Schools are important sociopolitical entities within American communities. As such, they are a key arena where conflicting views about immigrants regarding identity, linguistic and cultural diversity, assimilation, accommodation, and other issues play themselves out. Many issues remain unresolved, and new issues continue to surface as the ever-changing landscape of immigration superimposes itself over the education systems of the United States.

Formal and informal education has always been important to immigrants as they have entered the United States, adjusted to the U.S. culture and way of life, and sought to advance their personal and family goals. Throughout the long history of the United States, educational institutions and public and immigrant attitudes toward education have adapted to reflect the economic and political changes of each era.Children;and education[education]EducationChildren;and education[education]Education[cat]EDUCATION;Education[01510][cat]ASSIMILATION;Education[01510][cat]LANGUAGE ISSUES;Education[01510]

Education in the Young Republic

The period from the Revolutionary era of the late eighteenth century through the early nineteenth century witnessed a diverse set of institutions and means by which Americans were educated. Most education was informal during this period and was undertaken principally by males within the context of occupational apprenticeships. The bulk of Americans possessed only rudimentary literacy skills, such as the ability to sign their own names and read a few simple words. European American families who were well-to-do hired tutors to teach their children; more advanced formal education was reserved for young men. Formal schools were rare, and only the privileged were eligible and able to attend them. Many of the early schools operated only intermittently, as they depended upon the uncertain availability of teachers. Books were treasured by the literate class but were both expensive and in short supply. Only a few people in colonial times, such as Cotton Mather, Benjamin Franklin, James Madison, and Thomas Jefferson, could accumulate libraries that could command respect from visiting well-heeled Europeans.

The second wave of immigration, from 1820 to 1860, saw immigrants primarily from Ireland and Germany. These Europeans brought with them books and literacy skills that they were eager to pass on to their children. Upon settling into new territories in the movement westward, as well as taking up abode within the small cities of the growing nation, they quickly established schools with their own languages as the media of instruction. Norwegian immigrants;and education[education]Norwegians and German immigrants;and education[education]Germans were particularly associated with this trend. Irish immigrants;and education[education]Irish Roman Catholics;schoolsCatholics established Catholic schools in the parishes in which they came to reside. Many of these schools endured for long periods of time. During the 1920’s, for example, Detroit, Michigan, alone had a network of some sixty Catholic schools educating nearly 50,000 pupils, most of whom were first- and second-generation Irish immigrants.

Within that same time period, Mann, HoraceHorace Mann, Barnard, HenryHenry Barnard, and others began to advance what became known as the Common School MovementCommon School Movement. Citing the ideals of Jacksonian Democracy, proponents argued that the United States needed public schools that were free to all if the nation was to capitalize on its vast natural resources, preserve its democratic institutions, and serve as an example of new possibilities to the rest of the world.

As the nineteenth century unfolded, the numbers of immigrants continued to increase. In 1850 alone. some 2.2 million foreign-born immigrants entered the United States. At midcentury, foreign-born residents constituted 9.7 percent of the nation’s total population. In 1849, the president of Middlebury College speculated that the huge mass of humanity arriving on America’s shores could foreshadow the downfall of the nation, just as Huns and Goths had settled within the confines of the Roman Empire and ultimately weakened it because of their failure to assimilate and become “true” Romans.

Mann, Barnard, and others argued that schools were the ideal Assimilation;and education[education]institutions within society to take up the important task of turning immigrants into Americans as well as providing the means for the poor to advance their prospects within society, working from the foundation of a solid education. It could no longer be left to chance that the varied, loosely organized system of informal learning would inculcate the skills and values that were necessary for the young and dramatically growing nation. Teachers and pundits of the time noted that schools also needed to instruct in personal health and hygiene, as many immigrants exhibited undesirable grooming habits. The metaphor of the “Melting pot” theory[melting pot theory;and education[education]]“melting pot” gained currency, drawing upon the notion that when steel and other useful metal alloys were made, the combination of several different metals produced new metals considerably stronger than any individual component alone. By extension of this metaphor, socializing and educating the teeming numbers of immigrants and the poor would help make the nation stronger and more unified.

Young Chinese immigrant students in New York City, 1910.

