of the concept recognizes the importance of “valuing diversity.” This meaning provides us with a term that is broadly inclusive, embracing groups and differences not included in terms we have used before, and it views differences as valuable. Moreover, the term recognizes the importance of new strategies to respond to changes in our schools and our work force, and more flexible human resource policies to support differences and respond to a wider array of needs. Finally, it is linked with equal educational opportunity because it represents a new stage in the way we address the issues, problems, and futures of the many groups in our society.


The term multiculturalism, while similar to diversity in that it focuses on inclusion of groups of people, has encompassed a debate that goes far beyond educational circles. It has often been concerned with such things as culture, morality, political correctness, and the canons.


Donald Johnson has discussed the debate on multiculturalism and its subarguments over Eurocentrism and political correctness.2 He pointed out how these issues have made the covers of major magazines, citing as an example the September 23, 1991, heading on the cover of Newsweek: “ Was Cleopatra Black?” Johnson pointed out that these stories mask deeper societal disputes about our conceptions of history, who we are as a people, and what the future of a national culture is to be. Perhaps these issues are important and need to be addressed. The point is that it does not matter whether Cleopatra was black or white, but that she is in the schools and she will soon be in the American work force. To put it another way, the population of our schools is becoming more and more diverse, and we will have to find the most appropriate ways to educate this fascinating heterogeneous population.


The population of today’s society is so diverse that it is predicted that within a decade, some 50 percent of elementary and secondary school children will belong to an ethnic minority. In some areas, such as California, white students are already a minority. Sustaining a truly multiracial society is unique to the United States. Most other countries maintain a distinct national identity, but these countries were not created and defined by voluntary immigration the way the United States has been. The influx of immigrants has caused Americans to ask what it means to become an American. White Americans can no longer think of themselves as the very picture of their nation. Becoming a multicultural society is bound to be a bumpy experience, but we must realize that a new world is here and it is the America to come.3


The nation as a whole and particularly the larger cities are already facing the issues associated with diversity. We use New York City as an example because the immigrant population in New York City has expanded enormously in recent years. In New York City today, about one out of every seven residents has arrived from a foreign country within the past ten years, and it is expected that another million immigrants will enter the city by the year 2000. Furthermore, statistics show that one out of every three New Yorkers is foreign-born.4 This dramatic influx of immigrants has placed enormous stress on the educational system. A brief look at the history of immigration in New York, why these immigrants have come to New York, some demographics of the changing population, and some of the problems that plague schools will help us clarify the current situation.


Many different waves of immigration have influenced the educational system in New York City. The first wave of immigrants came over from Ireland and Germany from the 1830s to the 1880s. The second wave came in the 1880s and lasted until the 1920s. This group of immigrants was more diverse; Italians, Jews, Czechs, and Poles all began to settle in New York City. From the 1920s to the 1960s, large numbers of blacks migrated from the South. A growing number of Puerto Ricans began to reside in New York City between the 1940s and 1950s. Today’s immigrants are tremendously diverse, and coming to New York City in vast numbers. In the past immigrants were primarily European; this is no longer the case. Today, Europeans make up 43 percent of New York City’s immigrant population. The new immigrants include large numbers of people from South America, the Caribbean, Asia, the Middle East, and countries formerly a part of the U.S.S.R. It is estimated that about 800,000 to 900,000 immigrants came to New York in each of the past three decades. As David Reimers said, “New York is really a world city in terms of its population and [it is] becoming more so.”5


As our population becomes more diverse, our identification and perception of who is to be educated constantly changes. Before the 1960s, educational standards were low. Most immigrants did not go to school and those who did rarely graduated from high school. Often families could not afford to send their children to school and made them work instead. Schools were expected to teach the rudiments of reading and writing as well as the elementary skills needed in the labor force. Schools taught Americanization; that is, they taught English and they taught patriotism. Differences in ethnic background were not addressed by the curriculum.


Today’s immigrants represent a range of individuals, some of whom are skilled and educated and often replace poor and uneducated Americans, and others who are eager to develop skills and learn about technology quickly. In the schools, there is a need for education that is high quality, multicultural, and accommodating of language differences. The increasingly diverse population requires more bilingual teachers and teachers of English as a second language. Hence, schools have more demands placed on them.


A recent study of immigrant education in New Jersey reflects the general trend and issues associated with immigrant education across the country. The study concluded that immigrant education is not just an urban phenomenon; immigrant children are found in both urban and suburban districts throughout the state of New Jersey. We note that this is true throughout other states of the country as well.


