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Here’s why immigrant students perform poorly

Why do immigrant kids perform poorly in school? Michael_swan, CC BY-ND

Here’s why immigrant students perform poorly

Why do immigrant kids perform poorly in school? Michael_swan, CC BY-ND

Immigrant students in the United States consistently perform worse academically than nonimmigrant students. This achievement gap is evident as early as preschool and only grows as immigrant students advance through high school.

But, what causes the achievement gap?

One notion that fuels anti-immigrant attitudes is the belief that immigrant students perform poorly because of their immigrant backgrounds.

This is misguided.

As a former teacher and now researcher of immigrant families, I am familiar with concerns about low academic achievement among immigrant students. However, as my work shows, immigrant students face barriers beyond their immigrant backgrounds, including restrictive learning environments in their classrooms.

A multitude of barriers

Research has also shown that immigrant students tend to be concentrated in poor neighborhoods, speak a language other than English at home and enter school later than nonimmigrant students.

Immigrant kids tend to be concentrated in poorer neighborhoods. michael_swan, CC BY-ND

We know that poverty, language barriers and low levels of preschool enrollment contribute to poor academic performance.

There is also another, lesser known, factor at work here: school and teacher attitudes toward immigrant students. Immigrant students have been shown to perform worse when their schools or teachers harbor negative attitudes about their presence and abilities.


A recent report on immigration and education from the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) shows the extent of the immigrant achievement gap.

According to the report, in 2012, students in the U.S. with an immigrant background performed worse than nonimmigrant students on the Programme for International Student Assessments (PISA), a test administered to 15-year-olds in 65 countries, including the U.S. Immigrant students in the U.S. scored about 20 points lower in reading and 15 points lower in math.

Many people are also concerned that immigrant students negatively impact the education systems that they enter.

Current research, however, shows the opposite.

The presence of immigrant students does not negatively affect overall school performance. Rather, schools that serve poor families tend to underperform and immigrant families are often poor.

Poverty affects over half of immigrant families. In 2013, 54 percent of immigrant families in the US qualified as low-income.

In fact, when family income is taken into account, the difference between scores from immigrant students and nonimmigrant students on the PISA disappears.

Language and preschool

Immigrant students also struggle when they do not have mastery of the dominant language in their new country.

In 2015, nearly 10 percent of students in K-12 in the U.S. were classified as English Language Learners. These language barriers explain a larger portion of the achievement gap than immigrant backgrounds.

Also, low levels of enrollment in early childhood programs have a huge impact. Early entrance into the school system increases students chances for success in later grades. However, many immigrant families do not enroll their children in preschool programs because of families’ legal status, language barriers and cultural sensitivities.

Discrimination and racism

There is actually more evidence to show that schools in the U.S. are negatively impacting immigrant students and their families, not the other way around.

Many immigrant students face discrimination and racism in the form of segregation and hostile attitudes at their schools. Also, many schools don’t offer essential resources, like family liaisons or other social services, that would support immigrant families as well as the larger school community.

Immigrant students are also affected by a rarely acknowledged but equally important factor: the receptiveness of their host country’s education system, also known as the “context of reception.”

Teachers’ views of immigrant kids leave a big impact. https://www.flickr.com/photos/presidioofmonterey/6947110047/in/photolist-bzTKMr-cTmUAU-dvakxJ-8PCwt2-cTmE1d-8CutqV-bVACx8-eg5hzD-8SMZsm-cTmKxb-qrtqd2-9qr8c3-HJCf-am1wbA-2FMQZN-cTmM5q-9bTe76-d2kArd-5NpaP-pLViJs-dXkbDh-cTmU2f-6oG67K-dXeDxK-dXeeZ4-dXefeB-dXe, CC BY-NC

When teachers and staff have negative views of immigrant children and their families, it has a negative impact on the academic performance of immigrant students.

Negative views are particularly harmful when they involve deficit thinking, or the belief that immigrant students perform poorly because their families have less or know less.

Alternatively, immigrant students who enter a welcoming environment benefit from positive school outcomes. Research in education shows that students who enter positive contexts of reception are more motivated, better adjusted and more engaged in curriculum.

The OECD report also found that immigrant students who said they felt supported and cared for by their teachers scored higher on the PISA.

Value in diversity

Research shows that despite barriers, immigrant students often hold high aspirations for themselves. These high aspirations make them more likely to put in greater effort to take advantage of educational opportunities and succeed academically. This is part of a phenomenon known as the immigrant paradox.

Just consider this fact. Among low-income students who took the PISA, immigrants make up a larger share of high-performing students than nonimmigrants.

At a time when presidential candidates are threatening to build a wall along the US-Mexican border and governors are attempting to close their states to Syrian refugees, it is important to understand that immigrant students do not harm our education system or our communities. Instead, they bring valuable diversity.