Why Latino Immigrant Students Really Struggle In School
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Why Latino Immigrant Students Really Struggle In School

Unmasking the social phenomenon of lower academic success among Latino immigrant students.

Why Latino Immigrant Students Really Struggle In School

Waves of children being detained at the border is no longer a rare occurrence. Poverty, crime, and economic stagnation have forced many Latinos to leave their homelands and trek to the United States in search of a better life. Their desperation can be so severe that they even resort to sending their children on these long journeys on their own. Once those children get here, a new chance at life begins. Their potential to do amazing skyrockets. Or does it? Unsurprisingly, these new American students face uphill battles when it comes to getting a quality education. Their academic success is not guaranteed. The following studies do well to shed light on the various factors that affect an immigrant student’s academic success, and help us build a better foundation in giving each one of them a real chance at greatness.

One huge factor is education. Parents’ premigration education is more strongly associated with children’s academic achievement than any other pre- or postmigration attribute. Pong and Landale (2012) found that parents who had a strong educational background in their country of origin were better equipped to help their children achieve greater academic success than those who didn’t. The researchers studied the differences between the children of Asians and Mexicans. Their research showed that students of Asian descent fared better academically because their parents were better educated. For the most part, Mexican parents coming to the United States were uneducated or had very little proper schooling. Thus, they struggled in guiding their children to academically succeed.

Pong and Langdale’s research helps explain why certain immigrant students struggle academically. In considering a parent’s education level, although not always indicative of a student’s academic success, it follows that “home” may not be so conducive, or lacks the resources, to nourish a child’s scholastic needs. This research helps to elucidate on why certain immigrant students do better than others. Since a majority of Mexican immigrants are lower class, their children may have more obstacles in attaining a quality education. A greater emphasis on helping out the family financially may impede a student to be able to focus on school.

Perhaps the greatest example of this is going to school and working simultaneously. I, myself, have worked consistently since my senior year of high school. It was difficult managing my time and trying to meet all my extracurricular obligations. Throughout college, the need to help out at home has always been an extra weight on my back. There is this pressure that you must help maintain the household yet you’re expected to come back with straight ‘A’s.’ Should you want to voice a dissenting opinion, years of progressive cultural gains are thrown out the window and the old “machismo” that has persisted in Latin culture rears its ugly head to remind you that you are a man, and that you must provide. If you can’t help out at home, how can you maintain a family? This is an all too common reality for many other Latino students. With the pressure to help out at home, it is understandable how hard it is to just focus and excel at school. Unfortunately, money plays a significant role in the quality of a student’s education.

Economic capital, measured by parents’ annual income, is positively associated with the academic achievement trajectories of adolescent students from Mexican and East Asian immigrant families. Jeong and Acock (2014) were able to identify a correlation between household income, and academic achievement. Their study also found that stereotypical attitudes towards Mexican and Asian students served to provide very differing educational experiences. Mexican students were perceived as less intelligent because their parents worked manual labor jobs. East Asian students were expected to be intelligent and thus were treated better. Their families were a bit better off, reinforcing the stereotype of a well-off, intelligent family.

This research helps us understand how certain psychological factors shape a child’s path to academic success. The results of this study do well to show that students aren’t the only ones to blame for poor academic performance. Stereotyping students based on their race negatively impacts their educational success. The stereotype, or label, despite conscious effort to do the contrary, facilitates unequal teaching. By believing stereotypes, teachers inadvertently hinder some students’ learning, while also excessively nurturing others. This research does well to remind educators that a student’s background should not be an indication of how much effort they should put into educating that child.

I can relate to this as a kid who was moved up a grade in elementary school. While still in third grade, I was allowed to move up to a “gifted” fourth and fifth grade mixed class. I learned advanced material for my age and learned things that fifth graders in the normal classes didn’t cover. It was fun and challenging to be in that class, but I also saw how dejected my fellow third graders looked when I would go back to my original class. They felt ignored, and I felt bad for having been moved up. It was an uncomfortable feeling knowing that I was receiving a better education and my friends weren’t, even thought they were probably equally capable of learning the same material. This brings up another aspect of educational opportunity: a support system.