The distribution of immigrant students varies according to the relative property wealth of the districts. The immigrant children served by low property wealth urban districts are largely from Central and South America, the Caribbean and Vietnam. Immigrant children from India, Japan and Korea tend to attend school in high property wealth suburban districts. The challenges in serving immigrant students vary according to the districts’ relative property wealth. The poor urban districts face a larger, more diverse population of immigrants, high student mobility, students with little or no prior schooling, and the need for adequately trained teachers.6


In the past few years, more than 120,000 immigrant children from over 167 countries have enrolled in the New York City schools.7 To help immigrant students become acclimated to differences in culture, the schools must provide a wide array of services. The immigrant students have been through a lot of tumult, and some come from countries where the educational system is inferior to that found in New York City. They are often limited in their English proficiency and sometimes even illiterate in their own languages. This puts excessive demands on the school system because the schools are required to use such strategies as two-way bilingual programs, which helps students to make the transition from their own language to English. The law requires the New York City Board of Education to teach English to the 117,000 public school students who have limited English proficiency.8


Not only are there many different ethnic groups in New York City, but there is also a great deal of diversity within each ethnic group. For example, Asians may be Chinese, Korean, Asian Indian, Vietnamese refugees, or Filipino. Immigrants from the Middle East may include Afghan refugees, Israelis, Palestinians, Lebanese, and Syrians. Some of the immigrants from the Caribbean are English-speaking, some are Spanish-speaking, and some speak Haitian-Creole. Twenty years ago, the Hispanic population was predominantly Puerto Rican. The 1990 census, however, showed that the New York City’s 896,763 Puerto Ricans now account for only half of the city’s Hispanic population. Increasing numbers of Hispanics come from Central and South America, and especially the Dominican Republic.9 In fact, immigrants from the Dominican Republic are the fastest growing immigrant group in the city.


What has remained constant over the years is the reason families come to the United States: They come for freedom and economic prosperity. Many immigrant families are fleeing poverty, unemployment, underemployment, inadequate living conditions (even for the elite), and political and social instability. New York City is appealing for a variety of reasons: There are employment opportunities; new immigrants do not stand out; established immigrant communities provide a sense of security; and the city is a place where families can reunite.10


The following facts and predictions about ethnic groups will have an impact on the social patterns that develop in New York City:


1 . One out of every four Americans defines himself or herself as African-American, Asian-American, Hispanic-American, or Native- American.11


2 . By the year 2000, the Hispanic-American population will increase by 21 percent; the Asian-American population, by 22 percent; the African-American population, by 12 percent.12


3 . By the year 2056, the “average” U.S. resident will be a person of color with a non-European origin.13


4 . Asian/Pacific Islander enrollments in the nation’s public elementary/secondary schools are increasing more rapidly than those of any other group, more than 70 percent by 1995.14


5 . African Americans are still expected to be the second largest racial/ethnic group among elementary/secondary enrollments, but they are growing at a slower rate (13 percent, from less than 5.9 million in 1986 to almost 6.7 million in 1995) than Hispanic or Asian/Pacific Islander populations.15


6 . New immigrants have increased the New York City school population by 120,000 since 1990: 28,109 immigrants have come from the Dominican Republic, 11,206 from Jamaica, 9,731 from Russia, 8,144 from China, 7,863 from Guyana, 6,054 from Haiti, 5,131 from Trinidad and Tobago, 5,334 from Mexico, 4,103 from Columbia, 3,995 from Ecuador, and 3,755 from Korea.16


The challenges associated with new immigrants in the schools are numerous. We have made reference to instructional interventions such as programs in English as a second language, bilingual education, orientation classes, counseling, and tutoring services. The new immigrants that populate the city’s public school system highlight problems associated with the changing urban scene. In the past, schools served mainly English-speaking children. Today, with children from such diverse backgrounds, schools are inadequately prepared to serve the needs of the students who are arriving in increasing numbers. One elementary school in Elmhurst, Queens, reports that less than half of its student body speaks English and that there are over thirty different languages spoken in the school.17 Another school district in Queens has enough Spanish, Chinese, and Korean students to form bilingual classes of at least twenty students per grade.18 In 1994, 150,000 students were enrolled in bilingual programs in the New York City public schools.19


In the New York City schools there are already more than 5,200 bilingual teachers, who constitute 8 percent of the staff.20 Finding more teachers with bilingual certification is not easy, particularly for underrepresented groups. Immigrants who speak languages other than Spanish often must take all their classes in English, and educators fear that these students suffer in mathematics and science classes because they do not understand their teachers—not because they cannot grasp the material.21 In addition, schools are having problems identifying immigrant students, and teachers often do not know when students speak a language other than English at home.22


Problems related to bilingual education are multifaceted. Economic factors accompany language diversity. Despite a shrinking budget, schools must find and pay for more bilingual teachers and teachers of English as a second language. Immigrant language programs cost the school $130.6 million a year, a steep bill to pay when there is a lack of state and federal funding.


