Immigrants and Evidence

My grandfather was an immigrant from Argentina, by way of Ellis Island. My three children were all adopted from Chile, so I’d experienced naturalization before. But last week, for the first time, I saw a naturalization ceremony for adults. My oldest son married a wonderful Russian woman, and she just become a U.S. citizen.

The whole experience was quite impressive. Perhaps fifty people from 18 different countries all over the globe were sworn in. The staff couldn’t have been more welcoming. They showed a video, just a slide show, showing pictures of immigrants over time. A new citizen from Mexico volunteered to read the Pledge of Allegiance—so worn by constant usage to most of us, but full of meaning and promise to this group: “…with liberty and justice for all.” Stop and think what those words must mean to immigrants from places in which these concepts do not exist. By my count, in 15 of the 18 countries from which these new citizens came, you could be arrested for criticizing the government.

In history, and up to the present, immigrants come to America for many reasons and in many circumstances, but they know for sure that the streets of America are not made of gold. For most, they are made of hard work, long hours in two or three menial jobs, not to mention cultural disruption, hardship, and all too often, discrimination. Perhaps life is materially better in America, perhaps it’s not. So why do so many come to our shores?

The answer for most: they come for their children, not for themselves. Even for children they don’t have yet. It’s the second or third generation, not the first, that most benefits from immigration. My grandfather from Argentina arrived with little education, no money, and no English. He became a sign painter. But my father, helped by the New York City Public Schools and then the GI Bill, went to college and graduate school, and become a clinical psychologist.

There are two key factors in every immigrant’s story of triumph. One is the determination of loving parents. But the second, is the school. The children of immigrants who succeed in school achieve the American Dream, for themselves and for our country. That’s the way things should happen, in a country founded on an ideology of the perfectibility of mankind through the powerful impact of opportunity and education.

For all of us as educators, this is a weighty responsibility. We have to see the promise in every child, immigrant or native born, and then do our part to make that promise a reality.

As researchers, developers, publishers, principals, teachers, and citizens, the responsibility for children’s futures requires that we do whatever it takes to see that all students succeed. Using proven programs is, of course, a part of this. It’s simply not good enough to have a list of excuses to explain why we cannot help far more of our most at-risk students to succeed. Sure, innovation is hard. It takes money, time, effort, and breaking of long-established routines. Many educators would prefer to just use the textbook because it’s easy. Others would prefer to make up their own, untested approaches. But schools were not built for us educators. They were built for the kids, and we owe it to every one of them to use proven strategies with enthusiasm, care, knowledge, and skill. This means developing and validating approaches specifically for the children of immigrants, but also improving instructional practices for all students.

A school full of the children of immigrants is full of wonderful stories yet to be told, versions of the same stories of triumph we tell of our own families. We cannot do any less than we are able to do to see that these stories come to pass. Immigrants do not ask for any guarantees, for themselves or for their children, but they do ask for opportunity. Enhancing the effectiveness of our schools is the best way we have to give them that opportunity and to thereby build the nation we want. And need.

This blog is sponsored by the Laura and John Arnold Foundation

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