Latina mothers believe that people, rather than books or instructional materials, are the most important sources of children’s education and learning. Durand (2011) discovered that Latina mothers valued social networks over just a single teacher-student dynamic to educate their children. Culturally, Latinos are more communal than individualistic. Thus, Durand learned that these mothers wanted a better way to be involved with their children’s academics. Through in-depth interviews, Durand realized that parental involvement, regardless of any language barriers, was badly wanted and needed. Latino immigrant students struggle the most academically than other immigrant groups. Durand looked also at the domestic responsibilities due to cultural practices these children have as factors affecting their academic performance.

A great benefit from Durand’s work is the realization that Latino culture emphasizes community. So much emphasis is placed on the teacher-student relationship that we forget that there are other people who want to help. These mothers are acting out the necessary role of ally. This benefits students greatly. By establishing relationships between teachers and parents, a strong support system can be created where educational expectations from school can be reinforced at home and vice versa.

While I was volunteering at Los Angeles High School, a school with a very significant Latino immigrant student population, the biggest challenge was having these kids go to class. For the ones that did go to class, it was nearly impossible to get them to do any work. The greatest issue was not having involved parents. Many of these students didn’t live with their parents. Many of those that did have their parents here rarely saw them since their parents were constantly working. Teachers complained that students didn’t care, but creating that desire to excel at school was extremely difficult when a majority of these kids had very unstable lives at home. For the few immigrant students who did have parents who were attending meetings and keeping in contact with teachers, their grades significantly benefitted and they greatly outperformed classmates who did not have involved parents. Parents have lots of influence over their child’s educational success, and it can be as simple as their attitude.

Immigrant parents’ positive attitudes toward education overcome their own low education level and their children’s risk for low education because they both motivate their children to pursue academic success and participate in their children’s learning. Schaller, Rocha, and Barshinger (2006) found that despite having very little education, the Mexican mothers interviewed strongly valued a good education for their children. They were asked about their experiences with the schools and with the teachers. They were also asked about their expectations and what they felt lacked. Most parents interviewed stated they would have liked more opportunities to be involved with the school to be better equipped to aid their children.

The findings of this study do well to reinforce the idea that an involved parent can help a student succeed academically. Perhaps many will view this as a normal aspect of being a mother. It’s not so much about the mother being responsible, but more so the fact that the mothers are the ones more willing to push their kids to do well in school. This research is important because it puts into perspective the Latino family, and how the roles of each family member can affect a child’s education. The fact that Latino women have a stronger say when it comes to their children’s education can help educators try to reach out to mothers. Teachers who effectively communicate with a student’s mother may achieve greater success in teaching a student.

Machismo is greatly ingrained in Latino culture, but it indirectly creates a stronger relationship between children and their mothers. By expecting women to care after the children, kids are more open to negotiate many aspects of their lives with their moms. While volunteering at that same high school, I saw mostly mothers come in to meet with teachers or administrators. The students were more terrified by a disappointed mother than they were an apathetic father. The students responded more positively to having their mother correct their bad behavior, and teachers who picked up on this were able to turn some struggling students around. While culture can greatly impact a child’s chances at pursuing a quality education, their life circumstances can also play a role in how well they do in school.

Limited English proficiency correlates with lower trajectories of academic performance. Suárez-Orozco, Gaytán, Bang, Pakes, O’Connor, and Rhodes (2010) found that one of the biggest setbacks to academic success for immigrant youth was the language barrier. In analyzing Latino youth, they saw that Latino immigrant youth were placed in linguistically isolated schools. There they were less expected to learn English, thus resulting in lower educational success. The study also took into consideration the fact that Latino immigrants for the most part are monolingual Spanish speakers who know almost no English. This language barrier between parents and school officials just makes it that much harder for their students to succeed.

Perhaps the biggest impact this study has is making a case for bilingual education. It is indicative of a failing integration process in our public schools that must be addressed. Language is more than just a means of communication, but also as a necessary tool for understanding. People can communicate many ways, but understanding what is being communicated is the most important. Schools nationwide can learn from this study and try to implement bilingual curriculums to more easily assimilate immigrant students.

Not speaking English was by far the hardest thing immigrant students had to deal with at LA High. Limited funding forced monolingual Spanish-speaking students to be placed in English-only classes. Some just sat there staring at the other kids or sat in the back quietly on their phones. Many students would just ditch class because they were just as likely to learn English wandering campus as they were to learn the material they were being taught in class in a language they didn’t understand. Being a public school, LA High benefitted from admitting all these immigrant students because it received more funds from the state. But those extra funds were unfortunately not used on creating better integration programs. Maybe these kids were brought too late, but even younger kids struggle to assimilate without proper guidance.

