Diversity in Academic Achievement: Children of Immigrants in US Schools

Jennifer E. Glick, Littisha Bates

Research output: Chapter in Book/Report/Conference proceedingChapter


Perhaps one of the easiest conclusions to draw about children of immigrants in the US today is that they are a diverse group with considerable variation in academic performance and subsequent educational attainment. Perhaps one of the most difficult tasks, therefore, is to draw substantive conclusions about the determinants of immigrant children’s paths through school. Scholarship on the academic performance of immigrants often compares those who arrived in childhood to their higher-generation counterparts. These studies find somewhat mixed support for a classic assimilation model of improved performance over generations (i.e., from immigrants themselves to the second-generation children of immigrants then compared to those in the third or subsequent generations). On the one hand, some studies point to lower test scores and school completion rates for immigrant adolescents than their higher-generation peers (Portes & Rumbaut, 2001). These differences may attenuate as adolescents move through school (Glick & White, 2003). Yet, increasing achievement over time or across generations is not as assured for all groups. Thus, the segmented assimilation perspective clearly calls for consideration not only of the considerable diversity of immigrant origins but the diversity of the context encountered in the US as well (Portes & Rumbaut, 2001; Suárez-Orozco & Suárez-Orozco, 2001). For schools, educating children from diverse national-origin and linguistic backgrounds presents challenges in several areas. Many children of immigrants come from low-income backgrounds, live in households where no one speaks English well, and may be isolated in ethnically or racially segregated neighborhoods (Garcia, 2002; Hernandez, Denton, & Macartney, 2008). Further, accessing social services and resources can be difficult even for those families with documented status and US-citizen children (Capps, Fix, & Reardon-Anderson, 2003). This rather bleak picture is also accompanied by strengths from close immigrant communities or families with great interest in helping their children succeed in their new country (Crosnoe, 2006; Suárez-Orozco & Suárez-Orozco, 2001). The best policy approach for enhancing the educational success of children of immigrants must consider these strengths and challenges. But first, we must understand just which characteristics of families and their communities create barriers to educational success for children of immigrants. In this chapter, we focus on academic achievement of a large sample of children in kindergarten and follow their achievement over time. Our first goal is to illustrate the considerable diversity evidenced among children in immigrant families. We note the variety of family backgrounds and school characteristics experienced by children from across these groups. We then follow earlier studies to compare the mathematics achievement of children of immigrants to their peers in native families in order to determine whether the differences observed in kindergarten are attenuated or expanded over time. Although there is little agreement on the correct temporal scale, all studies of assimilation or segmented assimilation posit some form of change, whether that change occurs across generations or for individuals and families over time. We focus on several characteristics of immigrant families and schools that may be associated with children’s academic outcomes. Research on school readiness, early school performance and academic achievement all point to the importance of family characteristics and socioeconomic status (Entwisle & Alexander, 1993). Thus, the diverse family backgrounds of children of immigrants likely contribute to the large variations in academic achievement. In addition, parental involvement is an important aspect of children’s academic success yet here too there is great diversity as some immigrant parents participate more than others (García Coll et al., 2002; Kao, 2004). Finally, schools are the key setting for academic instruction, yet children of immigrants do not all experience the same academic settings (Portes & Rumbaut, 2001). This chapter examines the relative impact of these characteristics on initial math-test scores of children from diverse origins in their kindergarten year. The analyses then focus on growth in math-test scores through fifth grade. The goal is not only to demonstrate how much of the variation in initial performance can be explained by the variations in backgrounds among children in immigrant families and their peers in native families but to demonstrate which characteristics lead to greater divergence over time.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Title of host publicationImmigration, Diversity, and Education
PublisherTaylor and Francis
Number of pages18
ISBN (Electronic)9781135213596
ISBN (Print)9780415456272
StatePublished - Jan 1 2009

All Science Journal Classification (ASJC) codes

  • General Social Sciences


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