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Achievement Gaps
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What are the Achievement Gaps?

  1. Achievement Gap in Race

    1. Asian Students

Different Factors Affect the Academic Achievement of Asian and Latino Immigrant and Second-Generation Students

A scholar reviews the research on factors that affect the academic achievement of Latino versus Asian immigrants.

This reports some of the ideas and findings from the following source:

Schmid, C. L. (2001). Educational achievement, language-minority students, and the new second generation.Sociology of Education, Supplement: Currents of Thought: Sociology of Education at the Dawn of the 21st Century,71-87. Retrieved April 4, 2002 from ProQuest database.

To see other reports that originated from this same citation, go to the bibliography.

Currently, about one in every five children under 18 is either an immigrant or children of an immigrant.

The U.S. Census Bureau estimates that between 1999 and 2050, the total number of foreign-born Americans will increase from 26 million to 53.8 million.

Clearly, this changing demographic presents huge challenges for the U.S. educational system. However, says scholar Carol L. Schmid, before the U.S. can come up with a way to effectively educate these immigrants and children of immigrants, we must understand how immigrant and minority status makes an impact oneducational achievement.

Schmid reviews the recent body of sociological research to determine what we know, and what we do not know, about immigrants and educational achievement.

Issues of Dizzying Complexity

The bottom line is that we cannot think of immigrants as a homogeneous group. Indeed, we cannot think of "ethnic groups" such as Hispanics or Asians as homogeneous groups. Based on her review of the research, Mexicans are different from Cubans and Vietnamese are different from Japanese.

We need a much more complex and nuanced way to understand how a range of factors interact to create very different situations for different immigrant groups. Schmid identifies several factors that interact to influence immigrant academic achievement:

  • socioeconomic class
  • cultural characteristics
  • social reception
  • language proficiency
  • gender

The problem is, says Schmid, that these factors do not interact in the same way for different immigrant groups. While some immigrant groups do well in the academic and economic arenas, other immigrant groups do quite poorly. Compare, for instance, the changes in the economic status of Asian immigrants versus Mexican immigrants from 1970 to 1990.

Figure 1: Changes in the Earnings of Asian and Mexican Immigrants Relative to Native-Born U.S. Workers

Multiple Models for Immigrant Adaptation to American Society

Schmid says that sociologists find that different immigrant groups may adapt to American society in different ways. Gone is a simple "melting pot" model. She identifies three modes of adaptation:

  1. Acculturation to middle class. This is the classic model of parallel acculturation of all ethnic and racial groups into the white middle class.
  2. Assimilation into underclass. Rather than join the middle class, this form of adaptation places the immigrants into a permanent underclass.
  3. Economic advancement with a distinct cultural identity. Immigrants preserve their community's values and solidarity, but find ways to achieve economic success.

Which path an immigrant group takes depends on a number of complex and interacting factors.

Factors Affect Different Immigrant Groups in Different Ways

Schmid reviews a number of factors that play different roles in influencing immigrant children's academic achievement. Some factors, like family socioeconomic status, appear to be important across all immigrant groups—although it matters more or less depending on the group. Other factors, like immigrant culture, interact with the values and perspectives of the dominant U.S. cultures in complex ways—sometimes to depress academic achievement and other times to enhance academic achievement.

Schmid's review of the research provides her with a complex view of the relationship between economics, culture, language, and academic achievement for different immigrant groups.

Hispanic Immigrants

Asian Immigrants

Socioeconomic and Family Factors

Socioeconomic Status (SES)

According to Schmid, SES and family background do the most to explain the relatively low academic achievement of second generation Mexican-American students. She says that "the stark reality is that the economic conditions of Latino children are much more likely than those of other children to be dire."

While Asian-American students' academic achievement is influenced by both cultural and class-related factors, the effects of Asian students' relatively high SES are the most important.

Drop Out Rates

Much of the Latino dropout rate (30%, compared to 8.6% of non-Hispanic whites and 12.1% of non-Hispanic blacks) is due to the fact that many Latino children never enroll in school. Schmid says that about 1/3 of Latino students never enroll. The reasons for Latino dropout are also different than other groups. 4% of Latino males (versus 8% of white males) give their reason for dropping out as "poor school performance." Economic reasons for drop out were given by 38% of Latino students compared with 22% of non-Latino white students.


Generation plays an important role in academic achievement, says Schmid. While one study found a positive relationship between years of education and generation for Latinos, other studies admit contrary findings.

Other studies found that the birthplace of the parents makes a difference. U.S.-born Mexican-Americans from U.S.-born parents were less likely to finish high school than U.S.-born Mexican-Americans of Mexican-born parents. Second-generation Mexican-Americans were also more likely to drop out of school than third-generation Mexican-Americans, even though third-generation SES was lower.

