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Generations helping each other out in the classroom

MLFTC professors comb through mountains of educational data to offer up analysis on immigrant students and learning

Elementary School Class
August 14, 2019

Third-plus generation students — those born in the U.S. to U.S.-born parents — attend better-resourced schools compared to first- and second-generation students from immigrant families. But analysis reveals that these students who attend schools that do not serve immigrants are more likely to demonstrate lower academic achievement than their peers who do. In other words, attending school with immigrant student peers may actually improve the academic performance of third-plus generation learners.

Margarita Pivovarova and Jeanne M. Powers, professors in Mary Lou Fulton Teachers College, spent a few years researching the issue. Their resulting article, “Does Isolation from Immigrant Students Benefit or Harm Third-Plus Generation Students?” was recently published in Education Policy Analysis Archives, a peer-reviewed journal.

It’s the third such analysis from Pivovarova and Powers, who combed through mountains of educational data, tested research methodologies and looked at the relationship between academic achievement and isolation in third-plus generation students and their immigrant peers.

ASU Now spoke to Pivovarova and Powers about their analysis, school climates and diversity of cultures and experiences for immigrants.

Brunette woman in pastel colored dress

Margarita Pivovarova

Question: What prompted you to write this analysis?

Margarita Pivovarova: This study could not have been more personal to me. I am a first-generation immigrant and a parent of a first-generation student who experienced the transition to the U.S. educational system, and social and cultural environment when he was in high school. I observed the influence of these contexts firsthand for more than 10 years, first when we immigrated to Canada and later when we moved to the U.S. However, when writing the paper and doing the analysis, I abstracted from what I actually knew from my experience and my son’s experience. I was curious to learn whether our individual impressions are aligned with the average and to what extent. Dr. Powers and I were also driven by intellectual curiosity. We wanted to see if we could assess some of the claims widely circulated in media about immigration, and specifically that immigrants harm natives. Since these claims often guide public policies, we thought as researchers and social scientists, we should test them using actual data.

Jeanne M. Powers: Some of my earlier research is on school segregation so when we started working on this paper I was interested in understanding the extent to which third-plus immigrant students were exposed to, or in this case isolated from, immigrant students. This paper is actually the third in a series of papers; in the first paper we looked at the isolation of U.S.-born students, which is second- and third-plus-generation students combined. In the first paper and an additional paper, our findings highlight how it is important to distinguish between second- and third-plus-generation students. While second- and third-plus generation students have similar achievement, second-generation students’ families and schools more closely resemble those of their first-generation peers than their third-plus-generation peers.

Q: What are some of the academic challenges third-plus-generation students face today that are unique to them but not their predecessors?

MP: Academic challenges are not unique to third-plus-generation students. The rapid expansion of technology and subsequent changes in the formats and frequency of assessments affect all students regardless of their generational status. I would say that there are other challenges that third-plus-generation students face that are unique to their cohort. These include the extent of immigration and increasing racial and cultural diversity. But perhaps more importantly, all students have to negotiate the role of media, and specifically, social media that forms and shapes their perceptions of immigration and their immigrant peers. 

JMP: Another challenge that all students share that we couldn’t address directly but is worth noting is the underfunding of public schools in the past 10 years. The vast majority of all students regardless of generational status attend public schools. In an expansion of this project using multiple years of the same data (the U.S. data from the Program for International Student Assessment) we found that while 15-year-olds in 2015 are more racially diverse and are less affluent on average than 15-year olds in 2000, some of the indicators we might associate with declines in funding, such as class size, have increased during this period.

Q: To what extent are third-plus generation students isolated from their immigrant peers and how does this make a difference in academic achievement?

MP: Our findings suggest that 1 in 10 of third-plus-generation students in U.S. high schools are not exposed to either first- or second-generation immigrant peers. This implies that they are not exposed to a large population of U.S. residents who themselves or whose parents were born outside of the U.S. and represent a diversity of cultures and experiences. We find that on average, these 10% of third-plus-generation students have lower test scores compared to their third-generation peers in schools that serve immigrant students. This finding was consistent even when we accounted for students’ backgrounds and the characteristics of their schools. However, we also have to warn our readers that correlation is not causation and our study only describes patterns observed in real-world data about students rather than draws causal links between generational status and academic achievement. In our related studies we found that third-plus-generation students outperform their immigrant peers when we do not consider factors that are associated with academic achievement like family background and school contexts. But once all of these factors are taken into account, these differences in achievement disappear. Given the research on peer effects in schools, we can say that isolation might not be beneficial and may even be harmful because students in isolated schools do not have an opportunity to interact with their higher-achieving immigrant peers. 

