The Education of Immigrant Children in New York
City. ERIC Digest.
by Rivera-Batiz, Francisco
Nearly one third of the total student population in New York City schools
are immigrants, and the proportion is rising steadily. This digest presents
an overview of all the factors that influence the education of immigrant
children, concentrating on the students' needs, aspirations, and attainment,
and on the public policies directed at them.
The number of immigrants recently flocking to New York City has been
massive. Between 1980 and 1990 about one million people from over 160 countries
moved to the City. Now, over one-third of the City's population is comprised
of immigrants (New York City Department of Planning, 1992).
For the purpose of securing aid, the City Board of Education takes an
annual Federal Emergency Immigrant Education Census, counting children
attending a school for three years or less whose total immigrant enrollment
is at least three percent of its total enrollment. In the 1995-96 school
year, the Census identified nearly 135,000 students-almost four times the
number counted only five years before (Board of Education of the City of
New York, 1996). These students represent only a portion of the total number
of immigrants in New York City schools. In fact, using statistics from
the 1990 U.S. Census of the Population, it is estimated that about 320,000
immigrant children attended City schools in 1995-96.
LINGUISTIC DIVERSITY AND EDUCATION OF IMMIGRANT CHILDREN
As a result of immigration, the number of Limited English Proficient
(LEP) students in City schools has risen sharply, to about 180,000 in Fall
1994. The Board of Education identifies LEP students by administering a
Language Assessment Battery (LAB), which tests a student's English proficiency
in listening, speaking, reading, and writing. Through Federal and state
legislation, LEP students are entitled to participate in an English as
a Second Language (ESL) program. In addition, LEP students in schools where
there are 20 or more students in the same grade with the same language
are assigned to bilingual education programs, which include ESL and also
native language communication arts instruction.
EDUCATIONAL ATTAINMENT AND ACHIEVEMENT OF IMMIGRANT
Lack of English language skills is a major stumbling block in the adjustment
of many immigrant children to their new schools, affecting their reading
comprehension test scores especially, but also other test scores. For example,
in 1992, only 13 percent of LEP students, compared with 56 percent of all
students, achieved at the 50th percentile or higher on the standardized
Degrees of Reading Power test. The difference between the scores in the
ninth grade Regents mathematics test of LEP students and students overall
was not as great--40 percent of LEP students and 53 percent of all students
passed (Board of Education, 1994).
Another reason why immigrants do not achieve in school is their lower
socioeconomic status, which affects the financial and parental support
that children have at home, and which is a proven factor in academic performance
(Coleman, 1987). More advantaged students have educational supports such
as encyclopedias and personal computers. They are also likely to have better
educated parents who can help them with homework, and can set an example
of academic achievement.
Immigrant students in general have higher dropout rates than the native-born.
Here, again, English language proficiency plays an important role. For
example, a 1994 U.S. General Accounting Office (GAO) study found that the
dropout rate of Hispanic immigrants was 49 percent for those who did not
speak English well, but only 12 percent for those who spoke it very well.
ATTITUDES AND MOTIVATION OF IMMIGRANT STUDENTS
Newer immigrant children are highly motivated to attend and succeed
at school, while more acculturated immigrants and the offspring of immigrants
have higher dropout rates (see, for example, Suarez-Orozco, 1995, for a
study of Mexican American adolescents in the U.S.). There are two major
hypotheses for the discrepancy. The first is that immigrants in general
are a highly motivated population that uses education for upward mobility
(McDonnell & Hill, 1993). The second hypothesis considers the comparison
between immigrants and U.S. born minorities who share the same low economic
status and English proficiency (Ogbu, 1991; Solomon, 1992). According to
this view, immigrant children perform above "involuntary minority" children,
because the latter experience a historically-rooted discriminatory treatment
in both society and educational institutions.
A random survey in four heavily immigrant schools, covering students'
desire to be in school, interest and attentiveness in class, and belief
that they were learning a lot, indicated that immigrants are more motivated
than other students.
POLICIES AND PROGRAMS TO PROMOTE IMMIGRANT STUDENT ACHIEVEMENT PUBLIC
Federal and state funding specifically targeted to the education of
immigrant children is quite limited. The major Federal program is the Emergency
Immigrant Education Act. Immigrants can also benefit from the substantial
Federal and state legislation targeting LEP children or children from low-income
families. An example is Title VII of the Elementary and Secondary Education
Act, which awards funds for promising programs for LEP students. Title
I of that Act funds educational services to poor children. In 1995 the
New York City public school system received $376 million in Title I funds,
and much of it was used to provide bilingual and general educational services
to immigrant children.
There are also some programs financed by state and local educational
agencies that affect immigrant children. Paradoxically, the most important
of these were forced on districts by litigation in Federal courts. For
example, in 1974, in what is called the Lau Decision, the U.S. Supreme
Court ruled that schools receiving Federal funds could not discriminate
against LEP students by denying them special instructional programs that
would allow their full participation in school while they were learning
Students who receive language services may face problems because of
their identification and separation as LEP students. In order for students
to escape the stigma of LEP classes, to have equal access to the services
available to students in mainstream programs, and to get an advanced level
education, they must leave the special bilingual track. Unfortunately,
however, many students are not monitored and tested frequently, and they
languish there. In fact, only seven percent of students entering bilingual
classes in the sixth grade test out within three years, and many students
who enter them in junior or senior high school never do so (Dillon, 1994).
Logically, programs for immigrant students must be intensive and transitional
in nature, and avoid the "dumbing down" tracking implicit in multi-year
There are currently seven schools for immigrants in New York City and
more are planned. All restrict admission to recent immigrants with limited
English proficiency. Evidence suggests that their students will best be
served if the schools closely follow the mainstream curriculum and work
toward moving them into regular schools as quickly as possible (see the
survey by Glenn, 1992).
There is a serious shortage of qualified bilingual teachers in New York
City, partly as a result of the rapid enrollment growth of LEP students.
In some City schools, teachers face students from as many as 45 different
countries who use almost as many languages. The staff needed to sustain
effective programs and maintain good student-to-teacher ratios is growing
rapidly, so a sizable effort must be made to recruit and retain more bilingual
teachers (Board of Education, 1991).
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services to students of limited English proficiency in New York City public
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Board of Education of the City of New York. (1994). New York City public
schools: Profile and performance in relation to minimum standards. Brooklyn,
Board of Education of the City of New York. (1996, March). Emergency
Immigrant Education Census. Brooklyn, NY: Author.
Coleman, J. S. (1987, September). Families and schools. Educational
Researcher, 16 (6), 32-38. (EJ 363 043)
Dillon, S. (1994, June 8). Report faults bilingual education in New
York. The New York Times.
Glenn, C. L. (1992, January.) Educating the children of immigrants.
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McDonnell, L., & Hill, P. T. (1993). Newcomers in American schools:
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New York City Department of Planning. (1992, August). Demographic profiles
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Solomon, R. P. (1992). Black resistance in high school: Forging a separatist
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Suarez-Orozco, C., & Marcelo, C. (1995). Transformations: Migration,
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