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Overlooked and Underserved: Immigrant Students in U.S. Secondary Schools

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Document date: December 01, 2000
Released online: December 01, 2000

The nonpartisan Urban Institute publishes studies, reports, and books on timely topics worthy of public consideration. The views expressed are those of the authors and should not be attributed to the Urban Institute, its trustees, or its funders.

For more information about Program in Immigrant Education, consult the program website at the Center for Applied Linguistics.

The United States is being transformed by high, continuing levels of immigration. No American institution has felt the effect of these flows more forcefully than the nation's public schools. And no set of American institutions is arguably more critical to the future success of immigrant integration.

Previous studies have found that most children of immigrants fare as well as or better than their native peers in schools, but certain subpopulations have lagged, most notably Mexican and Central American students. These earlier studies have also suggested the importance of focusing greater attention on the educational needs of older (middle and high school-age) limited English proficient (LEP) immigrants and on the challenges facing the high-poverty secondary schools in which they are found.

In 1993, the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation supported the creation of a program of local demonstration projects focused on immigrant secondary education that addressed some of these challenges. The projects were brought together under what was referred to as the Program in Immigrant Education (PRIME). This report documents the changes in the immigrant student population to which the Program responds,1 the challenges the demonstration projects faced, and the responses that participating schools made in collaboration with their reform partners. The report also distills lessons drawn from the demonstration projects about improving education for immigrant secondary students.

This report focuses in particular on two subpopulations of immigrant children that pose special challenges to secondary schools but have received little attention. One subpopulation is immigrant teens who arrive in the U.S. school system with significant gaps in their schooling. Many of these children are not fully literate in their native language, much less in English.

The second subpopulation is students from language minority homes who have been in U.S. schools longer, but have yet to master basic language and literacy skills. While these students may be orally proficient in English, their reading and writing skills lag those of their student counterparts. We refer to these students here as long-term LEPs. This report then focuses on four institutional challenges that the PRIME demonstration schools faced in strengthening education programs for immigrant children. The first challenge was the limited capacity of school staff to instruct these learners. At one level, this capacity issue is caused by a simple shortage of teachers specially trained to teach LEP/immigrant students. At another level, it is the result of the limited number of content teachers (i.e., math, science, or social studies) who can communicate effectively with LEP/immigrant children.

A second challenge to teaching LEP/immigrant students derives from the ways in which secondary schools are organized. The division of secondary schools into departments along the lines of universities, the isolation of language development teachers, and the division of the day into 50-minute periods militate against the kind of individualized instruction students with special learning needs may require.

Third, the systems of accountability that are now in such ferment as a result of the movement to higher standards in U.S. schools have historically omitted LEP/immigrant students. With few incentives to improve outcomes for these students, little has been expected of them or the schools responsible for educating them.

Finally, institutional analyses revealed that reformers confront wide knowledge gaps about how to simultaneously build both language and subject-matter learning among LEP/immigrant students. Both types of learning are necessary for immigrant teens to graduate from high school in the limited number of school years that are available to them.

Earlier Studies of Immigrant Education. As suggested previously, PRIME built on a series of studies of how the children of immigrants fare in U.S. schools and postsecondary institutions. (Many of these studies had been funded by the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation.) The studies found that, in the aggregate, immigrants perform as well as or better than their native-born counterparts along a number of dimensions. They were more likely to report high personal and parental aspirations, more likely to take advanced math and science courses, more likely to take advanced placement tests in preparation for college, and as likely to graduate from high school.2 Immigrant students were also more likely than their native-born counterparts to graduate from college.3

However, these larger trends masked the different educational trajectories of several important subpopulations of immigrant children. Central American and Mexican-origin children, especially, were less likely than their native-born counterparts to enroll in school past the 8th grade. If they did enroll, they were more likely to be retained in grade and fail to graduate.

