Education and the Immigrant Experience

Education and the Immigrant Experience



Education is the cornerstone of American society and the frontline of cultural socialization for youth. Students become active members in their communities through their interactions with textbooks, classmates, teachers, and the greater school system. The importance of schooling underscores the importance of prioritizing non-biased, inclusive, and accurate representations of history and international matters. The American curriculum, however, embeds a warped sense of nationalism in a domestic and global capacity within lessons of history, civics, and culture. This is especially problematic for immigrant students who are beginning to integrate socially into American society and are in the ongoing process of reconciling their ethnic identity with a new American identity. In reaction to rapid globalization over recent decades, learning models such as global education have begun gaining momentum to challenge nationalistic education. Global education also responds to the increased numbers of immigrant students that schools are welcoming into their classrooms by providing a framework for how to adapt their curricula. Implementation of these models attempts to support a balanced, ethnopluralist socialization within an education that benefits all students and is particularly sensitive to the experience of immigrant students.

The models of curricula with nationalistic agendas and global education can be examined in relation to the concepts of assimilation versus ethnopluralism, nationalism, racial ideology, globalization, and the role of education in youth socialization. The immigrant experience provides the larger context for this paper, which I consider vis-à-vis U.S. curricula and their effects, primarily through personal accounts of immigrant students and my own anecdotes of working in immigrant communities and with immigrant school-aged children.

At the core of this paper are the interlocking goals of understanding the framework of current American curricula, the needs of immigrant students, and identifying the extents to which the curriculum supports or fails to support them. In this paper, I ask how current American curricula in public schools pressure immigrant students into assimilation, what values are taught to students through such curricula, and what message the curricula impart to multicultural students. In asking these questions, I seek to understand, in a broader sense, what version of America is being created by teaching these curricula to students and how that vision affects immigrant students in particular. I argue that in context of the immigrant experience and rising need for global knowledge and empathy, ethnopluralism and globalized education methods foster greater civic knowledge among all students and encourage students to become better members and leaders in their communities and society at large.


Introduction to Identity Construction and Negotiation

The first step to understanding the immigrant experience and how it’s affected by American public school curricula is to explore the concept of identity. Identity is a primary vessel for articulating what is at stake when societal forces such as pressures of assimilation or racism are experienced by a person. This is especially true when that person is in a period of transition, as youth, and immigrant youth in particular, are by definition. Professor Judith A. Howard from the Department of Sociology at the University of Washington introduces identity as carrying “the full weight of the need for a sense of who one is, together with an often overwhelming pace of change in surrounding social contexts—changes in the groups and networks in which people and their identities are embedded and in societal structures and practices in which those networks themselves are embedded.”1 This definition speaks to a sense of social identity, which is impressionable and constantly undergoing reformation. It is reasonable to state that immigrant students experience a heightened sense of social identity. With the compounded causational influences of youth and immigration status, immigrants acclimating to American society are in a period of flux. They are attempting to negotiate their ethnic identity and who they were in their home country to who they are now in a new country with new expectations and prejudices.

Through negotiating between their dual identities, immigrant students are essentially constructing a new identity. In “White Noise: Bringing Language into Whiteness Studies,” authors Sara Trechter and Mary Bucholtz contend that “identity is not an interior, psychic phenomenon but a social and cultural process that is both displayed and enacted in discursive and other semiotic practices.”2 Though Techer and Bucholtz speak in relation to linguistic processes, their observation can be applied to the socialization of youth education, especially in terms of how students become versed in the social language through which American society imparts its values. The main arena where this social language takes place for youth is schools, where textbooks, lessons, and school policies act as agents in conditioning students to accept and uphold the norms and standards of American society. Identity construction, negotiation, and reformation are primary components in understanding the role of education in the immigrant experience.


Current Education Models in Social Science

The United States does not have a nationwide standard for social science. This means that schools across the nation follow different curricula to teach history, civics, and government. While nationwide curricula are not common practice for any subject, social science is perhaps the most critical in creating responsible and knowledgeable citizens. If math or English are taught differently in schools, students will still learn how to read and write and do proper arithmetic. Social science, however, focuses on issues directly related to the state, nation, and government American students live in. It teaches the nation’s history in context of its relation to international issues, history, and culture. Because it is unregulated, America can be represented in different lights depending on the classroom. Curricula can establish distorted or superficial accounts of America’s history, both domestic and global, which can give students inaccurate interpretations of their nation and topics such as racism, indigenous peoples’ rights, civic responsibility, and equality.

