Come See What Mass Immigration Looks Like in My School

Wendy Wilson, The Federalist, March 21, 2016

I live in Nashville, Tennessee, a city that prides itself on welcoming a growing immigrant population. For civic leaders, it has become a badge of honor. School officials boast of the number of native languages represented in local schools, seemingly pleased to be part of a new era that leaves behind the boring monolingual days of the past.

Like immigration advocates across the country, many in town echo the refrain that we’ll become a greater nation as we become even more diverse, with only the fearful posing a threat to progress.

I don’t consider myself a person paralyzed by fear. As someone who has taught English language learners in public schools for more than 10 years, I enjoy working with those from other countries. {snip}

But over the past few years, I’ve found myself asking this: how much immigration diversity is too much? Is it even possible to ask this question anymore without the risk of getting called a xenophobe?

From a Bird’s Eye View, It Looks Great

In a recent article for The Atlantic, David Frum writes that in elite circles, the large-scale influx of low-skill immigrants in recent decades is considered an unassailable good. “Even as immigration becomes ever-more controversial with the larger American public, within the policy elite it preserves an unquestioned status as something utterly beyond discussion,” he laments.

I teach for Metro Nashville Public Schools at a high school with hundreds of English learners. As in other cities across the nation, the immigrant population in Nashville has boomed in recent years. We have a mix of refugees and legal and illegal immigrants. Around 30 percent of the total student population has a first language other than English, with as many as 120 languages represented. More than 14 percent need English language (ELL) services, a number that reflects national trends for urban areas. {snip}

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It Is Really Hard to Learn a New Language

School districts nationwide are pouring millions of dollars into helping students learn English. But there is no magic bullet to make this happen faster, no matter how hard educators search for just the right intervention. Learning another language is slow and tedious, even for students who are bright and motivated, even for students with bright and capable teachers and good instructional materials. Researchers say it takes students five to seven years, sometimes more, to attain the English proficiency necessary to do the academic work of grade-level peers.

As those students are catching up, more newcomers are coming in the door, making the achievement gap between mainstream students and English learners a permanent fixture. {snip}

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The Education Gap Is Huge

Last year, I had a newcomer from Somalia who on the first day of class wrote her name across the word bank near the top of a worksheet instead of on the line at the top right-hand corner. Another student, a boy from Central America, had left school to work in the fields after second grade and now found staying alert during the school day a nearly intolerable experience.

In addition to a language barrier, students like these face other enormous obstacles. At first, they have special schedules that shield them from traditional core classes. But a year or two after arriving, in addition to special language classes, they’re expected to engage with the standard curriculum in science, history, and other subjects. Teachers are to make this happen using “differentiation strategies” that are somehow supposed to compensate for a language barrier, cultural differences, and years of inconsistent prior schooling.

Even after students are well on their way toward English fluency, the gaps remain significant, slowing down comprehension of basic material that struggling native speakers can grasp much more readily. {snip}

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Success Stories Are Exceptions

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Despite the challenges, there are immigrant students making remarkable progress. President Obama and immigration advocates love to publically hold these children up as examples, with the implication that the system is working just fine. But the reality is that many are average in their efforts, and like other kids, are easily distracted by cell phones, video games, and the opposite sex.

Then there are those who don’t seem to care, are rude to their teachers, and get suspended for fighting and drugs. I have had the joy of having highly motivated, high-achieving students in my classroom over the years, and their hard work and maturity really are an inspiration. Unfortunately, they are exceptions.

We’re Not Racists for Considering These Factors

One shouldn’t have to fear being tarnished as anti-immigrant for concerns about the strain on public schools. American families shouldn’t be made to feel like they’re ignorant if they wonder about the quality of a neighborhood school that has gone global, serving numerous students with language barriers and low skills. And educators, social workers, and others shouldn’t have to fear being presumed heartless for thinking, like me, that our immigration system has spiraled out of control.

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