Harvard Educational Review
  1. Overlooked and Underserved

    Immigrant Students in U.S. Secondary Schools

    By Jorge Ruiz-de-Velasco, Michael Fix, and Beatriz Chu Clewell

    Washington, DC: Urban Institute, 2000. 102 pp. $5.00.

    As the number of immigrant children in schools throughout the United States grows at an unprecedented rate, the issue of immigrant children’s educational adaptation is receiving increasing attention from scholars and educators nationwide. However, much of the literature in the field of immigration and education focuses on youth who immigrated as children. Little research has examined the experiences of students who immigrated as adolescents, or the challenges faced by secondary schools that receive a large number of these students. Jorge Ruiz-de-Valasco, Michael Fix, and Beatriz Chu Clewell’s new book, Overlooked and Underserved: Immigrant Students in U.S. Secondary Schools, fills this gap in the literature by examining two “overlooked and underserved” subpopulations of immigrant children who pose particular challenges to secondary schools: students who immigrated in their teens (particularly those who had poor schooling in their country of origin) and students the authors term “long-term LEP” (limited English proficienct).

    The book is a report of the Program in Immigrant Education (PRIME), funded by the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation. The PRIME program was launched in 1993. It had three components: demonstration sites in middle and high schools, guidance from experts in school reform, and a national coordination organization. The purpose of the demonstration sites is to “strengthen participating schools’ capacity to meet the needs of immigrant students by helping them plan, organize, and implement reforms” (p. 34). The three expert school reform organizations that work with the schools are California Tomorrow in Oakland, California; the Center for Language Minority Education and Research at California State University, Long Beach; and the Department of Education at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County. The Center for Applied Linguistics in Washington, DC, serves as the national coordinating organization.

    The authors begin by presenting findings from earlier studies funded by Mellon and give an overview of the themes and organization of the new report, which “documents the changes in the immigrant student population to which the Program [PRIME] responds, the challenges the demonstration projects faced, and the responses that participating schools made in collaboration with their reform partners. The report also distills lessons drawn from the demonstration projects about improving education for immigrant secondary students” (p. vii). In preparing the report, the authors visited ten participating middle and high schools in five school districts, where they interviewed teachers, school administrators, and project leaders. They used both a quantitative analysis of aggregate databases and a qualitative analysis of the issues that the interviewees described in trying to better meet the needs of immigrant youth. The mixed method offers the readers a rich view of the adaptation of immigrant youth and how the schools can respond to this new population.

    In chapter one, the authors summarize the core findings and conclusions that they cover in detail in each subsequent section of the report. These include the national profile of the immigrant student population, challenges to educating immigrant children at the secondary level, organizational and accountability structures of secondary schools, reform strategies/responses, and selected practice and policy lessons. In chapter two, the authors document the trends in the composition, growth, demographic characteristics, geographic concentration, and academic performances of immigrant children in U.S. schools from 1970 to 1995. Their analysis is based on two national datasets: the U.S. Census and the U.S. Department of Education’s Schools and Staffing Survey (SASS). The authors point out the steady growth in the number of immigrant children in the nation’s schools, the significant growth in the LEP population and native Spanish speakers, the mismatch between distribution of children and resources, the growing number and percentage of immigrant children who are poor, the deepening segregation of LEP students, and dropout rates that vary by immigrant group. While most scholars today note the growing number of immigrant children, in this report the authors highlight overlooked aspects of immigrant children’s experiences, particularly issues of poverty and segregation, both of which have important implications for their overall adaptation.

    Chapter three describes the design of the PRIME program and the participating schools, as well as the states and communities in which they are located. Chapter four focuses on the two underserved immigrant subgroups — underschooled teen newcomers and long-term LEPs — and the challenges schools face to meet those students’ needs. The authors define the underschooled teen newcomers as students who typically have been in the United States for four years or fewer, arrive with little English-language fluency and limited native-language literacy, and usually perform three or more years below the age-appropriate grade level in math and other core subjects. They define long-term LEPs as “a growing number of first (and sometimes second)-generation teen children of immigrants, who have been educated in U.S. elementary schools, are usually orally fluent in English, but continue to perform several years below grade level in English reading comprehension and writing skills” (p. 45). These underschooled teens tend to require more personal attention from teachers in building study habits and developing classroom behaviors required in the new school environment. Many of these students also have to take a part-time job to help the family, further complicating their learning in school. The majority of these long-term LEP students have already exhausted bilingual education or other language programs provided by their school. Typically their special weakness lies not in speaking English, but in writing and reading it.