The demand for new materials and new schools also has a profound economic impact on the schools. Schools lack materials in languages other than English and Spanish and tend to be extremely overcrowded. The teacher-pupil ratios are very high. For example, one New York City elementary school has 2,100 students from 45 different countries and is so crowded that it equals the size of a high school that typically draws from far larger geographical zones. In one district, classrooms are held on auditorium stages and in assistant principals’ offices because more space is needed.23 Further complicating the already large class sizes is the fact that so many students are academically delayed. Some immigrant students have had little or no learning in their original countries. In addition, other obstacles to school learning, such as language differences, low income, and low parental education, lead to lower achievement levels.24 Emanuel Tobler fears that while hard-driving immigrants may find success among the city’s employers, the children of those immigrants may lose their hunger to learn in schools that are overcrowded and underfinanced.25


There is political pressure on the schools to revamp their curriculum to take into account the cultural backgrounds of newcomers. Proponents of a multicultural curriculum think that teaching about different groups is important for raising students’ self-esteem; multiculturalists are fighting for a more inclusive curriculum. The traditional history curriculum often gives very little attention to the contributions of some ethnic groups, if not ignoring them all together.26 But whose stories should be told and how much time should be devoted to each? One proponent of multiculturalism thinks that the current curriculum is “too concerned with the European origins of American ideas, traditions and people. Multiculturalists claim that the number of non-European Americans is increasing and it is wrong to impose an alien European culture and heritage upon their children in the public schools. These children deserve a curriculum of their own culture and heritage.”27 Students will feel proud when their own cultures are positively reflected in the classroom. Some people believe that by learning about other groups and the importance of respecting differences, racial and ethnic tensions will be eased.


Critics of a multicultural curriculum argue that teaching some forms of multicultural education in the schools is divisive. For example, they see ethnocentric studies as promoting disunity in American society.28 Furthermore, critics think that focusing on how we are different leads to increased tension among races and ethnic groups.


Aside from the difficulties already mentioned, schools must handle the frequent mobility of immigrant students, minimize conflicts between immigrant students and others, and get parents from different cultures to work with the schools.29 The sharp rise in the number of immigrants in New York City and other places, and the change in immigrant patterns, has also exacerbated problems associated with desegregation. School districts throughout our region face increasingly complicated desegregation issues. Immigrant children often face a multitude of learning, adjustment, and social challenges, including becoming the targets of racial hostility.30 Clearly, equal educational opportunities cannot exist if the obvious sources of information, skills, knowledge, and instruction are less accessible to some students than to others. Where that accessibility is limited because of a student’s race, sex, national origin, or limited English proficiency, our mission is to eliminate all vestiges of whatever discriminatory practices have contributed to that denial of accessibility.


Intensifying the debate on issues of immigrant education are questions raised about illegal immigrants and their rights. Clearly, schools are faced with a mandate that goes beyond the Brown decision. Desegregation strategies must encompass a wide array of ethnic groups created by the influx of new immigrants, a large number of whom might well have been considered minorities according to old definitions. In this case, the question is how we provide equal access and equal educational opportunity, an issue that has been raised with the passing of Proposition 187 in California in the 1994 election year. Among other things, Proposition 187 deprives illegal immigrants of state services, including education. The proposition was immediately challenged in court by its opponents and a federal judge issued a restraining order against implementing most of the new law. A state judge had already barred enforcement of the provision to deny schooling to illegal immigrants. The restraining order came as no surprise, since a 1982 Supreme Court decision, Plyer v. Doe, granted illegal immigrants the right to a free public education. We believe that ultimately the state of California will have to provide education for immigrant children regardless of whether they are illegal aliens or have been legally admitted to the country. In any case, California, along with all other states, will have to address the challenge of immigrant education.


Despite all of its problems and challenges, the school system has the greatest role in serving New York City’s immigrants. Schools offer the most common shared experience for most Americans. They are the key to the Americanization process. Immigrant parents have high expectations of the schools and rely on schools to help their children do better. As the schools adapt to the needs of the changing student body, we hope that immigrant students will perform better in school and make substantial gains every year. As demographics continue to shift in the direction of increased diversity, education must accommodate that shift.




Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record Volume 96 Number 4, 1995, p. 671-680
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 8, Date Accessed: 11/27/2021 6:41:23 PM

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