(Library of Congress)

This notion was seriously challenged by the unfolding tragedy of the Civil War, U.S.U.S. Civil War (1861-1865), which swept vast numbers of immigrants into armies on both sides of the conflict and caused more American deaths per capita than any other military conflict in U.S. history. Nevertheless, the war reinforced in people’s minds the necessity of binding the nation together again and intensifying the national spirit of its inhabitants after hostilities ceased. New immigrants had to be rapidly assimilated into the American way of life and the values and mores of society. Americanization programs;and education[education]Schools were vital to this process of Americanization, even though teachers often complained about the unruly immigrant students, overcrowded conditions in urban schools, and the overwhelming amount of attention that needed to be given to promoting socialization skills, teaching the English language, and improving personal health and hygiene.

Biculturalism was seen as distinctly un-American. There English-only movements[English only movements];and education[education]was no general sense that maintenance of facility in languages other than American English was valuable or desirable. Blatant public condemnation of immigrants or entire sets of people from particular parts of the world were common in the newspapers, magazines, and books of the period and from learned professors as well as from common folk. Many anti-immigrant ideas were tied to erroneous views about racial differences accounting for differences in innate mental capacities and fixed personality traits associated with distinct ethnicities. Stereotyping, ethnic, ethnic;and education[education]Ethnic stereotyping was rampant. Teachers were not immune to commonly received wisdom, some of which was taught to prospective teachers as they prepared for their important life work.

Late Nineteenth and Early Twentieth Centuries

Immigration to the United States increased rapidly after the Civil War. The years between 1860 and 1914 saw the majority of new immigrants arriving from southern and eastern Europe, in contrast to the mostly British and northern European immigrants of earlier periods. Chinese and Japanese immigrants also began arriving on the West Coast, as the rulers of both those Asian nations finally gave in to pressure from the United States and other Western nations to permit their subjects to emigrate. Farming and railroads associated with the opening of the West provided ideal conditions for the United States to accommodate the large number of new arrivals and for these immigrants to have a major role in opening up the region to settlement. Wealthy Chinese immigrants;schoolsChinese merchants in California established academies and schools during the 1880’s and 1890’s. Japanese immigrants;schoolsJapanese immigrants, who were more likely to be Christians than Daoists or Buddhists, started Japanese schools in Hawaii and the western United States.

The pattern of Japanese immigrants’ assimilation into American society was distinctly different than that of the Chinese, in part because of the emperor’s embracing of Western ways, including American science and technology. Japanese students were far likelier to attend American schools than their Chinese counterparts. At the same time, events unfolding in Asia through this period had a substantial impact in how these two cultures interacted with each other in their new nation, as well as with other cultures. For example, the Sino-Japanese War of 1894-1895, Russo-Japanese War of 1905, Japanese invasion and annexation of Korea in 1910, and conflicts between China and Japan that continued through World War II, all affected relationships and rivalries among these groups, especially in the western United States.

Meanwhile, in the cities of the eastern United States, and to a much lesser degree in the South, poor immigrants arriving from southern and eastern Europe presented new challenges to the process of Americanization. Public officials commented openly about the depravity, defiance, and criminal tendencies that these immigrants allegedly manifested. Worries about the political radicalism of immigrants led to a sharp suppression of dissent, and immigrants were schooled in the ways of American democracy. Language issues;European immigrantsInstruction was conducted solely in English. Any maintenance of their native facilities in reading, writing, and speaking was left to the informal world of learning that ethnic communities could organize and encourage.

Immigrant Name changing;immigrant studentsstudents’ names were Anglicized as part of this process. Students were strongly admonished to drop ethnic customs, shed their foreign accents, and suppress expressing themselves in their own native tongues.

In response to a perceived need, many schools began opening their doors to the community for evening adult classes in English, government, vocational education, and the naturalization process during the later nineteenth century. By 1906, the U.S. government was requiring English competency as part of the process of naturalization and citizenship procedures. Schools were becoming de facto social centers and homogenization sites for urban U.S.

Meanwhile, the U.S. Congress was becoming increasingly interested in the process of immigration and its impact on the nation. In December of 1908, investigators for the U.S. Senate’s committee on immigration compiled statistics for thirty-seven cities across the United States. They documented the presence of sixty separate nationalities and found that within cities, huge percentages of residents had fathers who were born abroad.

