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Academic Experience of Immigrant Students

Since the 1970s, the number of immigrants migrating to the U. S. has been on a steady incline. In 2017, immigrants made up 13. 7% of the population, the highest share of the total U.S. population that immigrants have contributed to since 1910 (“US Immigrant”, 2019). With the continuously changing demographics of the population, we must consider the kinds of issues that will arise for these immigrants and their children. One such issue is how immigrant youth experience the U. S. educational system and the resulting academic outcomes of that education. There has long been the idea that America’s educational system can help to achieve social and economic mobility. However, in the case of immigrants, the educational system in the U. S. can help to achieve socioeconomic mobility for some immigrant groups while forcing other groups to face discrimination and disadadvantage (Zhou, 2009; Stone and Han, 2005). Immigrant children face many barriers when entering the U. S. educational system that native U.S.-born children often do not face, such as language barriers, cultural and social differences with the host country, and issues surrounding identity. These unique barriers to education present difficulties for immigrant students that impact their academic achievement, however the effects of such barriers impact immigrant groups in different ways and are not universal.

To understand how immigrants experience the U.S. educational system, we must understand their academic outcomes and how they compare to that of native students. Comparing the academic achievement of immigrant students with that of native students allows us to see in what ways the educational experience in the U.S. varies for non-American students and how that variation presents among different social groups based on their identity memberships. Research done by Pong and Hao (2007) shows, using GPA as a measurement of academic achievement, that there are significant differences in the achievements of students separated by both ethnicity and nativity status. Latino immigrant children have significantly lower GPA than non-Hispanic White children, while Asian immigrant children of Chinese and Filipino descent have significantly higher GPAs. Additionally, non-Hispanic Black immigrant students and non-Hispanic White immigrant students did not have a statistically significant difference in GPA with that of non-Hispanice White native students.

Academic achievement and school performance are impacted by a number of factors. A large sector of the research has found that schools naturally have a large impact on the academic achievement of its students. School characteristics like resources, teacher experience, teacher turnover rate, and school funding have a huge influence on student performance. Another large sector of research focuses on how neighborhood location can be a determinant of school quality and thereby serve as an indicator of the academic performance of students. Within the intersection of neighborhoods and schools, research has shown that a number of neighborhood and school effects such as X, Y, and Z can heavily influence and impact the educational outcomes of students. Include the impacts on educational outcomes. This research, however, traditionally focuses on the academic achievement of students as a general body or broken down into racial or socioeconomic groups. This kind of breakdown, however, does not address the very different academic and social experiences of immigrant children within these cohorts as compared to their native counterparts. As such, we must consider how students of different ethnicities and nativities experience their academic life and how their academic achievements are influenced and impacted by their ethnic and native backgrounds.

Immigrant youth are a very diverse population, which means that we cannot create simple generalizations for their experiences. Immigrant youth come from various nations of origin and bring with them a number of various religious and spiritual, linguistic, educational, and cultural beliefs, practices and backgrounds. Their families’ reasons for coming to the U.S. also vary, with some escaping religious or political persecution and others looking for better educational and work opportunities. And while some immigrant children may come from privileged and high-income families, many experience difficult situations that are linked to poverty, such as food insecurity, housing mobility, and poverty-induced mental and psychological disorders (Capps, 2001). Concluding sentence needed.

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With these diverse backgrounds, immigrant students also have a multitude of needs, as well as struggles, they face in school that native students often do not experience. However, to this point, the identity and backgrounds of students are complex and multi-faceted. As such, immigrant and native students can have much in common that present them with similar situations and obstacles. However those experiences can be, and are, shifted by their immigrant identity for non-native students. So accordingly, some key issues that immigrant students face within American schools are focused on the ideas of language, culture, and identity. As for language, many immigrant students are not native English-speakers, which presents many difficulties in their adjustment to American English-speaking schools (Shorts & Fitzsimmons, 2007). They face issues of learning sufficient and proficient English in order to perform academically well in American schools, while balancing the maintenance of their native language. In addition, immigrant students may attend schools that may not have sufficient and decent ESL programs, or are not equipped to serve students that speak the student’s native language. Additionally, learning another language takes time, and these students must learn the curriculum in their non-native language in addition to English, which compounds the difficulties in understanding and learning. On top of these, the language barrier further presents stress on immigrant students, specifically second generation students with immigrant parents, who must act as interpreters for their parents. This puts pressure on the student to understand the U.S. educational system and relay that back to their parents, making them responsible for their own education and behaviors (Goh, et al., 2007). Immigrant students face many language-focused barriers to the U.S. educational system, and this need is not always properly addressed, which can further exacerbate their issues integrating into American schools.

