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


Spell it Éxito or Success — That’s What Hispanic Students Need

I want to wish everyone a happy and reflective Hispanic Heritage Month (September 15 – October 15). This must be a disturbing time for Hispanics, with presidential candidates competing to say terrible and ignorant things about them.

Americans love to speak with pride about our nation of immigrants, often as a prelude to telling their own immigration story. Our history does record the struggles immigrants had to overcome to find their place in America, but the sad part is that the struggles are often due to our own government, our own people and even (in many cases) immigrants from the same places who got here a little earlier.

In the long run, I think it is certain that Hispanics will become successful, respected and accepted, as the many middle class Hispanics already are. However, our schools could do a lot to help ease the transition so that Hispanics and other immigrants can reach economic security and social acceptance much faster.

The key educational issue with Spanish-dominant Hispanics and other English learners is figuring out how to help them learn English without slowing down their learning of everything else they need to learn in school. For decades, there have been highly contentious and political battles about whether Spanish-dominant children should be taught to read first in Spanish and then transitioned to English by about the third grade, or whether they should be taught in English from the outset. Along with colleagues, I did a large, randomized experiment comparing these strategies. The result? By fourth grade, there was no significant difference between the two groups.

Our findings confirmed a growing sense among advocates for English learners that fighting about language of instruction is not as important as ensuring quality of instruction. Along with colleague Alan Cheung, I wrote a review of research on effective reading programs for English learners. There were many proven and promising programs. Yet still today, there remains far more discussion about language than about effective instruction.

To me, this is one more area in which research and development in education can shift the debate and lead to genuine progress. So often, opposing sides make passionate arguments for or against some aspect of practice. Both sides are only interested in research that supports their preconceived position, and reject all other evidence. Yet often, the evidence points to solutions that are effectively neutral on the contentious issue. In the case of Spanish-dominant students, there is plenty of rigorous research to indicate that they benefit from cooperative learning, one-to-one and small-group tutoring, and instruction in metacognitive and learning-to-learn skills, for example. None of these solutions depends much on the language of instruction, so they do not get the attention the fight over bilingual education gets. Yet if everyone can stay focused on what is best for children rather than winning an argument, we’re likely to see the outcomes that everyone wants.

I’m not saying that language of instruction is unimportant, and there needs to be further research on how to help students who start off with limited English to succeed in school and maintain their home language. But whether you call it éxito or success, that’s what Hispanic kids need in school, whichever language is emphasized in the first few years.