Vast numbers of immigrant Children;and education[education]children during this period of massive influx of immigrants were denied entry into urban schools due to overcrowded conditions. Although some degree of literacy and aptitude for mathematics was required during this period, most students, regardless of their ethnic backgrounds, received only grade school educations. A study of New York CityNew York City;public schools public schools in 1911 found these high school graduation rates for students of various ethnic backgrounds:

•British, 10.8 percent

•German, 15 percent

•Russian, 16 percent

•Irish, 0.1 percent

Although immigrants and others needed enough education to hold jobs in the developing industrial economy, few immigrants attained the higher levels of literacy, math ability, or advanced subject matter knowledge that would become the norm after the mid-twentieth century. World War I (1914-1918) highlighted even more starkly for Americans the importance of forging an American identity for all immigrants, as ethnic groups attacked one another with a vengeance across Europe in a war that would ultimately involve the United States. There was considerable concern at the time that these deep European rivalries would erupt into violence on U.S. city streets.

After World War I, many U.S. states English-only movements[English only movements];and education[education]passed laws declaring English as the official state language. Some of these laws were so restrictive that Meyer, RobertRobert Meyer, a Nebraska;language lawsNebraska parochial schoolteacher was brought up on charges because he taught his immigrant students in German. In its [c]Meyer v. NebraskaMeyer v. Nebraska decision in 1923, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled the Nebraska language law overreaching, holding that teachers could control their own curriculum and that parents had rights to determine the best educational interests of their children.

Late Twentieth Century Changes

A major wave of immigration that began in 1965 has continued to the present in the twenty-first century. Most of these new immigrants have been persons of Hispanic and Asian ancestry. In 2007, slightly more than one in five of all school-age children in America spoke a language other than English at home. Of these children, one in four reported having difficulty in speaking English.

Many immigrant children in schools have parents who engage in seasonal work or are members of families that move frequently because of rising rents or changing sociopolitical situations in their homelands. Indeed, high rates of student mobility among many immigrant school populations present considerable challenges to the ability of schools to provide adequate educations. Transnational migration, sojourning workers, and Parachute children“parachute children” who live on their own while attending American schools are all part of the complex contemporary mosaic of immigrants and education.

Language Issues

The metaphor of the melting pot has given way to a new metaphor of the “salad bowl” that suggests an essential unity in the midst of considerable diversity. Bilingual educationBilingual education, which arose as a formal response of the educational system in the light of the fourth wave of immigration coupled with the achievements of the Civil Rights movement;and bilingual education[bilingual education]Civil Rights movement, led to changes in laws, regulations, and public perceptions about the desirability of preserving competencies in native languages and developing more successful approaches to full English-language competencies. The [a]Bilingual Education Act of 1968Bilingual Education Act was passed in 1968 as part of the updating of the [a]Elementary and Secondary Education Act of 1968Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA). Coupled with Title I funding under ESEA that was targeted to educationally deprived children, this legislation opened up increased possibilities for schools to support immigrant children’s education.

Three Language issues;and education[education]conflicting fundamental views about how to handle non-native speakers of English within formal educational systems have emerged. The first view sees language as a barrier to acquisition of English and generally takes a remedial approach to the problem. A second view sees language as a right tied to the individual (although it has been difficult to translate this view into effective educational policy). A third view that has gained momentum in the globalized economy, sees the acquisition and maintenance of multiple languages as a positive asset for both individual persons and the future of the United States. At varying times at national, state, and local levels these views have asserted themselves politically, ranging from English-only movements[English only movements];and education[education]English-only movements led with great success by Hayakawa, S. I.S. I. Hayakawa and John TantonTanton, John in twenty-three states to the passage of English-only legislation approved by voters in California;language policyCalifornia in 1998, in
Arizona;language policyArizona in 2000, and in Massachusetts;language policyMassachusetts in 2002.

During the same period, some other states, including New Mexico;language policyNew Mexico, Oregon;language policyOregon, and Washington State;language policyWashington, declared themselves to be multilingual states and required their schools to reflect this orientation in their curriculum and assessment procedures. The federal [a]No Child Left Behind Act of 2001No Child Left Behind Act of 2001, the successor to the [a]Improving America’s Schools Act[Improving Americas Schools Act]Improving America’s Schools Act (IASA) that had superseded the original Elementary and Secondary Education Act of 1968, removed all references toBilingual educationbilingual instruction. Moreover, the Office of Bilingual Education within the U.S. Department of Education was renamed the Office of English Language Acquisition, Language Enhancement, and Academic Achievement for Limited English Proficient Students as part of a new wave of educational accountability at the federal level.