Cultural and identity issues also present significant barriers to education for immigrant students. Immigrant students often feel the need to adapt and assimilate into American culture through their school setting, and in doing so they feel pressure to abandon their own heritage and cultural background (Bemak and Greenberg, 1994). Yet this attempt can still feel isolating for the students, where they can feel a disconnection from both their home culture and the host country. Identity and cultural issues are closely linked to each other, given the nature that culture can make up a large part of someone’s identity. Identity is complex and multifaceted, and is shaped not only by one’s culture, but also social connections and relationships, race and ethnicity, gender, religion, socioeconomic status/class, and many other factors. For immigrants, it is important to consider how their identity is shaped and influenced by their peers, family, teachers, and communities (Kwak, 2003), by their ethnicity and ties to their ethnic group (Nesdale & Mak, 2003), as well as by sociopolitical and cultural contexts. Additionally, the intersections between race, class and gender also further complicate the immigrant experience within schools for immigrant youth. For example, students’ social relationships can vary across racial, class, and gender lines, and the varying membership in these groups can affect social behavior within the school setting (Grant & Sleeter, 1986). A student’s identity as an immigrant can also affect these relationships by influencing both the behavior and reactions of the immigrant student and their peers. Overall, the issues that immigrant students face can be narrowed down to, but are not exclusively limited to, issues surrounding language, culture and identity.

However, even with these complex and disadvantageous issues faced by children from immigrant families, immigrant children tend not to struggle as much as expected, even performing more strongly in school than their native counterparts (Crosnoe & Turley, 2011). This phenomena is known as the “immigrant paradox”, in which first generation immigrants perform with higher academic results than immigrants of later generations or native students, despite first generation immigrants having less time to acculturate and typically dealing with greater economic and social disadvantages. However, research has shown that there are many inconsistencies in the immigrant paradox, and that it is dependent on many factors, making it not universal for all immigrant students. The immigrant paradox varies greatly based on factors such as the type of academic achievement being measured, the age of the child as well as ethnicity and race (Coll, et al., 2014). There are strong disparities between racial and ethnic groups within immigrants and their academic performance, with Asian and White immigrants performing higher than Hispanic and Black immigrant students (Michael & O’Connell, 2009). While the immigrant paradox does not hold true in all instances, it does highlight the fact that immigrant groups have varying outcomes in the U.S. educational system, and no experience is universal.

The academic achievement of immigrant students varies for a number of reasons, one chief among being the social context in which these students exist and participate. Specifically in regards to the relationships between immigrant children and their family, peers, and teachers, these social contexts of immigrant students shape their life course and serve to both develop and acculturate them to the host culture. These social contexts are divided into two categories: one representing the immigrant student’s home culture (family, ethnic group, ethnic peers) and one representing the host culture (school, native peers) (Motti-Stefanidi & Masten, 2013). The social contexts of both the home and host culture work together to provide an individually unique experience that impacts the educational outcomes of immigrant youth. So for example, an immigrant student’s academic achievement can be influenced by school factors like teacher experience or teacher-student relationships, as well as by individual family factors like parental expectations or parent’s school involvement.

Of all the social contexts previously mentioned, there has been a great deal of research focused on the relationship between immigrant children’s educational outcome and family influence. This family influence can be expressed in a number of ways and varies greatly between different social groups, acting as a form of investment with the payoff being school performance. James Coleman argued that certain forms of structured social relations produce advantageous outcomes and thus could be seen as “capital” (Coleman et al., 1966).

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