Latino students are underrepresented in center-based care settings, which correlates to lower academic performance. Koury and Votruba-Drzal (2014) studied the age at which Latino children were receiving a formal education. They looked at pre-school or head-start enrollment rates for Latino children. They found that Latinos are very family-centered. This meant that the children were being raised at home until they had reached Kindergarten age. The years they missed going to a care center or pre-school program greatly affected how well the children could keep up with their classmates who had received that education. Ultimately, the researchers discovered that money to pay for those programs was also an issue.

What the researchers found is telling of the clash between culture, and society at large. Latinos value familial relationships so much that it negatively impacts their children’s educational success. It seems as if Latino culture is at odds with the American educational system, where cultural values might collide with educational principles held by the larger American society. This research shines a light on a facet of Latino culture that could be improved. It serves to prove that sometimes culture isn’t always a positive thing.

As a student at a predominantly Mexican elementary school, I saw the clash between culture and the school system almost daily. Classmates would miss class frequently due to “family” problems. Parents felt that the school should not meddle in family affairs and that it wasn’t that important for their children to show up to class every day. Parents would get very defensive when they were asked why their kids had missed school, and their frustration with having to answer to the school administrators sparked many angry arguments. The parents felt that as long as the child was with family, the school shouldn’t have an issue. The power of family influence reaches far beyond elementary, and can shape a student’s mind about college.

Having a skeptical-but-aware view of potentially blocked opportunities at the outset of college may protect minorities from internalizing prejudice when they did encounter it in their first two years in college. Rivas-Drake and Mooney (2008) found that certain groups of Latino college students fared differently depending on how they viewed opportunity. The researchers divided the students into three groups: accommodation, resistance, and assimilation. Students who perceived academic success as the fruit of their labor, accommodation, were very successful. Students who assimilated, meaning they maintained some racialized identity, were also successful and felt they hadn’t experienced any discrimination. But students who had felt they had experienced discrimination, resistance, were less successful academically and held negative views about their educational careers.

Rivas-Drake and Mooney focus on the power of self-fulfilling prophecies. We can see how students who go into college with negative mindsets allow it to translate into poor academic achievement. Those who had positive or neutral mindsets were more likely to succeed academically and report positive experiences. This helps society understand the ramifications of negative experiences in school for minorities. The effects of these negative experiences can set a student up for failure at the college level even if that student is fully capable of being successful.

Ensuring positive experiences in high school is paramount to encouraging students to go to college. So many of my high school friends who felt they had been cheated, or felt they had just wasted their time, went on to just work. Not to say that working right out of high school is a negative life choice, but the ease with which these people found complacency was disturbing. They let high school dictate their future, never really giving themselves the chance to do better. They aspired to be mediocre when they had the potential to be great. So many of us struggled with our own demons when it came time to decide on going to college or not, but for those who were not citizens, that decision was exponentially more difficult.

The DREAM Act serves to transition immigrant youth into a homogeneous culture and social order that maintains their unequal position in society. Aguirre, Jr. and Simmers (2011) posit that the glorified path to a higher education, the DREAM Act, serves to indoctrinate students with a nationalistic agenda. In their review of the act, they find that students are seen as a commodity. They are prime candidates to become soldiers. The researchers argue that the students targeted by the DREAM Act are composed of a vulnerable population that would do anything to not jeopardize their stay in this country. By providing a way out, through military service, the government is ensuring that the military-industrial complex is well-fed, but the immigration process remains broken.

The significance of this research is that it unmasks a seemingly innocuous and grotesquely misrepresented government program. The legislation serves to increase boots on the ground, but does not guarantee citizenship. The state is at odds with a significant population in this country, and this legislation is a show of the state’s power and desire to control these second-class citizens. As for society, the findings of this research help it see clearly that immigration reform is absolutely necessary. The laws and mechanisms in place right now offer little to no opportunities for students who were brought to this country, usually unwittingly, and are seeking to attain access to higher education. Society must take a hard look at the laws in place and realize that things are not alright.