In a three-month investigation published in February of 2020, CBS explored how civic rights and Black history are taught in all fifty states by analyzing the state standards for social studies education. According to their investigation, “seven states do not directly mention slavery in their state standards and eight states do not mention the civil rights movement. Only two states mention white supremacy, while sixteen states list states’ rights as a cause of the civil war.”3 Further investigation uproots deeper issues such as wide variations between state standards and extremely problematic subject matter. Whereas in Massachusetts, students are confronted with the realities of slavery, the Civil War, and Civil Rights as early as fifth grade, West Virginia’s standard contextualizes slavery as a form of economic supply and demand. North Carolina’s standard teaches slavery as a lesson on “‘immigration of Africans to the American South.’”4

Discrepancies across how the Civil War started abound, as 32 percent of states list states’ rights as the primary issue. Additionally, the state standards of more than half the nation neglect to include racism as a mandatory part of history classes, while the topic of white supremacy is only mentioned in Massachusetts and Maryland.5In a class where the point is to develop civic consciousness and effective citizens, this kind of selective history does a disservice to its students and creates roadblocks to equality and civil rights furtherment in greater society. Stephen Sawchuk’s 2018 article “How History Class Divides Us” in Education Weekly articulates this issue by posing the question: “What if the inability of Americans to agree on our shared history—and on the right way to teach it—is a cause of our current polarization and political dysfunction, rather than a symptom?”6 Many of these issues relate to historic racial tensions and are relevant for modern-day confrontations with racial ideologies, which are invariably connected to immigration concerns in present American society, visible in media coverage and political rhetoric. The example of North Carolina’s lessons on slavery, contextualized as a form of immigration, highlights this issue and provides evidence for how a distorted definition of immigration—as well as slavery—is taught to students, some of whom may very likely be immigrants themselves or have ancestors who were forcibly removed from Africa in bondage.

It’s crucial to recognize that the lessons students are taught in their social studies classroom is dependent upon their state’s political filter. A brief comparison of the state standards for New York and Texas for a first grade social studies class models the discrepancies. The state standards come directly from the New York and Texas Departments of Education.

New York’s curriculum for first grade is titled: “My Family and Other Families, Now and Long Ago.” It is based upon five units of study, including “Individual Development and Cultural Identity,” which is shared in other grades as well. A core skill-development goal in the grade is that students “examine families and develop an awareness of cultural diversity within the American culture.” There is also emphasis upon multicultural communities, global citizenship, and knowledge of the “cultural similarities and differences between various ethnic and cultural groups found in New York State.”7

Texas’ curriculum for first grade focuses on the students’ “relationship to the classroom, school, and community to establish the foundation for responsible citizenship in society.” There is an emphasis on understanding the importance of patriotism through recognizing the anthems and mottoes of the U.S and Texas. Emphasis is placed on recognizing American figures of good citizenship, important patriotic holidays, and understanding U.S. government.8

Through comparing these two states on even a limited basis, the differences in curriculum are evident. New York has a curriculum focused on prioritizing diversity, cultural identity, and an approach of curiosity toward differences. The Texas curriculum prioritizes a more local focus, preparing students to study their nation’s and state’s history and culture closely. The Texas curriculum demonstrates more nationalistic tendencies than New York’s curriculum, though it is certainly not the only state grappling with this problem.


Nationalism, Assimilation, and the Current Education Model

The dictionary definition of nationalism is “loyalty and devotion to a nation.” 9 Superficially, this seems to be a very innocuous, even positive idea, but nationalism in reality can pose a real and virulent threat when it is internalized and acted upon. It is especially dangerous when it forms an alliance with white supremacy to form white nationalism. Nationalism and race can easily become inextricable, with race holding more weight than actual citizenship status. A person who is Black or brown may experience racism and hatred despite being an American citizen. Nationalism and white nationalism have been influential if not causational forces in such tragedies as the institution of slavery, the Holocaust, Japanese Internment Camps, Chinese Exclusion, and most recently, the resurgence of Nazi fervor in reaction to Trumpism and immigration policy.