JMP: Our findings also reflect the concentration of immigrant students in urban areas. Most immigrant students (both first- and second-generation) attend schools in metropolitan areas. Once differences in the backgrounds of students attending urban schools are accounted for, students attending urban schools have higher achievement than students who attend schools in other areas. Some of these differences may be related to school resources such as access to teachers with training in their subject areas and lower student-teacher ratios. This may point to the under-resourcing of rural schools, although that is an issue that needs to be addressed more specifically in another study.

Woman in glasses and colored necklace

Jeanne M. Powers

Q: Your analysis notes that third-plus-generation students are more likely to attend schools with lower concentrations of poverty and have parents with higher educational attainment than their immigrant peers, and yet they achieve less. Why?

MP: Here we have to distinguish between an average third-plus-generation student and a third-plus-generation student who attends an isolated school. For the third-plus-generation students who are isolated from their immigrant peers, the situation is different. The average achievement in isolated schools is lower even though these schools as a group have more teaching resources and lower levels of poverty. Their parents, conversely, are less likely to have college degrees. The patterns we observe in this study and a related paper may reflect what has been termed as an “immigrant paradox” — when students from immigrant backgrounds have higher achievement compared to their third-plus-generation peers despite not having the same resources. We also have to mention that our study is not without caveats. For instance, we cannot see how the apparent “lower” achievement of third-plus-generation students would translate to outcomes later in life such as college attendance, employment and earnings. We can only speak about this one point of time when we observed 15-year-old students in their respective high schools.

JMP: We should also emphasize that we are comparing two groups of third-plus-generation students: students who attend schools that serve immigrant students, and students who attend schools that do not serve immigrant students. We saw this as an interesting way to test the assumptions that underlie recent federal immigration policies and proposals. We think it is important to consider the extent to which these assumptions are supported or challenged by empirical analyses. Our study suggests the latter.

Q: What are some of the positive findings you discovered with third-plus-generation students?

MP: The vast majority of third-plus-generation students, indeed 90% of third-plus-generation students attend schools where they interact with their first- and second-generation peers. It is only a small, although substantive share who might miss out on important experiences that would shape their views of and attitudes about immigration.

JMP: All students benefit from positive school climates. Our findings suggest that when students are engaged at their schools, academic achievement — in this case mathematics achievement — is higher. Similarly, when teachers are responsible for smaller numbers of students (the teacher of the average third-plus-generation student was responsible for 125 students), student achievement was higher.

Q: Who do you hope will read your analysis and how should they use or implement it?

JMP: One of the goals of the analysis was to test an assumption driving federal immigration policy — that immigrants harm U.S. citizens — in this case students. We found that third-plus-generation students who attended schools that did not serve immigrants had lower achievement than their peers who attended schools with immigrant students. On the other hand, there are well-documented benefits from exposure to a diverse set of peers, and public schools are one of the primary places where youth can potentially interact with a broad range of peers, including but not limited to immigrant students.

MP: Policy analysis and those who write reports about the state of education in the U.S. should draw attention to ways that context matters, once again!. A lot of what we observe is a joint product of what is happening inside families, schools and neighborhoods. And there is no need to blame undesirable outcomes on only one of the links in the chain. Rather, we should better understand the intricate nature of these interactions.

Q: Is this the last chapter in your research on immigration and academic achievement? Or do you have long term plans for this project?

JMP: Our next project uses multiple years of PISA data to look at the possible associations between features of the state policy context, specifically the political climate for immigration, and the achievement of immigrant students over time. For example, do immigrant students have higher achievement when they attend schools in states where there are larger concentrations of immigrant students? Conversely, is student achievement lower when students attend schools in state with a more negative climate for immigrants? Is the isolation of third-plus-students’ generation students associated with the political climate for immigration? Using multiple years of data will help us address changes over the period when many states were actively enacting laws such as Arizona’s SB1070 that targeted immigrants and addressed multiple areas of public life (e.g., employment, identification, drivers’ licenses).

MP: Immigration debates are not going away any time soon and most likely are to become even more intense as the 2020 presidential campaign unfolds. As Dr. Powers mentioned our next project, we plan to contribute to these debates with evidence on the academic experiences of both immigrant students and their native peers.

Top picture courtesy of Getty Images/iStockphoto

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