A child is resilient by nature, but adjusting to life in a new country can be even more difficult when that boy or girl doesn't understand the language spoken in school. A recent study [sponsored by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, or OECD] of 17 countries with large immigrant populations shows that where these children live makes a big difference in how quickly they achieve in the classroom and later in life.
The study followed the progress of 200 million immigrant children around the world. The focus was on children born in another land, and native children of foreign-born parents. Some countries were more successful than others at helping them adapt.
Gayle Christensen, now of the Urban Institute in Washington, D.C., helped do the research. "We find that immigrant students in general are behind their native peers… if you look all across these different countries … and on average, this is about a year behind, but that masks very large regional differences."
The gap in learning can be as little as six months, or as much as three years behind. Math, reading, science, and problem-solving skills are the most critically affected. Why such a big difference, and which countries are failing the grade?
Students seem to have the largest hurdle to overcome in many European countries, Germany, France, the Netherlands among them, those countries still adjusting to waves of immigrants that began after World War II.
Gayle Christensen says only recently have some of these countries begun to think of themselves as immigrant nations. "The question is how to create programs and policies that will effectively address needs. I mean, in some countries that does mean having high expectations for immigrant students … not tracking them, or concentrating them into a small number of schools. While this doesn't have to make a difference, it seems to be coming up in many European countries."
Countries with long traditions of immigrant populations get a better -- though not perfect -- grade. In the United States, immigration reform is a controversial issue that has ignited passionate debate among young students. Many students of Mexican origin recently took time out from class to demonstrate. School districts with large numbers of immigrant families have mandated an English program for speakers of other languages. The ESOL program, as its called, sometimes begins as early as elementary school and educators are debating whether to start even earlier.
When VOA visited Columbia Elementary School outside Washington, D.C., almost 400 kids were in the student body. Ninety were from immigrant families representing at least 30 countries. School Principal Stephanie Daugherty talks about the challenges.
"We know it's a challenge for everyone involved, particularly if the child does not speak English. So we pair that child with another student from their country who has more command in the English language. And we make sure that the child's teacher has activities that are appropriate."
The study also showed the type of secondary education an immigrant student is placed in can have lasting economic effects. A European style educational system has sometimes forced non-native students toward a different track: apprenticeship training, for example, rather than university, whereas the British, American and Canadian model leaves that decision until an upper grade level, which can open a wider choice of opportunities.