Though it seems nationalism should have no place in schools, it is a primary component in many textbooks. How America’s history of slavery and civil rights is taught to students, as described above, reflects the place of nationalism in education, as some neglect or manipulate the true impact and reach of slavery to represent the U.S. in more positive terms. This speaks to a long tradition of characterizing America in a superior, victorious light even when it is defeated or acts incongruously with its stated values of liberty and equality for all. American colonization, for instance, is widely celebrated without recognition of the damages endured by Native Americans, to whom the land rightfully belonged. Intervention in Latin American affairs too is often spoken about in a heroic, savior capacity, even though America’s history of foreign intervention historically has harmed more than helped. Additionally, these kinds of lessons often focus on American ideals and fail to accurately represent the cultures and values of these countries. In “How History Class Divides Us,” Sawchuk explains the problem of nationalism in the following examples, which expresses concern by Floridians that a “lack of stories of American exceptionalism—the idea that the nation is unique in its fusion of republican values and personal freedoms—could harm schools’ ability to instill civic values in students.”10 How are students to learn accountability when their social studies classes intentionally obscure and manipulate their country’s history of injustice and oppression to protect its reputation of fairness and equality? Such historical, curricular hypocrisy may lead to the dangerous belief that an American citizenship, especially when held by someone born in the Unites States and ascribing to the standard of whiteness, automatically rises a person to a superior status among other people. It also glorifies the defense of the country’s borders against foreigners, stoking anti-immigration sentiment. It is fair to say that these are the wrong civic values to be imparting to students.

By instilling values of American exceptionalism in education, United States citizenship can become a dangerous part of youth identity, particularly when those students don’t learn extensively about racism or white hegemony and privilege. The emphasis on American superiority in education acts as a gatekeeper for students, conjoining value with ethnicity. The students put most at risk by these lessons are predominantly immigrant and non-white students, who may feel forced to assimilate for their own safety or because of internalized feelings of American superiority. This may cause them to part with their ethnic heritage, particularly if their home country is unfairly or negatively depicted in classroom literature and discussions.

American exceptionalism tracks with the expectation that immigrant students assimilate to better fit rigid molds of whiteness and internalized belief in American superiority. The assimilation model is, as defined by the Migration Policy Institute, “the process by which the characteristics of members of immigrant groups and host societies come to resemble one another.”11 However, assimilation is also a highly personal experience which can have negative impacts on identity construction. This is evidenced by an article in The Beachcomber, a student news site for attendees of Beachwood High School. The article, titled “Even in a Diverse School, Assimilation can be a Formidable Force” and written by student Hiba Ali, explains assimilation’s place in their school community. Students interviewed for the article shared that they felt the school tried to be welcoming but that there were still cliques and groups who expressed microaggressions and held everyone to “unrealistic standards of whiteness.”12  As a result, many students hesitate to express themselves or eat traditional foods outside of the home. Several students cite that they have or have seen someone who has assimilated because they felt different and shamed for their culture.


Ethnopluralism, Globalization, & Global Education

Ethnopluralism, or cultural pluralism, is defined by Mae Ngai, the author of Impossible Subjects, as “the idea that America comprises a diversity of ethno-racial groups.”13 It is further explored as being a vision where “democracy respects and depends upon all ethnic groups’ contributions to society and the equal rights of all individuals, regardless of their national origin.”14 Ethnopluralism is in many ways the opposite idea of the assimilation model, though neither perfectly captures the reality of an increasingly globalized world, or what that means for a classroom experiencing a higher volume of immigrant students.

With the rise of globalization revolutionizing communication, economics, technology, and culture, it seems only reasonable for globalization to also affect education. Globalization has been a direct contributor to the creation of global education, which is an education for the “global citizen,”

one who identifies their place within a global landscape of differences and intersections of culture, politics, ideas, and practices. The public internet resource Globalization 101, a SUNY Levin Institute project, notes that global education strives to “create citizens with a global scope that are thoughtful about the problems facing our world.”15 Opponents of this model raise concerns that global education undermines the nationalistic conditioning current education systems offers to students. Many schools, however, are adopting this approach to cope with the rising numbers of immigrant students entering their classrooms.

