We often see narratives about our students, classes, and schools that don’t line up with the reality we see in front of us. In the Super ELL framework, we’re committed to an asset-based approach to teaching ELL students. This means we often run counter to the dominant narratives that are sometimes told about our English Learners: that they won’t amount to much, that their parents don’t care, that they aren’t “really” part of our schools. Even taking a quick glance back through the archives of this blog will help you quickly see that none of those narratives are true. Our ELL students are capable of great success, just like any other students. Their parents are engaged in meaningful ways (and, if we are still struggling with that–then the onus is on the schools to help fix it). And they are undoubtedly our kids who belong fully in our schools.
But what about less pernicious narratives? A recent article in The Atlantic by Emily Deruy (click here to check it out) challenges one such narrative. If you haven’t heard of the “immigrant paradox,” it’s the seemingly unlikely result that first- and second-generation immigrant students tend to have higher academic achievement than their American-born peers despite the linguistic and cultural challenges that may face students raised in immigrant households. Earlier studies and common cultural narratives often cited the strong role of family and community in recent immigrant households (see, for example, the 2010 New York Times article). Some pointed to the “immigrant paradox” as proof of stronger work ethic for children raised in immigrant families.
The Recent Research
And all of this may be true–or at least partially true. But Deruy’s article, citing the research of Professor Cynthia Feliciano, gives a fuller picture. Rather than simply saying that recent immigrant families have stronger work ethic or value education more, Feliciano’s study came to the conclusion that much of the different in educational achievement may be due to the fact that the parents of these first- and second-generation students may have had greater socioeconomic and cultural status in their home countries than previously thought. As Deruy writes:
Relying on a longitudinal health survey and international education data, Feliciano discovered that most immigrant kids who succeed ultimately come from families who were successful in their native countries. That makes sense because, Feliciano points out, the families that migrate to the United States tend to have higher socioeconomic and educational standing than families who do not migrate. So it’s not that immigrating motivates kids to be high-achievers, it’s that their families have expected high achievement all along. That’s true, Feliciano finds, “even in the face of loss of status in the U.S. context.”
In other words, when we compared first- and second-generation students to their United States-born peers, we were comparing them to the wrong group. An example might prove helpful here. We sometimes hear the example of a highly educated recent immigrant (a teacher or medical professional, for example) who is not able to find a job in their field once they have settled in the US. Sometimes it’s a question of different licensing requirements, language proficiency, or more serious issues like systemic barriers to access for recent immigrants. So they may find another job in a lower paying, lower socioeconomic status field. But that immigrant, if they have children, are passing down the same messages, expectation, and help that they have garnered from their previously higher level of sociocultural capital.
So Why Does This Matter for our ELL Students?
It’s easy to think that positive narratives–like that first- and second-gen students have a stronger work ethic than their US-born peers–aren’t harmful. Certainly they are not as harmful as deficient-focused narratives. Research like this, however, help us develop a more comprehensive understanding of our ELL students. For many of our recent immigrant students, they are hearing messages at home that value high educational attainment and receiving support from their parents. If we approach our students with the idea that none of them are being pushed to go to college or that they aren’t receiving support at home for educational goals, then we are doing them a disservice. So research like this, even if it challenges what seems to be a positive narrative, encourages us to have appreciate the diversity of our students’ stories. The more diversity of stories that we hear, the better we are able to serve our students.