Commentary | Education

Lessons—True or False: Schools Fail Immigrants

These pieces originally appeared as a weekly column entitled “Lessons” in The New York Times between 1999 and 2003.


True or false: Schools fail immigrants

By  Richard Rothstein

LOS ANGELES — A common indictment of public schools is that they no longer offer upward mobility to most immigrants. It is said that in the first half of the 20th century, children learned English, went to college and joined the middle class but that many of today’s immigrants are more likely to drop out, take dead-end jobs or end up in prison.

Many true accounts reinforce these beliefs. But less noticed are equally valid anecdotes pointing to an opposite claim.

Policy by anecdote is flawed because too often we notice only what confirms our preconceptions. California’s recent experience with Mexican immigrants provides ample material for stories about school failure. But on a day to celebrate the American promise, we might also turn to anecdotes of another kind.

Recent college commencements across California featured many immigrants from impoverished families whose first language was Spanish, who came through much- maligned bilingual education programs, learned English and now head for graduate schools or professions.

At California State University at Fresno, for example, about 700 of 4,000 graduates this spring were Latino, typically the first in their families to attend college. Top-ranked were Pedro Nava and María Rocío Magaña, Mexican-born children of farm laborers and cannery workers.

Mr. Nava did not settle in the United States until the third grade. Before that, he lived in migrant labor camps during harvests and in Mexico the rest of the year. His California schooling was in Spanish until the fifth grade, when he was moved to English instruction. Now, with a college degree, he has enrolled in management and teacher training courses.

Ms. Magaña did not place into English classes until the second half of the 11th grade. Now fluent in both academic and conversational English, she will soon begin a Ph.D. program in anthropology at the University of Chicago.

Their achievements are not unique. Both credit success to their mothers’ emphasis on education. Both mothers enrolled in English and high school equivalency courses at the local community college.

Across California, these two-year institutions play an especially important role for immigrants.

Lourdes Andrade just finished her junior year at Brown, having transferred there after getting associate of arts degrees in history and liberal arts at Oxnard Community College, 40 miles northwest of Los Angeles.

Ms. Andrade arrived here at the age of 4 and all through elementary school worked with her mother making beds and cleaning bathrooms in hotels. She, too, attributes her success to her mother’s strong academic pressure and also to mentoring she received in a federally financed program to give extra academic support to migrant children.

The program’s director, Lorenzo Moraza, also grew up speaking only Spanish. Now a school principal, Mr. Moraza estimates that about 30 percent of the immigrant children he has worked with acquired public school records that led them to college. Those who receive bachelor’s degrees are many fewer, but Mr. Moraza says he thinks most drop out of college for economic reasons, not academic ones.

At the Fresno campus, nearly two-thirds of the immigrants and children of immigrants who enter as freshmen eventually graduate. The university operates special support services to help them do so.

You cannot spend time in California without noticing an extensive middle class of Latino schoolteachers, doctors, lawyers and small-business people. Not all are recent immigrants, but many are. Some attended Catholic schools but most are products of the public system. Many had bilingual education in the 1970’s, 80’s and 90’s. California has now banned such instruction, assuming it failed.

There are plenty of anecdotes to support a claim that schools fail immigrant children or an equally persuasive claim that schools serve them well. Getting better statistics should be a priority. Government numbers do not distinguish between students who are immigrants (or whose parents immigrated) from Hispanics with American roots for several generations.

To help interpret California’s experience, the best federal data tell only that in 1996, there were 100,000 college students nationwide who were American citizens born in Mexico. This is less than 1 percent of all college students. But uncounted are even larger numbers of those born here to recent migrants.

Even a balanced collection of anecdotes that include successes as well as failures cannot determine whether California schools are less effective than we should expect, and whether wholesale change is needed to move more immigrants to the middle class. But the answer is certainly more complex than the stereotypes of systematic failure that pervade most accounts.

Return to the Education Column Archive