Academic success of East Asian immigrants overshadows struggles of others

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Niccolo and Donkey
Academic success of East Asian immigrants overshadows struggles of others

The Globe and Mail

Kate Hammer and Joe Friesen

January 21, 2011

The success of its immigrant students has made Canada a darling on the world stage, the only country with a high proportion of newcomers to rank near the top on international tests.

But a closer look reveals the praise is overdone. Not all immigrant groups are thriving in Canadian schools, and the success of some is masking the struggles of others.

The stellar performance of East Asian students, those of Chinese background in particular, has lifted immigrant scores on the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development’s tests of 15-year-olds in math, science and reading, and obscured the fact that Hispanic and Caribbean students are slipping through the cracks.

But a distinctly Canadian squeamishness about gathering data based on ethnic and national origin means there’s a paucity of information to help understand the problem – just scattered hints that something isn’t right.

For example, only one in five Creole-speaking students in Montreal graduates from high school on time. Only 42 per cent of Latin American students in Toronto meet standards on Grade 6 math tests, compared with 86 per cent of East Asians. Vietnamese students fare better in Montreal than they do in Vancouver, but no one knows why.

Some of the most important ideas in education have come from studies of race in schools. In 1966, a groundbreaking look at academic outcomes and race known as the Coleman Report led to the end of de facto segregation in U.S. schools.

On the other hand, history is littered with examples of misleading research built on presumed connections between race and intelligence. As a result, school boards have shied away from tracking such data.

A Canadian exception is the Toronto District School Board, where 70 per cent of students in Grades 7 through 12 have two parents born outside the country. The board recently explored its student demographics more deeply through a detailed census. The data have enabled it to understand its student population with a level of detail unprecedented in Canada.

“In a country like Canada in which immigration is such a central feature of national development, it would seem obvious that schools, school boards or provincial education authorities should collect data on the country of birth of students and their parents,” said Paul Cappon, president and CEO of the Canadian Council on Learning.

The one immigrant category that falls consistently below average are those whose families came from Latin America and the Caribbean, the source of roughly one in 10 immigrants to Canada in 2005. Only 23 per cent of the first generation go to university, by far the lowest rate among any immigrant group, according to a study by professors Ross Finnie and Richard Mueller.

Rubén Gaztambide-Fernández, a professor at the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education, recently conducted a study on the barriers to academic success for Latino students in Toronto.

Some said they were forced to take jobs to support their families while others cited negative stereotypes and inadequate English language instruction.

Carolina Estrella, a 17-year-old grade 12 student at Toronto’s Western Technical High School, was born in Canada to parents from Uruguay and Ecuador. Her path through school has been difficult. Although she should graduate this spring, she has earned only about a third of the necessary credits.

The downward turn began when she was kicked out of her first high school for beating up a fellow student. The student had been taunting her with racial slurs, she said, so she threw him in a locker.

“You know what the problem is in these school districts,” she said. “The lower people like the Latinos don’t go to school and don’t graduate. I don’t think it’s our culture, I think it’s more that they don’t have enough money. The parents live in a not too good area. And they go to a high school that’s not too good.”

In most countries, having a university educated father, as Ms. Estrella does, would make her academic success very likely. In Canada, though, parental education is not as good a predictor of academic outcomes among immigrant children as ethnic origin, according to Prof. Finnie and Prof. Mueller. That’s usually because the children of immigrants go on to postsecondary education at much higher rates than the children of the Canadian-born, even when their parents aren’t university educated.

Sophia Juan, 21, is the child of immigrants from the Philippines. She was brought up in a culture of education, knowing from her earliest days that she would one day go to university.

“Education is really important in my family and in Filipino culture. They always teach you that you have to go on to postsecondary school,” she said.

So what’s going on with immigrants from this hemisphere?

One of the possibilities suggested by Prof. Gaztambide-Fernández is that Latino families may lack the cultural capital of other groups, the background, connections, community links and institutional knowledge built over generations, that ease the path for their children.

Prof. Finnie said he looked into ways of measuring the impact of cultural capital, but wasn’t able
to explain the trend among students from the Americas.

“At this point we have no answers to that one. It’s obviously a source of concern.”

For Canada’s education systems, the challenge is how the so-called “immigrant effect” of high rates of achievement can be recreated in the groups that are struggling.

Kyle Yu was 10 years old in 2003 when his family immigrated from China. He soon found that language wasn’t the only difference in Canadian classrooms.

“In Eastern schools, the teaching is very direct and linear, whereas here there are different pathways into getting the concept. … A teacher might ask you to build something or draw something,” he said.

Mr. Yu, now 17 and a straight-A student, said the difference can be distilled to each country’s concept of a student: In China, his job is to study, in Canada, his job is to learn.

Like Mr. Yu, Gianmarco Ferrari, 19, encountered a vastly different school system when he arrived in Canada from Venezuela. In his native country, homework was optional and students were rarely anxious about their grades. Not so in Canada. Mr. Ferrari and his sister Tixiana, who are both strong students, were in for a pedagogical culture shock.

“Teacher expectations are high; they actually want you to work,” he said. “The students, everyone is so concerned about their marks so they make a huge effort to get good grades.”

More is at stake than international bragging rights, and Canada can’t afford to rest on its laurels. The country’s economic future relies on the strength of its education system.

Top performing countries such as Finland are especially good at identifying the needs of students and enabling more individualized learning.

Canada’s pretty good at this, but could be better.

“The fact that, on average Canada is doing very well at the integration of immigrant students doesn’t mean that you should be complacent about those who have special needs,” said Matthias Rumpf, the Washington-based spokesperson for the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development, which tests and ranks the world’s education systems.