The U.S. Supreme Court, U.S.;on education[education]Supreme Court has also been active in this arena, for example, its 1974 decision in [c]Lau v. NicholsLau v. Nichols ruled that the San Francisco school district had to provide instruction in the Chinese language for Chinese pupils who did not speak English. In [c]Plyler v. DoePlyler v. Doe (1982), the Court ruled that schools could not deny undocumented immigrant children access to free public education. Since the last decades of the twentieth century, state education departments and school districts have struggled to fulfill various requirements imposed or rescinded by federal or state legislative or judicial actions.


Concerns about September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks;and language issues[language issues]American security since the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, raised new issues related to language acquisition by American students and highlighted continued angst about immigrants within American society. In many ways, formal educational policies regarding language and culture in American schools closely resemble those of nations such as France, Portugal, Turkey, Japan, and Syria. They are less like the officially multilingual societies and educational systems of nations such as Canada, Israel, Singapore, Paraguay, Switzerland, and Belgium. Some nations, such as India and South Africa, and the European Union as a whole, eschew identification of any specific languages as hallmarks of their national identities.

The special challenges presented by education of a diversity of immigrant peoples have contributed significantly to American education generally. For example, addressing immigrant needs has helped to promote the expansion of kindergartens, vocational education, civics education, adult education programs, summer schools, compulsory attendance laws, and an expansion of foreign-language courses in school systems.Children;and education[education]Education

Further Reading

  • Donato, Rubén. Mexicans and Hispanos in Colorado Schools and Communities, 1920-1960. Albany: State University of New York Press, 2007. Historical examination of the descendants of Spanish troops and Mexicans in Colorado with special attention to the role of the schools over the period.
  • Feliciano, Cynthia. Unequal Origins: Immigrant Selection and the Education of the Second Generation. New York: LFB Scholarly Publishing, 2006. Sociological study that demonstrates Asians are the most highly educated group of immigrants entering the United States.
  • Gándara, Patricia, and M. Cecilia Gómez. “Language Policy in Education.” In Handbook of Education Policy Research, edited by Gary Sykes, Barbara Schneider, and David N. Plank. New York: Routledge, 2009. Overview of the various issues in this complex arena by two leading authorities.
  • Jeynes, William H. American Educational History: School, Society, and the Common Good. Thousand Oaks, Calif.: Sage Publications, 2007. Standard history of American education that sets immigration issues within a larger framework of changes within schools and American society.
  • Portes, Alejandro, and Rubén G. Rumbaut. Legacies: The Stories of the Immigrant Second Generation. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2001. Results of a large research study of second-generation immigrant children in Miami and San Diego including family and school life, language, identity, and achievement.
  • Rong, Xue Lan, and Judith Preissle. Educating Immigrant Students in the Twenty-first Century: What Educators Need to Know. 2d ed. Thousand Oaks, Calif.: Corwin Press, 2009. Wide-ranging guide for teachers and others regarding factors influencing learning, successful transitions, working with families, and appropriate teaching and assessment strategies.
  • Suárez-Orozco, Carola, and Marcelo M. Suárez-Orozco. Learning in a New Land: Immigrant Students in American Society. Cambridge, Mass.: Belknap Press, 2008. Study of four hundred recently arrived immigrant children from the Caribbean, China, Central America, and Mexico over five years. Full of poignant stories, challenges, and differentiated outcomes.
  • Sudem, Garth, Jan Krieger, and Kristi Pikiewicz. Ten Languages You’ll Need Most in the Classroom: A Guide to Communicating with English Language Learners and Their Families. Thousand Oaks, Calif.: Corwin Press, 2008. Highly specific information and suggestions for teaching immigrant children whose first languages are Spanish, Russian, Vietnamese, Arabic, Tagalog, Haitian Creole, Navajo, Hmong, Cantonese, or Korean.

Bilingual education

Bilingual Education Act of 1968

English as a second language

Foreign exchange students

Hayakawa, S. I.

Higher education

Language issues

Lau v. Nichols

Parachute children

Plyler v. Doe