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La Pietra Dialogues On the World On-Line
A Transatlantic Dialogue on Migration
Marcelo Suarez-Orozco, The Courtney Sale Ross University Professor at NYU
La Pietra Dialogues
June 6, 2009

The Transatlantic Dialogue on Migration established a number of important principles that will, I hope, help guide collaborative work in an area of growing importance on both sides of the Atlantic. First, immigration is now both a global and local reality – the ‘glocal,’ therefore, is emerging as a critical unit of analysis. The glocal perspective approaches immigration as a phenomenon unfolding in discreet localities – neighborhoods and municipalities, while keeping in mind the ever more integrated global networks in economy and society that provide the new meta-context for mass migration in the 21st Century. Second, the field of immigration studies will continue to benefit from multi-sited and comparative approaches that undermine the provincialism immigration tends to generate on both sides of the Atlantic. It is especially useful, I think, to study and compare how “new” countries of immigration – such as Italy, and “old” countries of immigration, such as the U.S., are managing and not managing immigration. Third, the study of immigration will benefit from the long view. On both sides of the Atlantic immigration forecasts profound changes in the future as the immigrant origin population continues to grow via the second and third generations.

The conference panel on the adaptation of the children of immigrants in schools in Europe (especially Italy) and the U.S. examined a very significant problem schools on both sides of the Atlantic now face - a task no wealthy democracy has ever done well: educating the largest and most demographically diverse group of students in history to thrive in an ever more globally integrated world at a time of deep economic crisis.

Moving forward, schools on both sides of the Atlantic will be more diverse than ever before. While our Italian colleagues examined the new complexity facing Italian municipalities, the data from the U.S. are breathtaking. The U.S. now has the largest number of immigrants in history – soon to surpass the 40 million mark, three times the number of immigrants in the second largest country of immigration in the world, the Russian Federation. In the United States, over 10 million students – more than the en¬tire population of Sweden – will arrive in schools this Fall speaking a language other than English. Nation¬wide approximately a quarter of all children starting school in September 2009 will originate in homes where English is not the primary language and in the nation’s three largest school districts - New York, Los Angeles, and Chicago - immigrant origin, English language learners (ELLs) are now the fastest growing sector of the student population (25% of all students in New York City, 41 % of all students in L.A., and 14 percent of all students in Chicago). In New York City alone approximately fifty percent of the students heading to school will originate in immigrant-headed homes representing over 190 different countries. This never happened before in the history of the world: one city educating children from literally every corner of earth. But it’s not just big cities. In Dodge City, Kansas approximately 40 percent of the kids heading to school this September, speak a language other than English at home. We are not in Kansas anymore.

Italy, historically a country of emigration is now facing the task of educating a growing and very diverse student population as our colleagues from Reggio Emilia and Florence reported in their presentations.

Are schools up to this historic challenge? I cannot speak for the Italian experience although I was enormous impressed by the marvelous efforts I saw in Reggio Emilia but alas Reggio may be an exception and not the Italian rule. What does the American experience suggest?

While some sociologists tend to celebrate the wonders of the still-well oiled American assimilation machinery, they may be asking too little of schools in an era of global integration and economic uncertainty. While immigrant children in the United States are learning English at rates comparable to prior generations and getting better jobs than their immigrant parents, it maybe too little too late. Sociologists comparing how this wave of immigrants is doing vis-à-vis earlier waves focus on the half full side of the glass. The half empty side of the glass becomes clear when we focus on global competition not anachronistic historical comparisons. The children heading to American schools this September are not going to compete with -- and should not be measured against-- the children of Irish, Italian and Eastern European immigrants of last century. They are going to compete with students in Hong Kong, Korea, and Finland for best jobs the global economy has to offer. Data from the Program for International Student Assessment (PISA) a respected system of international assessments measuring the performance of 15-year-olds in reading literacy, mathematics literacy, and science literacy every 3 years tells a blunt story: In 2006, the average mathematics literacy score in the United States was lower than the average score in 23 of the other 29 high income OECD countries for which comparable PISA results were reported. These and other data suggest that American students are more diverse but less prepared in the ways that matter.

The main policy instrument to make sure all American students are ready for the 21st Century is No Child Left Behind (NCLB). Does it make a difference in the twin age of global competition and demographic diversity? Yes, but mostly for the wrong reasons. The high-stakes testing context of NCLB is proving to be extremely challenging to America’s ever more diverse immigrant-origin student population. Not only are many immigrant-origin children tested before their academic language skills have adequately developed, but all too often their day-to-day educational experiences are shaped by instruction that teaches to the test, a far from an adequate measure of what it takes to succeed in the global century. Is it any surprise then that in the “gold standard” National Assessment of Educational Progress reading assessment for 2007, 71 percent of English-language learners in the eighth grade scored “be¬low basic” in reading and zero percent scored at the “advanced” level?

On a personal note, it was a marvelous opportunity to exchange ideas and experiences with our European colleagues. Europe has become a fascinating con¬text to study migration. While some

European countries like France and Holland have long histories of immigration, others including Spain and Italy, began facing the challenges of large-scale immigration for the first time in recent decades. Four factors seem to set up a unique European dynamic of immigration vis-à-vis the United States. First, in countries such as Italy, immigration is taking place in the context of rapidly aging native populations. Second, immigration is taking place in the context of below replacement fertility rates in the native population. Third, large numbers of immigrants originate in non-European countries – including Africa, the Middle East, Latin America, and, of course, Eastern Europe. Fourth, the context for immigrant integration today is one of deep economic crisis and social uncertainty - especially acute in Italy and Spain. These four factors suggest that the education and long-term integration of the children of immigrants will have major repercussions in terms of labor market dynamics, social cohesion, and the promise of cultural democracy in high-income countries.

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