Importing Smart Kids

Our smartest students come from immigrant families, reports the Cleveland Plain Dealer.

The children of immigrants are becoming the top math and science students in the United States, dominating academic competitions and representing the strongest hope the nation has of keeping an edge in high-tech and biomedical fields, according to a study released Monday.

According to the National Foundation for American Policy, which backs employment-related visas, 60 percent of the finalists of the Intel Science Talent Search, 65 percent of the U.S. Math Olympiad's top scorers and 46 percent of U.S. Physics Team members are the children of immigrants.

"Seven of the top 10 award winners at the 2004 Intel Science Talent Search were immigrants or their children. In 2003, three of the top four awardees were foreign-born."

These young brains are not the children of the huddled masses. Typically, their parents are well-educated engineers and scientists.

They pass on superior genes and raise their children to value education and hard work.

Every year, the San Jose Mercury News runs photos and a profile of the valedictorians of local high schools. I'd guess the majority come from immigrant families, mostly Chinese, Vietnamese, Indian, Iranian and Russian. On a recent "best and brightest" page, the names are: Hsu, Bhople, May, Lin, Lai, Tran, Allen and Doan.

Maybe not representative. Let's try another one: Slagle, Lee, Zhang, Gottipatti, Harper, Avila, Claus, Dao, Jebens, Koval, Johnson, Kapulkin, Sato, Jhatakia, Decena, Ashe, Tran, Nguyen, Pham, Dick. Two of the non-Asians appear to be from Russian immigrant families.

Why Los Pobrecitos Stay Poor

The pobrecitos phenomenon dooms low-income Hispanic students to school failure, writes Tina Griego in the Rocky Mountain News.

Pobrecito means "poor thing." And the phenomenon, explains Stephanie Robinson, a principal partner at the Education Trust, a Washington, D.C.- based nonprofit, goes something like this:

A student comes into the school. He is poor, a minority, his family struggles. Maybe the teacher feels sorry for him. This is human. Maybe he feels sorry for himself. Expectations are not high. (If the student happens to be a she, maybe mom and dad are telling her she doesn't need more education, a husband and children await.) He is given low-level assignments. He is tested. He tests below grade-level. He is given more below-grade-level work. He believes or is led to believe he is doing what he can—he is, in fact, incapable of doing better. He never progresses. A cycle begins.

Low expectations lead to lower achievement, Robinson says. “You can't learn what you are not given to learn."

Low expectations often start at home. I once interviewed a Mexican-American father who told me his three sons had "done well in high school," though none had graduated. I asked what subjects they'd done well in. He said "basketball."

Academics Only

To balance the budget, a Massachusetts superintendent cut all non-academic activities . Saugus schools will offer no sports teams, cheerleading, bands, clubs, student council, nada. The public is howling. Jeff Jacoby of the Boston Globe wonders if a town's quality of life requires tax-funded extracurriculars.

One news story quoted a Saugus High senior who plays on the soccer and lacrosse teams. "If there is nothing to do after school," he said, "I'll probably just go home and do homework."

At the risk of uttering heresy, I can't help wondering: Would that be so terrible? . . . Whatever the merits of team sports or cheerleading, they are not essential to a high school education. Math and English are. Yet how many American communities muster even a fraction of the fervor for math and English instruction that they lavish on their high school sports programs?

While Saugus High boasts a championship hockey team, 47 percent of its 10th-graders performed at the two lowest levels — "needs improvement" or "failing" — on last year's statewide English exam. On the math exam, it was 56 percent. How often do parents and students ever take to the streets to protest academic mediocrity? Saugus spends $6,700 per student. Plenty of California schools manage to offer sports and marching band — but not small classes — on that kind of budget.

By the Shining Big Sea Waters

In the new City Journal, Michael Knox Beran defends teaching children to memorize poetry . In the 1920s, the New York City public schools required teachers to have students memorize poetry and speeches.

Poems "for reading and memorization" by first-graders include those of Robert Louis Stevenson ("Rain" and "The Land of Nod"), A. A. Milne ("Hoppity"), Christina Rossetti ("Four Pets"), and Charles Kingsley ("The Lost Doll").

Second-graders grappled with poems by Tennyson ("The Bee and the Flower"), Sara Coleridge ("The Garden Year"), and Lewis Carroll ("The Melancholy Pig").

In third grade came Blake's "The Shepherd" and Longfellow's "Hiawatha," while fourth grade brought Elizabeth Barrett Browning, Emily Dickinson, and Kipling. In the grades that followed, students read and recited poems by Arnold, Browning, Burns, Cowper, Emerson, Keats, Macaulay, Poe, Scott, Shakespeare, Southey, Whitman and Wordsworth.

Eighth-graders tackled Lincoln's Gettysburg Address and Second Inaugural Address.

The great wave of immigrants, like my grandfather, learned the rhythm and rhyme of the English language. They learned syntax and vocabulary.

From The Cat in the Hat on up, verse teaches children something about the patterns and relationships that bind together the words of which it is composed. Poetry sets up an abstract system of order and harmony; the rhythm and the rhyme scheme are logical structures that a child can comprehend even before he understands the words themselves, just as he can grasp the rhythmic and harmonic relations of a piece of music.

