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Immigrant Paradox Less Consistent in Young Children, Study Finds

A new study that takes a fresh look at the educational outcomes for children of immigrants presents a different take on the so-called immigrant paradox in education.

While older children of immigrants—we're talking high school students—tend to perform better in school than might be expected, or even outperform their U.S.-born peers, younger children of immigrants display much more uneven patterns of academic success, a new study from the Migration Policy Institute concludes. The skills that students need to succeed in kindergarten and to get off to a solid academic start often lag in the children of immigrants, especially those whose parents migrated from Mexico and other parts of Latin America.

Written by Robert Crosnoe, a sociologist at the University of Texas at Austin, the study argues that the immigrant paradox holds up better for some age ranges than others and that the popular understanding of the phenomenon may actually lead to educators, unintentionally, not providing the supports that children from immigrant families need to be successful in school. Most of the research done on the educational outcomes of immigrant children has focused on older students, largely because that's where the most data can be found.

Crosnoe focuses on early-learning data available from the Early Childhood Longitudinal Study, Birth Cohort—which collected extensive information from a nationally representative sample of more than 10,000 children from birth to school entry—and presents composite scores of children on standardized cognitive assessments in reading and mathematics skills, broken down by their race/ethnicity and parents' origins. The children in the data set took the assessments at age 4 and again in kindergarten.

With the exception of children of foreign-born blacks—who consistently scored above black peers of U.S. born parents at both stages—other children of immigrants showed less-consistent patterns. (Other researchers have delved more deeply into the strong performance of young children of black immigrants.)

For Latinos, the children of foreign-born parents scored five points lower overall than their peers who had U.S. born parents as 4-year-olds, a gap that widened slightly at the start of formal schooling. For whites, immigrant children did better than their native peers as 4-year-olds, but then the pattern switched once the children reached elementary school. For Asians, children of native-born parents did somewhat better on the preschool assessment, but by early elementary school, the paradox had emerged, with Asian children of foreign-born parents performing better.

While children of Mexican immigrants tend to struggle more on academic indicators, they demonstrate strong social-emotional skills that are attributed, in large measure, to the parenting of Mexican mothers.

To address the weaker immigrant paradox patterns in the earliest years of schooling, Crosnoe recommends three main policy interventions.

The first, not surprisingly, is expanding access to quality prekindergarten programs for the children of immigrants, who are much less likely than children of U.S.-born parents to get a formal preschool education. The second is broadening access to affordable, preventative health care since children of immigrants tend to be more predisposed to developing childhood illnesses that interfere with learning. Finally, he calls for building family-school partnerships to bring more immigrant parents into the fold by providing resources in their native languages and helping them build "home learning" environments that emphasize parents' roles as their child's teachers.

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