College was the next logical step for many of us, but for my friend Laura it was a very tough decision. She was brought to the United States as a child from Venezuela. Her parents were undocumented and therefore, so was she. Applying to college for her meant ousting herself as an “illegal” and risking legal consequences for herself, and perhaps her family. The DREAM Act was not an avenue she wanted to take, so her future seemed very bleak. Thanks to some alternative immigration reforms of the time, she was able to not only safely apply to college, but also receive financial aid. Laura was lucky, many aren’t. Cases like hers are tough, but they remind us that there is still much work to be done.

Failures in offering viable alternatives to immigrant students stifle their desire or ability to attain a higher education. The government is both very involved in certain aspects of immigrant student’s lives, and also very apart from them. One way the federal government could do wonders to help these students is in revamping the way we educate our children.

Bicultural orientation is positively related to the school adjustment of ethnic minority students. Makarova and Birman (2015) found that acculturation can be beneficial in assimilating ethnic minorities. They went over various studies trying to understand how different acculturation and assimilation methods worked to help integrate students. They wanted to see if there were any drawbacks to maintaining some form of ethnic community within schools. Ultimately there were strong indicators showing that acculturation by schools was beneficial to a student’s growth.

Makarova and Birman found how important it was to create a space where more than one culture was valued. In doing so, immigrant students were more likely to feel like they were part of the larger group, and the majority of the other students increased their worldview. Receiving an education where students are exposed to various cultures other than their own minimizes xenophobic feelings. The idea of an “other” is minimized, and students are more easily able to relate to each other on a personal level despite their differences. This study is beneficial because it challenges the norm in American public schools of not really teaching students about other cultures. It allows students to open up their minds to new ideas and belief systems.

I was lucky enough to be AVID tutor at San Luis Obispo High School. SLO High was in a district that had much better funding, and because of that, had an international student exchange program. Students who wanted to participate had to take some special classes that were designed to prepare the student to live abroad. While only a few students were able to participate in the exchange program, when they returned, they expressed how amazing it was. The extra class and the actual experience of living abroad helped them dispel any stereotypical ideas they may have had. Clearly, exposure to various cultures is beneficial.

Children at schools with more Latino students perceived less community discrimination if their schools highly valued multiculturalism. Brown and Chu (2012) found that schools that were very accepting of other cultures lessened instances of discriminatory behavior. By having a curriculum that supported multicultural studies, students were more accepting of differing cultures. They noted that Latinos felt there was less discrimination when a multicultural curriculum was in place because they felt included. This approach to teaching helped focus on many ethnic minorities and ensured all perspectives were taken into account.

The importance of this study is in the finding itself: minority students felt more valued and felt they experienced less discrimination. The multicultural teaching method is a way of familiarizing students with foreign cultures, or symbols, and deciphering them to create an understanding. The importance of a multicultural approach for society at large is substantial. Students would be exposed to various ways of thinking unlike their own, thus expanding their problem-solving skills and capacity to empathize with other cultures.

Undoubtedly the best example of a multicultural education comes from Europe. It is normal for many European students to learn various languages, learn the histories of their neighboring countries, and study abroad. Even though Europe is relatively small and makes this a lot easier to do, it shows that their educational system produces far better results. European students score higher than American students on tests in almost all subjects. While racist attitudes and feelings may still exist, a multicultural education does wonders to break down those divisive ideologies and open us up to new experiences.

The question of academic success among children of immigrants brings about very insightful answers. Those with parents that have higher education levels offer more to their children, but also a strong work ethic from an uneducated parent does wonders for a student’s academic success. The ability of schools to efficiently integrate their immigrant youth while simultaneously teaching with a multicultural approach is also extremely beneficial. Appreciating various cultures and creating a discrimination-free environment also fosters academic success.

As a Title I worker at Los Angeles High School, I dealt with many students who had just come from their country. The vast majority were from Central America. Most lived with relatives, but not their parents. Their guardians worked all day so there was no one at home. A significant portion of these students lacked structure and were consequently morbidly apathetic when it came to school. The schism between the administration, the English Learner’s program, the Title I office, and those students, was very apparent and growing. These studies are a lighthouse on a stormy night. They illuminate a path for educators to safely and successfully navigate a path to instilling in these students a pride in learning. It is imperative that we take the findings of these studies and use them to start addressing the needs of an ever-growing Latino population.

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This article has not been reviewed by Odyssey HQ and solely reflects the ideas and opinions of the creator.

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