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Study Dispels Stereotypes on Learning by Latinos

Project begun in 1989 finds wide diversity in abilities among immigrant children. Those whose grandparents had some education in Mexico tended to perform better.


Stereotypes abound when educators talk about the subpar academic performance of California school districts with hefty Latino populations.

The children are fresh from Mexico. They don't yet know English. They live in poverty with poorly educated parents who don't read to them at home. In short, they are thoroughly unprepared for the rigors of formal U.S. schooling and thus under-perform as the years go by.

Yet in the 1980s an Argentine-born researcher who had just completed his doctorate at UCLA found that reality was not nearly so simple. While teaching first grade in a small Southland community that draws immigrants from rural Mexico, Claude Goldenberg discovered incredible diversity among pupils despite their similar backgrounds. Why, he wondered, did many Latino children learn to read, some of them well, while others did not?

The answer, he and colleagues found, can be traced back to their grandparents' experiences in the Mexican countryside. If a child's grandparents had the good fortune to attend school even for a few years, the grandchild's English reading in seventh grade was the better for it.

Collaborating in this research with Goldenberg, now associate dean of the College of Education at Cal State Long Beach, were Ronald Gallimore, his former professor at UCLA, and other UCLA researchers.

One goal has been to fill in gaps in educators' knowledge by providing long-term data about factors that shape the school experiences of Latino immigrant children. The researchers also hope to figure out which practices, in both the home and the classroom, can help these children overcome disadvantages.

Immigrant Children

The work, believed to be the nation's first multiyear study tracking a group of Latino immigrant families, began in 1989 with the recruitment of 121 Latino girls and boys entering kindergarten in two Southern California school districts.

One, called Lawson in the study, was the small community where Goldenberg taught; the other was a large, more diverse city 25 miles south of Los Angeles, nicknamed Sandy Beach. All the families had their roots in rural Mexico.

For a dozen years, the researchers have tracked the students, now 15 years old and scattered among 35 high schools, and their families, and they plan to keep tabs on them for four more years. (The pool is now down to about 90 families.)

In addition to gathering data on the children's achievement along the way, the researchers have done extensive interviews with the families.

"Even though these children come from relatively low-income, uneducated parents, there is enormous complexity from family to family," Gallimore said.

One key finding has been that an immigrant child's likelihood of academic success or failure hinges on a number of circumstances. If the grandparents grew up illiterate in rural poverty, chances are the parents did too. In that case, the parents probably did not send their children to preschool or read to them at home. Children from such backgrounds, the study revealed, did not learn to read as well as others.

By contrast, if the grandparents attended school for even a few years, the parents built on that, with the result that their children entered school more ready to learn.

The researchers found that two factors were particularly beneficial: attendance at a preschool, where in many cases children heard and spoke English, and frequent exposure to reading and writing--in Spanish--at home. Children with those advantages tended to have grandparents who had received some formal schooling.

The odds were that, once in seventh grade, a child with that background would read English at an average or above average level, Gallimore said. Without those benefits, the child tended to be below average in reading ability.

Sociologists have long talked about "intergenerational effects" on families. Families, in effect, must accumulate educational or other resources over two or more generations before they have a significant effect.

As educators cope with burgeoning ranks of immigrants from around the world, they are now beginning to understand the consequences of that phenomenon for schools.

At Chino's Doris Dickson Elementary School, where 60% of students are Latino, parents who have not sent their 4-year-olds to preschool are urged to participate in a program called On the Road to Learning. The school supplies them with activities to help bolster their pre-kindergarten tots' motor skills and awareness of letters and numbers.

"We see a noticeable difference in the children," said Pam Seggerman, a veteran kindergarten teacher at the school.

Teachers often worry about cultural differences that they believe leave immigrant children lagging behind their peers. Though widely accepted in the United States, for example, the idea of a "bedtime story" is unusual in many Latino households, Gallimore said.

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