The aggregate performance data also failed to reflect the challenges facing immigrant students who arrive with significant gaps in their schooling. One 1993 study found that approximately 20 percent of LEP 4 students at the high school level and 12 percent of LEPs in middle school had missed two or more years of schooling since the age of six.5

Evidence was also mounting that immigrant teens suffered extraordinarily high dropout rates—associated with both how recently they arrived and how difficult they find it to speak or comprehend instruction in English.6 LEP immigrant students were also found to be concentrated in high-poverty schools troubled by shortages of appropriately trained teachers and instructional materials, and with generally low capacity to educate either immigrant or native-born children.7

Nature of the Analysis and Organization of the Report. In carrying out the research for this report, we conducted both quantitative analyses of aggregate databases and a qualitative analysis of the policy and practice issues facing the PRIME demonstration projects. As part of our review, we visited 10 project high schools and middle schools in five school districts. We interviewed more than 60 teachers, school administrators, and project leaders about immigrant education and school reform at their sites. We also observed teachers and students in their classrooms and conducted focus groups with parents and student teachers at selected sites. Although we examined data on student achievement that some sites collected, our assessment does not have the type of comparison data necessary to draw rigorous, empirically based conclusions about project impacts.8

Our primary emphasis has been on the challenges the projects faced. While we provide a general description of the reforms the projects introduced, we refer the reader to the separate reports that the projects have themselves published, which explore the curricular and other changes they implemented in much greater depth.9

Organization of the Report. Chapter 1 reports the main findings and conclusions in a manner accessible to readers without a background in education policy. Chapter 2 provides a statistical profile of immigrant children in the nation's schools, drawing primarily on two national databases: the U.S. Census and the U.S. Department of Education's Schools and Staffing Survey (SASS). Chapter 3 profiles the three demonstration projects and the sites at which they were implemented. Chapter 4 turns to a discussion of the challenges the projects confronted, beginning with the needs of underschooled students, those with low literacy skills, and those who have spent substantial time in U.S. schools but remain limited in their English proficiency. Chapter 4 also discusses special challenges facing secondary schools with large numbers of immigrant students.

Chapter 5 discusses the organizational structure of the secondary school and the barriers it presents to meeting the needs of immigrant students. Chapter 6 considers accountability issues in secondary schools and their relationship to the incentives teachers, principals, and school systems confront in educating immigrant students. Chapter 7 focuses on responses the demonstration sites made to these challenges. Chapter 8 closes with lessons drawn from the demonstration sites and the policy implications that flow from their experiences.


1. Unless otherwise noted, our reference to immigrant students includes foreign-born immigrant children as well as the native-born children of at least one foreign-born parent.

2. White, 1997, RI: Brown Univ, results reported to the U.S. Department of Labor, April 1997; Vernez and Abrahamse, 1996. RAND Corp.

3. Vernez and Abrahamse, 1996. See also Gray, Rolph, and Melamid, 1996.

4. A student is limited English proficient (LEP) for purposes of this analysis if there is a reported difficulty in under-standing oral English or in speaking, reading, or writing the English language that may impair the student's success in classrooms where the language of instruction is English. To be eligible for federal LEP services, a student must meet additional legal requirements, including coming from a home where a language other than English is the primary language. State and local school districts often develop more specific criteria for LEP status that determine the types of services the students are required or allowed to receive.

5. Fleischman and Hopstock, 1993.

6. National Center for Education Statistics, 1995. See chapter 1 for more recent Urban Institute analysis.

7. McDonnell and Hill, 1993. See also U.S. General Accounting Office, 1994.

8. In this connection, we note disagreement among experts as to whether such studies would be profitable given the current scarcity of knowledge about how adolescents develop language literacy and subject-matter knowledge when learning in a second language. Cummins, for example, has argued that the dominant theories about bilingual education remain too formative to guide the generation of predictions about program outcomes under different conditions that are necessary for casual analysis (Cummins, 1999).

9. A list of these reports is provided in the publications list at the end of this volume.

This report is available in its entirety in the Portable Document Format (PDF), which many find convenient when printing.

Topics/Tags: | Education | Immigrants

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