Making Grade in US Schools
Los Angeles Times
November 2, 2005
By Mitchell Landsberg, Staff Writer
A study released Tuesday confirms what many teachers have long suspected: The
performance of immigrant children in U.S. schools may reflect the education they
received — or didn't — in their home countries.
Foreign-born children, especially those from Mexico, are far more likely to
drop out of high school if they had a spotty educational record before coming to
the United States, according to the study by the Pew Hispanic Center. But those
who start U.S. schools by the second grade are scarcely more likely than
native-born American children to drop out, the findings show.
Adding to the debate, data also show that immigrant students from Asia,
Eastern Europe and the Caribbean are far less likely than their American-born
peers to leave school.
The report helps illuminate the challenges facing U.S. educators, particularly
in states such as California, as they struggle to cope with the largest wave of
immigration in the nation's history.
"There's no question that that rings true," said Kathleen O'Connell, an
assistant principal at Belmont High School in Los Angeles, where district data
show nearly half of 5,500 students are still learning English.
"You're talking about teaching them the whole notion of schooling, teaching
them content that they've never had … giving them algebra and biology and
history and geometry when they've never learned to read," she said.
The Pew study, which was based on census data, examined 15- to 17-year-olds
who had come to the United States from more than 40 countries. Those from Mexico
— by far the largest group of foreign students in California schools — were the
most likely of any nationality to have left school, or never to have enrolled in
a U.S. school.
Overall, nearly one-quarter of Mexican teens were dropouts (or had never
enrolled), compared with 16% of those from El Salvador, 5% from Nicaragua, 3%
from Jamaica, 2% from Ukraine and 1% from Hong Kong and India.
But for those Mexican students who immigrated no later than the second grade,
the dropout rate was a relatively modest 8%. Those who came later than the
second grade and had not attended school continuously in Mexico dropped out at a
staggering 83% rate, the study found.
Andrew Conroy, a counselor at Belmont High's Newcomer Center, said his school
struggles to educate students who arrive with little or no literacy skills in
their native language. Differences among nationalities, he said, may tell more
about where the immigrants come from within their own country than about the
Urban, middle-class students from any country probably arrive with grade-level
skills in their own language, Conroy said, but students from some countries,
including Mexico, are more likely to come from impoverished, rural areas where
schools are rudimentary and attendance spotty.
For instance, Conroy said, while urban Chinese students tend to do very well
in American schools, "We have some rural Chinese students who are very confused,
just struggling, I think on a level with our Mexican students who come from the
Although the study suggests that American educators are not solely to blame
when immigrants fail, another study by Pew raises questions on whether Latino
students — both foreign-born and U.S. natives — have access to the same quality
of education as their peers.
The second study says that Latinos, on average, attend far larger, more
crowded high schools than non-Latino whites or African Americans. Other research
has shown that large high schools do a significantly worse job than smaller
schools at educating students. That has prompted many large school districts,
including L.A. Unified, to begin breaking up big schools into smaller,
quasi-independent "learning communities."
Richard Fry, who
conducted the research for Pew, said the ideal high school size is 600 to 900
students, but more than half the Latinos in the United States attend schools
that are larger than 1,800 students.
Most urban schools in California are far bigger than 1,800 students, and many
are more than twice that size.
"This, in and of itself, will worsen their outcomes," he said in a telephone
conference call to discuss the studies.
Fry's research showed that while Latino and African American students are
equally likely to attend school in central cities — as opposed to white
students, who are far more likely to attend suburban or rural schools — the
Latino schools tend to be much bigger, with larger class sizes.
"This to me was one of the most startling findings," Fry said. He said he
wasn't sure why Latinos tended to go to bigger schools than African Americans,
but that the difference might be explained by immigration flows overwhelming
A map of new schools under construction in L.A. Unified would correspond
closely to the areas that have incurred a big surge in Latin American
immigration, said Richard Alonzo, a local district superintendent, whose area
includes the dense immigrant communities in the Pico-Union area.
A third study by Pew, also released Tuesday, said Latinos are more likely than
ever to attend college, but that most attend two-year schools, whereas white
students are increasingly likely to go straight to a four-year college.
Marta Tienda, a
sociology professor at Princeton University who has done extensive research into
ethnic and racial stratification, said she found the college study to be the
most disturbing of the three, with profound implications for the U.S. economy.
For the United States to remain competitive internationally, she said, the work
force will have to become better educated than it is today.
The Pew Center, based in Washington, is a nonpartisan research organization
supported by the Pew Charitable Trusts.
Recently arrived teens* whose education in their native countries was
interrupted before they came to the U.S. are very likely to drop out of school
here. The average dropout rate for native-born U.S. teens is 3.3%.
Recent arrivals with interrupted schooling abroad:71%
Recent arrivals with continuous schooling abroad: 10%
Early childhood arrivals: 5%
*15-17 years old
Source: Pew Hispanic Center