Florida Study Shows Immigrant Performance Declines Across Generations

The cards are stacked against immigrant children even before they arrive in the United States. In addition to learning another language and getting used to a new culture, they are entering an education system that generally sees them as poor performers who require a lot of resources.

But in a new paper, David Figlio of Northwestern University and I found that first-generation students, or those who were born in another country and relocated to the U.S., actually do better in school than their more established peers of the same ethnicity. We also found that while newcomers tend to have a sunny outlook for their future in America, immigrant optimism fades with each successive generation.

Our study, which was funded by the U.S. Department of Education, followed Asian and Hispanic students in Florida’s public school system, a sample mirroring national trends. U.S. Census Bureau data show the majority of those arriving here over the last three decades are from Latin America and Asia. Immigrants and their children account for nearly one-quarter of students in the U.S. and are projected to reach one-third by 2050.  In Florida, 85 percent of the immigrant population was born in Latin America or Asia. A quarter of Florida’s students have foreign-born parents.

Thanks to remarkable longitudinal state data, we were able to study for the first time educational outcomes of immigrant students across generations, following the trajectories of hundreds of thousands.

Here is what we found about recent immigrants:

  • First-generation immigrants, beyond an adjustment period of a couple of years, perform better in reading and math tests than their second-generation peers, who in turn outperform their third-generation classmates.
  • Not only do these recent immigrants do better than established generations, but they also close the test score gap with their white peers. Recent Asian immigrants even outperform their white peers.
  • Recent immigrants are also much more likely to graduate from high school, and are better prepared for college.
  • They are also involved in fewer disciplinary incidents and have better attendance.

Our findings hold true for both Asian and Hispanic students, regardless of economic status, school quality, and family and household attributes.

Why do recent immigrants outperform their peers who have the advantage of having been here much longer? It could be that more established generations are less motivated. Recent immigrants arrive here with arguably more optimism and enthusiasm, with the belief that they will be better off through educational opportunities—even though they typically start at the bottom rung of the socioeconomic ladder.

Another theory could be that parents of second and later generation students saw firsthand the hardships of being upwardly mobile in a new country. Maybe getting an education was more expensive than anticipated. Perhaps they experienced discrimination or stereotyping in the workplace. This could dash their hopes for a bright future in America, which can lead to a lowering of expectations for their children.

While those explanations are not testable with the administrative data we used, there is evidence suggesting immigrants make very different educational choices compared to similar students who have been here longer. For instance, we found that recent immigrants in their final year of elementary school are likelier to pick a high-performing middle school, and are more likely to take advanced courses in high school compared with second- and third-generation immigrants with similar achievement levels. Both of these findings point to the dissipation of immigrant optimism across generations.

Knowing these findings, schools should not see recent immigrants as a burden, but as students who just need extra help initially. The newest arriving students do struggle, but our research shows they catch up very quickly to their more established peers. We also found that those who come to the U.S. before age 9 tend to exceed the performance of their classmates.

Immigrants and children of immigrants have long been at the margins in the design and implementation of policies and programs—and research to inform them. Our work highlights the need for more research to better understand the cultural and economic mechanisms behind these patterns, and for policies to remedy the challenges faced by the children of immigrants in the U.S. public school system.

Umut Özek is a principal researcher at AIR affiliated with the National Center for Analysis of Longitudinal Data in Education Research (CALDER). His focus is on the economics of education and public economics.