Schmid says one explanation for this curious finding is that U.S.-born Mexican-Americans with Mexican-born parents are more likely to have a "dual frame of reference." That is, through the experience of their parents, they see that while they may not have it great in the U.S., the situation in Mexico was much worse. Schmid says that second-generation Mexican-Americans may not be able to see themselves as better off, but simply marginalized within their home society.

Sociocultural Factors: Class does not explain everything however. The cultures of various ethnic groups makes a difference in school performance.

A key here is not just the immigrant group's culture, but how that group and culture interface with U.S. society. Schmid identifies several differences in the ways that U.S. natives have received immigrant groups.

Voluntary versus Involuntary immigrants: voluntary immigrants tend to recieve a better reception than involuntary immigrants.

Involuntary immigrants : like blacks, many Mexican-Americans were brought to the U.S. through forced immigration or domination. However, this does not apply to more recent Mexican immigrants during the twentieth century—especially Cuban-Americans. Involuntary immigrants are likely to develop an oppositional orientation to the larger U.S. society. Because of this oppositional orientation, U.S. educational institutions and personnel may be seen as threatening.

Voluntary immigrants : like their European counterparts, Asian immigrants came to the U.S. of their own volition. Voluntary immigrants are more likely to retain a distinct but non-oppositional identity relative to the larger U.S. society. Studies of Chinese and Punjabi children found that families stressed mastery of the dominant culture without a loss of their own ethnic identity.

Economic versus Political Immigrants political immigrants tend to receive a better reception than economic immigrants

Groups coming to the U.S. to escape an impoverished homeland are generally less well received than groups coming to the U.S. to flee political oppression. Mexicans and Haitians are examples of economic immigrants and have faced persecution and discrimination in the U.S.

Cubans, on the other hand, are political immigrants (fleeing Castro's Cuba) and have done relatively well and received a much warmer reception in the U.S.

Vietnamese are examples of political immigrants. They were eligible for federal assistance granted to Southeast Asian refugees.

Immigrant Values the values of an immigrant group change the importance different explanatory variables for academic achievement

In a study examining the effect of SES, academic ability, and parents' expectations on academic achievement, different factors were important for explaining academic achievement among different Asian immigrant groups.

  • SES : explained much of educational expectations for Filipinos, Japanese, and South Asians, but none for Chinese, Koreans, and Southeast Asians.
  • Ability : explained some educational expectations for Chinese, Koreans, and Southeast Asians, but none for Filipinos or Japanese.
  • Parental Expectations : play an important role for explaining the white-Asian achievement gap for all major Asian immigrant groups.

Language Proficiency

Low English Proficiency and Poverty low English proficiency is associated with poverty and segregation

In the 1991-92 school year, about half of low English proficiency Latino first graders attended high-poverty schools. Low English proficiency students are even more segregated (attend schools with an overwhelmingly minority student population) than fluent English proficiency students.

Studies have also found that Latino students are more segregated than any other ethnic or racial group.

Another study found that once family background and migration history were taken into account, English proficiency had only a minor significance for academic achievement.

In the 1991-1992 school year, only 8% of Asian first graders attended high-poverty schools.

Bilingualism fluency in two languages

Recent studies show that Latinos who were fluent in both English and Spanish either had the same or lower dropout rates than Latinos that spoke only English—this, even though the English-only families had higher SES than parents of bilingual students.

Vietnamese students who were fluent in both English and Vietnamese received better grades than Vietnamese students who were not fluent in both languages:

  • 46.8% of fluently bilingual Vietnamese were A students
  • 25% of Vietnamese students who could read or write Vietnamese fairly well were A students
  • 8.2% of Vietnamese students who could not speak Vietnamese were A students

Latino girls are more likely than Latino boys to:

  • be bilingual
  • earn higher grades and
  • graduate from high school

Latino boys are more likely than Latino girls to:

  • be put into remedial courses
  • take an adversarial stance toward teachers

Male Punjabi students were more likely than female Punjabi students to:

  • take college preparatory courses
  • attend four-year colleges

The Bottom Line

Schmid says that one study identifiesfourkey factors for explaining the difference in achievement among immigrant groups:

  1. cultural history and traits of the immigrant group
  2. the degree to which the immigrant group's culture is compatible with and able to assimilate to white middle-class culture (as opposed to underclass culture)
  3. U.S. society reception of the immigrant group—involving such things as the reaction to ethnic "markers" such as culture and skin color
  4. political and economic capital of the immigrant group developed in the context of U.S. society

On the basis of thesefour characteristics, Schmid outlines the differences between Asian and Mexican immigrants:

Asian immigrants. They often combine high SES with a positive reaction from American society and support from ethnic enclaves. Mexican immigrants. They often combine low SES with a negative reaction from American society. This puts them in the position of associating with U.S. underclass, which makes developing social and human capital difficult.

Research Design: Researcher Carol Schmid reviews recent research on the factors influencing the academic achievement of Latino versus Asian immigrant groups.


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