The strong presence of immigrants in public schools has fueled a policy debate: How do first-generation immigrant students—those born outside the U.S.—affect the school system and their peers? Specifically, do these children improve or hinder the academic performance of their US-born peers?
One might imagine that immigrant students might need more school resources—for example, if English is their second language—thus leaving less time, energy, or staff budget for other children. On the other hand, these children may come from cultures where educational achievement is prioritized, particularly if these parents came to the US in part to provide a better education for their children.
To better understand the big picture, Sapienza and her colleagues investigated the effects of immigrant students in Florida public schools by analyzing data on children who attended Florida public schools between the fall of 2002 and the spring of 2012.
They found no downside to having more first-generation immigrants as classmates. In fact, some students benefited from these peers: low-income students and U.S.-born black students scored higher in math and reading when they had more immigrant peers, while the test scores of affluent and white children remained about the same same, regardless of whether many immigrant children were in their class.
The takeaway is that the researchers found no evidence that US-born students were negatively affected, Sapienza says: “Immigrants generally have a positive or at worst a neutral effect.”
The problem of white flight
Sapienza and her colleagues are not the first to look at this problem. Other researchers at U.small., Europeand Israel have also explored the impact of immigrant students on other children. Most of these studies found a negative or neutral impact on the academic performance of native-born students.
But this kind of research comes with two major challenges.
One is that children of immigrants are more likely to live in lower-income neighborhoods. Since family wealth is a huge factor in determining a child’s success in school, US-born children from lower-income neighborhoods are already more likely to struggle academically. A simple link between the percentage of immigrant students and average test scores would suggest that schools with more immigrants do worse — but the low scores may not be due to immigrants themselves.
The second problem is that white families tend to flee from public schools with many low-income, minority students. When affluent high-achieving kids end up in schools with fewer immigrants, it can seem like the low immigrant population is good for the scores of US-born kids, even if the real cause is white flight.
Staying in the Family
While previous studies generally addressed the first concern, they lacked the right data to address the second. To come up with a better method, Sapienza worked with David Figlio at Northwestern University; Riccardo MarchingiglioNorthwestern PhD graduate now at Analysis Group. Paola Giuliano at the University of California, Los Angeles. and Umut Ozek at the American Institutes for Research. The team took advantage of detailed data sets in Florida to test for both factors.
The records came from the Florida Department of Education and tracked K-12 public school students enrolled from 2002 to 2012. The data includes reading and math scores from grades 3 through 10, as well as the country in which each child was born and the language he spoke at home. Therefore, the team could identify children of first-generation immigrants—that is, those born outside the United States. From the Florida Bureau of Vital Statistics, the researchers also obtained student birth records, which included socioeconomic details such as the mother’s education level.
First, the team repeated the standard analysis done in previous literature and compared US-born students to schools with fewer or more immigrants, controlling for factors such as gender and whether the child needed special education services. In this analysis, immigrant students appeared to negatively affect the test scores of their US-born peers. Controlling for school reduced the negative effect but did not completely eliminate it.
But the researchers’ dataset had one key advantage: It showed which children were siblings. This allowed the researchers to perform a different, more revealing analysis.
This time, instead of comparing the performance of US-born students from different families, they could compare the performance of US-born children in the same family. The siblings had the same socioeconomic status, but because the number of foreign-born students in a school varies from year to year, each sibling was exposed to a slightly different number of immigrant peers.
A flipping result
The researchers measured each sibling’s cumulative immigrant exposure—that is, the percentage of foreign-born students in that child’s class over the years at school.
Compared to the first analysis, which compared children of different socioeconomic status, “our result was completely reversed,” says Sapienza. Immigrants now seemed to have a positive effect overall. Increasing a U.S.-born child’s exposure to immigrants from 1 percent to 13 percent of peers was associated with increases in reading and math scores of 1.7 percent and 2.7 percent of a standard deviation, respectively.
How big is this bump? The difference in test scores between students with the highest cumulative exposure to immigrants (90th percentile) and students with the lowest cumulative exposure to immigrants (10th percentile) accounts for 8.5 percent of the differences in scores between children whose mothers have high school diploma and children whose mother did not complete high school, medium effect size.
The team then analyzed the data of children born in the US by socioeconomic status and race. “The effect is double for students on free or reduced-price lunch and for black students,” Sapienza says.
At the same time, for white students and affluent students, “there is zero effect,” he says. Thus, it did not appear that immigrant children had diverted school resources away from their peers.
To find out why the presence of immigrants might benefit some children, the team compared behavioral patterns among students. School records revealed that, on average, immigrant students had fewer serious disciplinary incidents — the type of infraction for which children were typically suspended — than U.S.-born children.
Again, trends differed by socioeconomic status of US-born children. Affluent children had fewer incidents than their immigrant peers in their schools. But among lower-income U.S.-born children, the pattern was the opposite, and the difference was more dramatic: They had far more disciplinary citations than immigrant students.
If immigrants in less affluent schools are more likely than their peers to follow rules, that may partly explain why they have a beneficial effect on their peers’ test scores, Sapienza speculates. The teacher could spend less time repeating instructions or managing disruptions, for example, and more time teaching.
Differences in academic performance may also play a role. Affluent students had higher test scores, on average, than their immigrant peers, while lower-income students scored lower than their immigrant peers. Thus, it is possible that immigrant children in the less affluent schools “pulled” their lower-achieving peers. At the same time, they did not appear to lure their higher-achieving peers into affluent schools.
Overall, the study shows that “having diversity in schools is a good thing,” says Sapienza. “It’s especially good for kids from low socioeconomic backgrounds.” And for children from wealthy households, “it’s certainly not a negative or a disadvantage.”