Researchers at Brown University recently came together to address the concerning trend of declining academic success, trouble-free behavior, and physical health among children of immigrants in the United States. This led them to question whether becoming American poses a developmental risk. The phenomenon known as the "immigrant paradox" has been observed for over two decades, which highlights the fact that immigrants tend to fare better than expected in American society, despite facing numerous challenges such as adapting to a new culture, language barriers, and financial constraints. However, this initial success often diminishes in subsequent generations.
The conference aimed to encourage researchers to find solutions that can help future generations of immigrant children and grandchildren achieve the same levels of success as their ancestors. Raymond Buriel, a psychology and Chicano/Latino studies professor at Pomona College, was one of the first researchers to write about this phenomenon in 1984. He noted that individuals of Mexican descent who maintain strong connections to their immigrant culture are more successful in adapting to American society. Interestingly, this immigrant paradox does not appear to exist in many other countries, as highlighted by Suet-ling Pong, a professor of education and demography at Pennsylvania State University. She analyzed data from over 40 countries participating in international student assessments and found that the first generation tends to perform worse than subsequent generations in most countries. The United States, New Zealand, and Australia stand out as exceptions, and Ms. Pong attributes this to the influx of professionals and their children’s improved outcomes.
Although the pattern is well-documented in the United States, researchers struggle to provide a satisfactory explanation for why it occurs. One possible explanation is that immigrants often possess strengths like a good education that are overshadowed by their low socioeconomic status. Cynthia Garcia Coll, a professor at Brown University, discussed the work of Ruben Rumbaut, a sociology professor at the University of California, Irvine, which provides insight into the academic struggles faced by subsequent generations. As immigrant children become more acculturated, they lose some of the protective factors present in their homes and feel pressure to distance themselves from their native language and culture. This can result in a decrease in academic performance and a perception of discrimination, even when they work hard. To combat this decline in academic success across generations, researchers at the conference recommended investing in preschool education, supporting bilingual education, strengthening after-school programs, fostering stronger partnerships between pre-K-12 and higher education institutions, and learning from successful immigrant communities about effective strategies for adaptation.
In conclusion, the phenomenon of the declining academic success of children of immigrants in the United States has garnered attention from researchers at Brown University, who seek to address this issue and ensure that future generations can thrive as their ancestors did.
Dylan Conger, an assistant professor of public policy at George Washington University in Washington, D.C., has conducted research on the decline of educational achievement among first-generation immigrants compared to native-born students of the same race or ethnic group. Her study analyzed the math and reading scores of approximately 45,000 students in New York City schools from 3rd grade in 1996 to 8th grade. Of these students, 12% were first-generation immigrants. Conger found that first-generation immigrants outperformed native-born students in test scores and graduation rates from high school. Additionally, these immigrants had higher attendance rates and lower rates of participation in special education programs. The reasons for this pattern remain unclear and cannot be attributed to school characteristics alone. Other studies presented at the conference also demonstrate that acculturation and academic success vary among immigrant groups.
Min Zhou, a sociology and Asian-American studies professor at the University of California, Los Angeles, explains that Asians generally achieve higher levels of education compared to their American counterparts. However, there is a slight decline in academic success between first- and second-generation immigrants, except for Chinese and Koreans. Zhou notes that within Asian communities, there is a division over time with visible high achievers and delinquents.
Zhou’s research shows that the Chinese immigrant community in Los Angeles effectively utilizes ethnic after-school programs to enhance academic success. These programs not only teach the Chinese language but also provide previews and reviews of school lessons. Chinese parents often avoid public after-school programs due to the stereotype that they are for "bad children," which is perceived as being "too Americanized." Zhou highlights that although Latinos live in the same neighborhoods as the Chinese, they face language and cultural barriers preventing them from accessing private after-school programs. To ensure educational success in immigrant communities, she suggests making academic after-school opportunities available to all children.
At the conference, a panel of immigrant parents from Providence shared their experiences to provide insight into how parents support their children’s education. Tony Mendez, a Dominican immigrant who works for a Spanish-language radio station and considers himself financially stable, expressed confusion about why his relatives in the Dominican Republic view high school and college as an expectation while Dominican parents in the United States struggle to persuade their children to stay in high school. Mendez’s 16-year-old daughter faced motivational challenges after attending a private middle school where the majority of students were Anglo. Seeking a school with students who looked like her, she transitioned to a public school with a high population of Dominicans. However, her academic performance remains inconsistent as a high school junior. Mendez wonders if his daughter and others go through an identity crisis and feel like they don’t belong.