What the child discovers, in other words, is not only aesthetically pleasing, but important to cognitive development... And of course, memorization is a kind of exercise that strengthens the powers of the mind, just as physical exercise strengthens those of the body.

Memorizing poetry had gone out when I was in school, though we did have to memorize the preamble to the Constitution to get out of eighth grade. I memorized anyhow for the joy of the language. If you know it, you own it.


Amy Steele writes:

I taught bilingual classes for two and a half years in Texas. I quit and moved into the private school sector, heartbroken by the very things in your column.

My fourth graders were mainly second generation Americans, yet I was required to teach them in Spanish 60 percent of the day. They were not functionally literate in either language. It grieved me to see what damage was being done. We robbed these kids of their right to an education.

English as a Second Language should have been the route taken. Many of them did not graduate; many ended up in gangs at worst and minimum wage jobs at best. These were bright capable kids. I did my best but one year couldn't undo the damage.

In Texas, the way out of bilingual was to test at grade level in English proficiency. Hard to do when you aren't being taught in English. Those parents have a right to demand their child be removed from bilingual classes. For many kids, that is their only chance.

Armando Gutierrez writes:

As a former teacher in New York and a parent, I would like to share my experiences. Both my wife and I are native Spanish speakers from Cuba. Our two children's only exposure to the English language was through children’s TV, until it was time to attend kindergarten. As soon as they commenced school, where only English was spoken and taught, they refused to speak Spanish at home. Realizing that if we spoke English to them, they would forget the Spanish language, both my wife and I made the commitment not to speak to them in English or to
answer if they asked a question in English, forcing them to speak Spanish to us.

Today my son and my daughter are adults, and completely fluent in Spanish without a trace of an accent. As for English, suffice to say that my son is an attorney and my daughter has a master’s degree.

Bilingual education creates second-class citizens due to their inability to express themselves correctly in their native or in their adopted language.

Janie Saldivar of San Benito, Texas writes:

In regards to bilingual education being a "dead end" for immigrant students, you failed to mention that in order for these children to make a successful transition to English, they must first master their native tongue. Unfortunately, some of these non-English- speaking students come to the U.S. without formal education in their own language, thus making the time spent in bilingual classes that much longer.

Of course the parents want their children in an English class ASAP. The parents associate the English language with success and so it's difficult for them to understand why their child simply isn't just taught in English. Even I, a bilingual ed teacher, would really rather teach "just English," but in order for my second graders to become truly successful in school I nurture their native language and culture.

Peter Price writes:

My wife recently terminated her teaching career in San Diego. The coup de grace occurred at San Diego State, vetting special ed hopefuls and dealing with the politics of bilingual ed administration.

The damage being perpetrated on schoolchildren in the minority communities is a scandal. Nothing to brag about in nominally affluent communities, our system is pathologically destructive in minority areas. Home schooling, internet classrooms, private/ religious schools...something has to replace the indifferent "trade union" approach to mentoring our young.

Doug and JoAnn Radunzel write:

We raised three children overseas. Our son, who is now a West Point cadet, was born just prior to moving to Germany. Our two daughters were born in Germany. We lived there eight years. Then we lived in Russia for four years. Our kids learned German by playing with other kids on the street and then in German kindergarten and school. We spoke a little German at home. They can speak German today with only a slight accent.

If another English speaker was in the German school, they tended to gravitate toward each other and did not speak German. I imagine that is what is happening in these bilingual classes. It would be better if the students spoke Spanish at home and English at school. It can be a little rough at first, but within a few weeks the kids are bilingual.

John Lucia of McCordsville, Ind., writes:

For the entire history of our continent, the story has been one of daring people with the optimism to leave their world behind in search of a better life. They generally find that better life out of the force of their will and determination. Most immigrants, despite the public perception, don’t need help, just an opportunity and for the do-gooders, such as bilingual educators, to get out of the way.

Each new immigrant group faces the same challenges and perceptions. A review of newspapers a century ago would find stories about large, extended immigrant families living in small quarters and poverty, immigrants who won’t learn the language, who take jobs from Americans and send money back to their families in the mother country. The only difference between the stories is the substitution of Italian for Mexican in the ethnicity.

Samantha Baker of Misawa Air Base, Japan writes:

I think that the French are overlooking a key point about Harry Potter: These are books for children! They are not an in-depth look at society, but rather a way for kids to stretch their imaginations and read instead of watching TV and playing video games. Of course adults are portrayed as bumbling and the children are the heroes. What kid doesn’t love to imagine triumphing over bad guys when the adults couldn’t? If Harry Potter gets kids to read, it deserves all of the praise it can get.

Julie Sichi of Converse, Texas writes:

My kids read. Since they were toddlers, I have read them books. Not the drivel that the parenting magazines recommend, but books that I like and liked when I was a child: exciting adventures and mysteries. I also read above their age levels. As long as the story is interesting, they don't care if they can understand all the words or not. It also gets them used to a huge vocabulary by osmosis. As a result, my seven-year-old son is reading books far beyond his age group, such as “The Lord of the Rings.”

By the way, I only have a high school diploma. I chose not to go to college. Too boring. I'd rather read. My mom read to me.

Joanne Jacobs writes about education and other issues at She's writing a book, Ride the Carrot Salad, about a start-up charter high school in San Jose.

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