Study Reveals Education Decline Across Immigrant Generations

This article was last updated on May 25, 2022

Deeply ingrained in American mythology is the notion that succeeding generations of immigrants always do better than their forefathers. This belief is predicated on the success that descendants of last century's great wave of immigration achieved. While researchers have pointed out that that success was often slow and the result of specific historical forces, most importantly a 40-year period of significantly reduced immigration, it has nonetheless become romanticized and held up as a model for all future immigrant trajectories. It worked in the past, say advocates for open-ended immigration, so there is no reason to be concerned. This sort of thinking can quickly turn into ideology that has no use for facts.

One area where facts are in short supply is the impact of immigration on education. In 1960, immigration accounted for less than 5 percent of Americans under age 18. Today, more than one-quarter of the nation's 75 million youths are foreign-born or the U.S.-born children of immigrants. Their share is expected to grow to one-third of the under-18 population by mid-century. Despite this enormous growth, there is no empirical assessment of how immigrants and their descendants are doing. Public schools do not segregate their data and the scant research that has been compiled by outside researchers is typically limited to the first generation.

A new working paper by Umut Ozek and David Figlio, however, provides a rare look at the progress of first, second, and third generation Hispanic and Asian students. The authors merged school longitudinal statistics with birth records to provide what they claim is "the most comprehensive analysis to date of the educational experiences of immigrants in the U.S. public school system."

Using the state of Florida's "exceptionally rich data", they followed roughly two million students, including hundreds of thousands of students from immigrant households, examining disparities in achievement, misbehavior, truancy, academic persistence, and college readiness through grade levels and across generations. They then examined whether the observable gaps in achievement were the result of poor quality schools or social and economic differences.

The authors note that the unique Florida dataset, which matches student records with detailed birth certificate information for all children born between 1992 and 2002, allowed them to overcome limitations of prior literature. One of the biggest advantages was that it gave them the ability to analyze results based on how students stated their ethnicity compared to how their parents self-identified. Previous studies were not able to make this distinction, which made comparing immigrant groups across generations difficult.

Another advantage of the data is that Florida is one of the major destinations for immigrants. With 85 percent of the current wave of immigrants coming from Latin America or Asia, the authors explain that the state "can be regarded as a mirror for the future demographics of the public school system in the United States." The only noted drawback is that Mexicans are underrepresented in the state, so the authors stratified the data by country of origin to increase the external validity of their findings.

Their results run counter to the conventional wisdom of the immigrant experience. Ozek and Figlio find:

[A] general pattern of deteriorating educational outcomes across successive immigrant generations. In particular, we find that first generation immigrants – beyond a transition period – perform better in reading and math tests than do second generation immigrants, and second generation immigrants perform better than third generation immigrants. We also find that recent immigrants are significantly more likely to graduate from high school than more established generations, and are better prepared for college upon high school graduation. This pattern also holds true for student misbehavior and truancy, and for both Asian and Hispanic immigrants, and remain[s] unchanged even after controlling for observed student, family and school attributes, or whether we use the student's or the mother's reported racial/ethnic identity.

The performance of early arriving first-generation students is the high water mark across all immigrant generations and the decline of succeeding generations on some measurements is dramatic. For example, eighth grade reading scores drop from the 75th percentile for early arriving first-generation Asian students to the 64th percentile for the third generation and they go from the 80th to the 65th percentile in math. The decline across Hispanic generations is less pronounced, but the test scores are much lower, dropping under the 50th percentile in reading and just at the 50th percentile for math. While these scores are not at the bottom of the distribution, they show a downward trajectory that, as the authors note, is marked by a significant decline in the high school graduation rate of both groups.

What makes this academic and behavioral decline striking is that succeeding generations of immigrants typically come from somewhat wealthier and more educated households and have "significantly better English skills" than their first-generation counterparts who are outperforming them. The authors find that "84 percent of the early entering first generation Hispanics have been categorized as limited-English-proficient at least once since they entered the public school system, in stark contrast to 60 percent for second generation, and 27 percent for third generation." For Asian students, 47 percent of the early entering first generation were once limited in English compared to only 5 percent of the third generation. But relative prosperity and fluency with English does not translate into educational achievement. Nor does family stability, which many researchers say is the greatest indicator of student success. Both Hispanic and Asian third-generation students in the sample were also more likely to have a mother who is married.

Ozek and Figlio find "evidence of educational aspirations dissipating across generations". Their analysis suggests that this educational decline is not attributed to the factors that are usually blamed: poverty, poor schools, limited English proficiency, and family instability. When school conditions are held constant and the other factors see a relative improvement, the achievement and behavior of later generations still gets worse. The findings, taken from a very large and fairly representative sample of current national immigration flows, run counter to the American myth of continual immigrant progress across generations. The students who are underachieving are established Americans. But many find themselves out of the mainstream.

The authors do not speculate on the reasons for this trend. It may be that, despite their relative improvement, these students remain in enclaves that are continually being refreshed by record-breaking levels of immigration. It has been shown that such segregation is harmful to academic success. Perhaps its effect is felt more deeply by second- and third generation students who did not choose to come to the United States and are no longer just happy to be here. The relative improvement that their parents or grandparents achieved was not enough to keep them from being alienated. But many more will remain alienated as long as the federal program of mass immigration continues.

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