Building on Immigrants’ Strengths to Improve Their Children’s Early Education

June 5, 2014
Senior Researcher in the Early Education Initiative at the New America Foundation.
Children of immigrants make up a growing percentage of the American education system. How can we ensure that they have access to high-quality early education? By supporting their parents.
The last few years have been particularly good ones for advocates of greater investments in early education access. New research, high levels of public support, and new legislative efforts are making it easier than ever to imagine a United States in which high-quality early education is available to all children (albeit with plenty of work still ahead)
Yet sometimes it’s not enough to simply expand early education budgets. Sometimes this still leaves gaps in early education access—and these gaps have serious consequences for students. More money needs to come with serious reflection on how to ensure that high-quality, early education reaches children who stand to benefit most from participating.
A new Migration Policy Institute’s report, Immigrant Parents and Early Childhood Programs, explores the current state of early education access for the children of immigrants—and what might be done to improve matters. Critically, authors Maki Park and Margie McHugh consider immigration, early education, and adult education as interlocking issues—rather than discussing them in isolation.
Indeed, Park and McHugh insist that dual-generation strategies combining adult and early education are key to narrowing existing social and academic gaps between children of immigrants and children with native-born parents. If this seems obvious, it’s worth remembering that just last year, a Brookings report on parent education programs suggested that early education programs for kids be cut to support programs for their parents.
As someone who writes relatively frequently about children of immigrants, it’s frustrating that their concerns are often treated as “niche” issues. Too often, policies related to immigrant children and native-born children of immigrants are treated as a narrow form of identity politics—as if they matter only to immigrants’ rights advocates. This is a serious mistake, given that more than one-quarter of American students under the age of 8 have at least one immigrant parent. That number was just 10 percent in 1980. As the MPI chart below shows, children of immigrants account for all of America’s population growth in that cohort.
They’re one in four of America’s future students (and, as sociologist Dowell Myers pointed out at New America last summer, we older Americans need these students to succeed and pay enough taxes to support our retirements). So it’s impossible to have an honest conversation about (for example) improving teacher preparation programs or turning around struggling schools without considering these students’ needs. That’s why it’s so critical that early education advocates think specifically about how to meet their needs when pushing to expand their programs.
It’s true that these children’s families often face serious challenges—forty-five percent qualify as low-income, and 47 percent have limited English skills. This last bit is particularly challenging, since, as the report notes, “No public funding is currently offered to explicitly support language or cultural access or other needs specific to immigrant families in parent engagement programming.” What’s more, a quarter of immigrant parents lack high school degrees, which often means they earn less money and are less familiar with the full scope of the American PreK-12 education system.
It would be easy to focus on these factors and conclude that the children of immigrants are saddled with enormous deficits. But that ignores the important assets that these students often bring to school. For instance, their parents have higher marriage and employment rates, and tend to be extremely invested in their children’s education.
The question, both for this report and for policymakers in general, is how to leverage these assets to address the challenges that young children of immigrants face. The report identifies several key variables for empowering immigrant parents to succeed—both in their own careers and as advocates for their children.
Parents’ literacy skills are particularly critical, as their absence often serves as an obstacle for parents to access available public services for their families. Basic literacy is a gateway for parents to advance their own careers and materially support their children. Improved parental literacy can also help families maintain their multilingualism, which comes with a host of social and cognitive benefits in the long-term.
In addition, immigrant parents often need extra knowledge of how political, social, and cultural systems work in the United States. Things which may be obvious to native-born parents—where to go to access social services, how to engage collaboratively with schools, etc.—are not always clear to parents whose own experiences with such systems were developed in other countries. And this knowledge can be especially hard to come by when parental outreach is conducted primarily in English. The report surveyed a host of educators, parents, and community leaders and found that many saw limited English abilities as “almost insurmountable barriers” for parents trying to engage with early education programs.
The report also found that where they exist, best practices are not being duplicated and disseminated. Park and McHugh found that successful family engagement in the early years often falls apart in the move from pre-K to kindergarten. We know that alignment between early education providers and the PreK-12 system is key for supporting that critical transition.
What’s to be done? The report recommends retooling existing adult education programs so that they can accommodate different adults’ needs. At the moment, Park and McHugh write, the adult education the system is currently designed to serve adults who primarily want “to progress along career pathways and transition to postsecondary education.” They recommend the creation of a federal pilot program designed to serve parents with limited literacy and English abilities who also have young children. The idea would be to improve their basic skills while also sharing critical information about American social, cultural, and educational systems. The authors also note that immigration bill that passed the Senate last summer included language that would allow for “immigrant integration” programs that could be tailored to meet the needs of immigrant parents of young children. Furthermore, the report suggests that proposals included in the Strong Start for America’s Children Act could be used to better align family engagement strategies around the beginning of kindergarten.
An Urban Institute report from earlier this year, Supporting Immigrant Families’ Access to Prekindergarten, found that “four-year-old children of immigrants have enrollment rates in center-based programs anywhere from 4 to 15 percentage points lower than children in native families, depending on the data source used.” Like Park and McHugh, this report also emphasized that family engagement is critical for increasing early education enrollment for children of immigrants.
Children of immigrants are already a large section of the U.S. school-age population, and there’s reason to believe that their percentage will continue to grow. These students’ long-term trajectories depend heavily on both their parents and the education that they receive in the early years. Better access to high-quality early education requires that programs be available, but also that parents are aware of and able to take advantage of these opportunities for their children. As is usually the case in early education, policymakers, administrators, and educators can get serious about serving these students now—or deal with the consequences later.