    The authors examine the political and fiscal operating contexts of secondary schools that are likely to constrain educators’ ability to respond effectively to these students’ special educational needs. For example, the literacy and language needs of the LEP students challenge the notion among many secondary school educators that basic literacy development usually occurs in primary school. In addition, secondary schools lack the assessment tools necessary for evaluating the academic progress of LEP students. The authors also explore the politics of immigrant education — the fact that the sudden increase of immigrant students in U.S. schools has provoked a high level of public debate over the impact of immigration on schools and the role of schools in immigration assimilation. In chapter four, the authors discuss ambivalent public attitudes, federal resource policy, and language and immigration politics, such as California’s Proposition 227, and their impact on the education of immigrant youth.

    In chapter five, the authors closely examine the organizational barriers that prevent secondary schools from meeting the educational needs of LEP students. These include the isolation of language development professionals and mainstream subject teachers, lack of extended planning and instruction time as well as collaboration time for teachers, and educators’ lack of understanding of immigrant parent involvement. The authors report that the core subject teachers in the demonstration schools typically believe that literacy and language development of LEP students is “not my job” (p. 60). Furthermore, the language development program is considered “remedial” and “not part of the normal function of the secondary school” (p. 60). Both mentalities hinder the goal of effectively preparing immigrant youth for mainstream classes. Many teachers working with LEP students often describe their efforts as a “race against an unforgiving calendar” (p. 61) — even the most motivated immigrant student needs more time than currently allotted to acquire the language skills to participate fully in mainstream content area classes. The fact that teachers work in isolation in many secondary schools also impedes the improvement of curricular and teaching approaches. Finally, miscommunication between teachers and parents can hurt immigrant students’ schooling. In many cases, teachers’ expectations of immigrant parents’ involvement do not take into consideration cultural differences, parents’ schedules, and language barriers.

    Chapter six extends this analysis, examining the challenges faced by educational reformers who are trying to increase school accountability for the educational outcomes of LEP immigrant youth. The authors point out that accountability systems in programs serving immigrant LEP youth are generally weak and “at odds” with the educational needs of LEP teens. School leaders in the demonstration sites emphasized that assessment for LEP students remains underdeveloped in many local schools. Many of the tests designed to measure the performance of LEP students are not proven to be reliable. There is also a lack of tests that measure content knowledge in students’ languages of origin, thus for LEP students it is often difficult to distinguish whether the tests measure English skills or content knowledge. The authors suggest that schools need stronger accountability systems, curriculum content standards, and student assessment and performance standards for LEP youth.

    In chapter seven, the authors present the strategies adopted by the demonstration projects to help the schools meet the language and literacy needs of LEP students. They provide an overview of the reform elements common to all sites. These include involving everyone (teachers, counselors, administrators, and parents), promoting accountability mechanisms, working to improve the quality of instruction on both language development and core subject classes, and emphasizing sustained long-term professional developmental for all school staff. The authors emphasize that new curricula for late-entering and underschooled immigrant students should be implemented in classes where students can receive sheltered content instruction in the core subjects. For example, in a sheltered history class, English language and literacy development is integrated with direct instruction in history. Teachers may also use more visual aids and employ more group-learning arrangements in the class. In many of the demonstration schools, content area teachers found it helpful to attend professional development workshops to learn basic knowledge on language acquisition, particularly how to provide sheltered instruction in their subjects to make it more comprehensible for LEP students. Chapter eight, the final chapter, synthesizes the authors’ findings, describing the lessons learned from the demonstration projects — how school leaders and reformers can restructure the secondary school to meet the needs of all students, link immigrant education to schoolwide reform, and involve a wide coalition of stakeholders in defining and implementing reform. The authors also offer implications for foundations, the educational research community, and national and state policymakers seeking to support reform.

    This report offers a uniquely practical perspective on how secondary schools can better meet the needs of two groups of immigrant students whose numbers are rapidly growing. It is a wonderful resource for schools, educators, and policymakers working closely with immigrant youth, particularly the “overlooked and underserved” LEP students and underschooled teens. Future research should continue to understand how schools, particularly secondary schools, can better meet the educational needs of this rapidly growing student body.

    D.B.Q.H.
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    Book Notes

    Why Don’t They Learn English?
    By Lucy Tse

    Overlooked and Underserved
    By Jorge Ruiz-de-Velasco, Michael Fix, and Beatriz Chu Clewell