The ‘immigrant paradox’

The first generation comes to America and struggles, but their children do better and the third generation does even better. That’s how it’s supposed to work.  But scholars are trying to understand the “immigrant paradox,” reports Education Week. The Americanized children of immigrants often do worse in school than the foreign-born generation, despite fewer English problems.  American-born children have more health problems and are more likely to abuse alcohol and drugs and act violently.

(Brown Professor Cynthia Garcia Coll) noted that the more acculturated students speak better English but do less homework. In addition, she said, “they are starting to buy in to the notion of minorities here [in the United States], that even if you work hard and play hard, discrimination is going to get at you.”

Reading scores improve for Mexican-American children from the first to the third generation as English skills improve, but math scores decline.

Asian-heritage students tend to excel in school, but some groups show “a slight drop in academic success” between first- and second-generation students. Chinese- and Korean-American students are exceptions.

In (UCLA Professor Min Zhou’s) research, she’s found that the Chinese-immigrant community in Los Angeles has been very effective in using ethnic after-school programs to bolster academic success. She said that in addition to teaching the Chinese language, those programs provide previews and reviews of school lessons.

Chinese parents are reluctant to send their children to public after-school programs, Ms. Zhou said, because they have a stereotype that “bad children” go to them, which she interprets to mean the children are “too Americanized.”

The New York Times wrote about a Maryland high school where immigrant students do well academically, but don’t interact much with native-born students.

I met many students from Mexican immigrant families at Downtown College Prep, when I was reporting for Our School: The Inspiring Story of Two Teachers, One Big Idea and the Charter School that Beat the Odds.  The kids expected to work hard to make it in life; once they harnessed that work ethic to school work, they started to catch up academically.

Foreign-born students, some of them here illegally, finished college in four years at a higher rate than American-born students. Those who got no state or federal aid worked harder to get through quickly. The “immigrant paradox” is the result of immigrant hustle.

About Joanne


  1. First generation immigrants are self-selected and also selected to various degrees by our government. Chances are they’d be healthy since the sick ones don’t get to drive themselves as far, plus they aren’t screened out by our policies. They’d do well because they have a plan. You call it hustle, but it’s hustling toward something.

    Second and third generation Americans come from two cultures as well, and that’s both a curse and a boon. They often have workaholic parents who want the best for their children, but they the same conflicts the rest of us do: work or play? spend or save? education or job? pay or potential?

    I don’t think it’s so much a matter of the schools failing the second and third generation. What’s ignored is the remarkable nature of the immigrant: someone who leaves another country to try to make a living over here, plans to do so, and works hard to make it happen. Most of the difference is in the plan. Millions of Americans get by (with lots of years “slouching by”) on half a plan, but the process to get here and get accepted requires a life plan. That’s what makes the difference.

  2. Do you remember Bill Clinton’s sign, “It’s the economy, Stupid.”?

    Well, It’s the culture, Stupid. That’s a generic “Stupid”, not Joanne.

    Our popular culture encourages the wrong values and degrades positive values both implicitly and explicitly.

    Immigrants come to America with traditional values from their countries of birth. Their children adopt the culture and values of their peers.

  3. You’ve written a book? 🙂

  4. “Chinese parents are reluctant to send their children to public after-school programs, Ms. Zhou said, because they have a stereotype that “bad children” go to them, which she interprets to mean the children are “too Americanized.””

    Many after school programs are developed for children that need extra help academically. Thus many Americans have concerns with sending their children to public after school programs because they too believe that “bad children” go to them. Not Americanized but remedial.

  5. This brings back to mind the WONDERFUL (snerk) days that I spent slaving over Kumon workbooks as a child. Fun fun fun for everyone!

  6. Theodore Dalrymple has explained this all quite well in Life at the Bottom: the worldview that makes the underclass.