Our Immigrant Past Offers No Models for Today

by Richard Rothstein

Public schools are often condemned for failure to get high achievement from immigrants and minorities. After all, critics say, a century ago public schools provided a ladder of social mobility for European immigrants whose children studied hard and emerged into the middle class.

That’s not exactly how it worked.

You may have read Frank McCourt’s memoirs, ‘Tis, and the recently published Teacher Man, sequels to his Pulitzer Prize-winning Angela’s Ashes. In the later books, McCourt describes teaching English in New York City high schools in the 1950s. His first school was filled with second- or third-generation Italians, tracked into vocational programs to study cosmetology or auto mechanics. When McCourt tried to teach the literature curriculum, his students replied, “We don’t want to read no dumb books.” Instead, they found excuses to roam the halls, get into fights or have sex in the school basement.

Uninformed Views
McCourt was not exaggerating. A 1958 article in Life magazine charged that urban students "terrorize teachers ... [and] it often takes physical courage to teach." Another teacher, Evan Hunter, fictionalized his classroom experiences, including student assaults on teachers, in a 1953 book, Blackboard Jungle, which became the basis of a movie nominated for an Academy Award. The hooligans were not today’s minorities, but of European descent.

In contrast, in New York City today even immigrant students must pass high school exit exams that require literacy skills sufficient for success in college. Not all of them make it, but more first-generation students do so today than did second- or third- generation students from lower-class families even 50 years ago.

Then, as now, we were convinced that schools once did a better job. A 1940s survey of business executives found that by large margins they believed recent graduates knew less arithmetic, English, spelling, geography and world affairs than earlier generations.

Yet when European immigration was flourishing in the first decades of the 20th century, fewer than 20 percent of all students graduated from high school. And if you listened to critics then, even graduation meant little. The National Association of Manufacturers charged in 1927 that 40 percent of high school graduates could not do simple arithmetic or speak clear English.

In the early 20th century, there was a yawning achievement gap between immigrants and the American-born. According to a 1911 federal report, 80 percent of native white 7th graders in cities like Boston, Chicago and New York made it to the 8th grade. A smaller proportion of Russian Jewish immigrant children and many fewer Southern Italian immigrants did so. Southern Italians made it to high school at only half the rate of their native peers.

Twenty years later, things weren't much better. By the end of the 1920s, Italian immigrants were still graduating at only one-quarter the rate of non-immigrants. This was a bigger native-immigrant gap than today's.

The term "retarded," for children deemed to have limited ability, comes from the early-20th-century practice of holding back (retarding) those who read below grade level. A 1909 study found that in New York City, Italian-born elementary students were held back twice as frequently as American-born children. Jewish and Irish students were also retained unusually often. School systems began to implement “social promotion” when they found that making these students repeat a grade only increased their dropout rates.

The immigrant challenge was so daunting that New York City started a special education program for slow learners. A 1921 survey found Italian children greatly overrepresented in these separate classes.

Standardized exams seemed to confirm immigrants' inferiority. In 1919, the median IQ score of Italian 10-year-olds in New York City was 84; for native-born whites, it was 109. But when only those students whose fathers were unskilled or semiskilled laborers were compared, Italian and native IQs were nearly identical.

Assimilation rates for later generations varied by ethnicity. Jews apparently adapted to schools and became fluent in English more quickly than other immigrants. Italians did so more quickly than Greeks.

But of immigrant children themselves, even Jews were mostly unsuccessful. The 1911 report found that about half of all Jewish immigrant children around the country were held back in school. (Jews from Poland did particularly poorly as two-thirds were held back.) The academically successful were a minority.

Backward Thinking
We need reminding that the past provides models of very limited value. Americans now do a better job of educating immigrant children than in earlier eras. (Western Europe has similarly poor results for many of its African, Asian or Turkish immigrant children.) We should aspire for greater success in educating the disadvantaged, but if we think that better schools are simply a matter of turning back the clock, we’ll be sorely disappointed.

Richard Rothstein is a research associate of the Economic Policy Institute and a visiting professor at Teachers College, Columbia University. E-mail: rr2159@columbia.edu. He adapted this column from his book The Way We Were? The Myths and Realities of America’s Student Achievement.