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3rd March
2008

First Published in The New York Sun, March 3, 2008

By Andrew Wolf

Immigrant children outperform some native-born children in New York schools, my colleague Sarah Garland reported the other day. Indeed, it seems the longer newly-arrived children attend our schools, the worse they do. These conclusions come from a new study, “Do Immigrants Differ From Migrants?”

“The foreign born are whizzing by the native born at every level,” one of the researchers, Amy Ellen Schwartz, said.

Ms. Schwartz, together with Leanna Stiefel, both of the Institute for Education and Social Policy at New York University, and Dylan Conger of George Washington University, compare immigrant and native-born students who entered the New York City school system at the same age. Ms. Garland reports that “even without controlling for such factors as language ability, race, and individual schools, immigrants do better.

“When those factors were controlled for — allowing researchers to compare similarly situated students — immigrants who arrived in high school pulled out ahead of immigrants who arrived earlier, and even further ahead of native-born students.” The fine print discloses that the study is focusing not on all native-born children, but rather those who have entered school here as a result of domestic migration, but there still seem to be some lessons to be learned and certainly some questions to be asked. Why should students do better the later they enter school here?

These questions are of significance to parents in many of our communities, including Riverdale, the northwest Bronx neighborhood where I live. Over the past 20 years parents here have seen their own children, mostly native born, continually do worse and worse on the test given to pupils in the grades eight and nine each year for admission to specialized high schools. In the past 15 years, there has been a decline in these figures of more than 90%. Only five students from the local middle school will move on to Bronx Science this year, a dramatic shift for a school that once sent more than a hundred a year.

If one drives past the Bronx High School of Science any given school day morning, one will encounter a seemingly endless caravan of yellow school buses. Most of these buses come from Queens, the borough known for its immigrant population. Sixty percent of those recently offered a spot at Bronx Science as a result of their test scores come from Queens, as are 40% of the new freshmen at Stuyvesant. It it turns out that a good number of these commuter students are recent immigrants, why do the city’s specialized high schools seem to have such a disproportionate number of newly arrived students?

Three years ago I noted here that it appeared that a disproportionate number of the winners of the prestigious academic competitions, such as the Intel awards, were foreign born, observing that “education practices in America are designed to ‘level off’ all students into the vast middle ground lest we damage the self-esteem of those performing at lower levels. Students from other countries, where academic competition is encouraged and curricula are designed to challenge the brightest, may well have an advantage over the children who have been held back by the ‘progressive’ educational theories that dominate in American schools. Could it be that the decline in academic performance of children of Riverdale, as contrasted with the success of immigrant communities in Queens, is a result of native-born children being hampered by a weak curriculum from kindergarten on? Do they pay the high price of poor instruction as early as eighth grade, when they receive that rejection letter from the specialized schools? Could it be that immigrant children have gotten a firmer academic background than our children have?

Have we so “dumbed down” our curricula that the longer a child is exposed to it, the worse he or she will do? Perhaps that is behind the results of the N.Y.U. study. Could it be that constructivist math, taught exclusively at Riverdale schools for a dozen years now, puts these children at grave disadvantage for their entire lives? This math curriculum was abandoned in California a decade ago and in Texas recently. It is unknown in the countries whose immigrant children are now doing so well academically in New York’s schools.

It is my belief that children who have been schooled in traditional math and have been exposed to a content-rich curriculum in other subject areas will achieve at higher levels, and the longer that they take these courses, the better they will do. Perhaps that is an area for future study. But my advice to parents in the meantime is to look at the achievements of immigrant children and start asking why all children seem to do worse academically the longer they attend our schools.

© 2008 The New York Sun, One, SL, LLC. All rights reserved.

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