The New York Department of Education, for example, has a variety of sample lesson plans and lesson kits to foster multi-cultural learning environments. Lesson plans include “Exploring Young Immigrant Stories,” “Immigration Myths,” and “Fostering Civil Discourse.”16 The resources aim to make immigration accessible to young learners by providing stories students can relate to, facts to debunk popular and harmful myths about immigrants, and frameworks to cultivate empathetic, socially conscious classrooms where important conversations can take place civilly.

Teaching Central America: A Project of Teaching for Change, created by Teaching for Change, is an open, global education resource available for grade levels ranging from Elementary to High School. The project aims to combat textbook omission and bias and enrich students’ interactions with Central American history and culture. It provides lessons plans to explore the complexity of Central American countries through literature and key figures in history. Lessons also recognize the essential roles Central American countries have played in the establishment and success of the United States. The project has inspired and promoted a Teaching Central America week, complete with lesson plans for educators to follow.17

Global education can be extremely effective in creating a multicultural learning environment, inclusive to immigrant students and beneficial for all communities, but only when it sees cross-cultural interaction as having purpose in itself, beyond economic or political gains. When global education is seen as a mode to increase international success and national development, it fails in its mission to center students with authenticity. There is concern that framing a global education within the parameters of its economic and political benefits devalues its purpose of being “global” by neglecting the importance of cultural sensitivity and nuance.


The Immigrant Experience

While most students within the American education system experience the challenges outlined above, immigrant students have increased sensitivity to the issues of nationalism in the curriculum, cultural appropriation for global business and profit, and systematic racism. Immigrant students experience an additional host of challenges presented by their immigration status, many of which families and schools are not equipped to cope with. In a practical sense, immigrant students may not have the same access to required resources, knowledge of protocols they must follow, or fluency in English. They may also have to confront burdens of immigration enforcement, immigration policy, racism, trauma, and increased risk of food insecurity and lack of healthcare.

Accessibility is a major issue within schools, especially when the curriculum assumes equal access to the same resources for all students. Immigrant students are likely to be of lower socioeconomic class and have less knowledge of how the education system works and how to access help. Additionally, they may not have the same amount or kind of schooling as their new peers, with little to no access to tutors or individualized teacher attention. The language barrier is also a significant issue. In summer of 2018, I volunteered as a reading mentor at the Ossining Public library, which was located within a predominantly immigrant community. During training, we were taught that all students within a grade level are relatively equal during the school year where they, for the most part, have equal instruction. In the summer months however, disparities become compounded and worsen each year. For immigrant students, this is often because their parents or guardians don’t speak English and have little formal education. These kids are at an automatic disadvantage, which, even if remedied during the school year, will have significant implications for their overall education and socialization into American society within their age group.

In addition to students’ struggles adapting to their new school and country, they may also face disciplinary action and welfare investigation because of failure to follow protocol. For instance, I visited  a school in Queens, New York in March as part of my internship with the city’s Administration for Children’s Services (ACS) to observe a workshop designed to help inform communities about the system and resources open to them. The school has a large Bangladeshi population, with many of the parents having limited fluency in English and requiring an interpreter. Within the community, it is common practice to take children out of school to visit their home country during the school year. While this is technically allowed, there is a process involved to make sure the child doesn’t fall behind and their whereabouts are known by the school. Failure to do so can result in a negligence claim and instigate a call to ACS, which can lead to an unnecessary and stressful investigation.

Ultimately, immigrant students have significant additional pressures and possible responsibilities to cope with on top of a typical school workload. They may be charged with taking care of younger siblings or be more concerned with working to gain needed income for their families. Additionally, if they are not here legally or seeking asylum, they may have to cope with the fear of immigration enforcement and family members being deported. Very often, schools do not recognize these burdens when evaluating student performance.


Global Education, The Immigrant Experience, and Empathy

The world is rapidly globalizing, creating needs for increased cultural awareness and appreciation. Proponents of global education praise its ability to create a new breed of students, one that can adapt, connect, and create with more power and sincerity than ever before. This is normally framed within the parameters of success, particularly political and economic, but a shift in perspective, informed by the increasingly multi-cultural nature of classrooms, exhibits how global education can be a more holistic education method. It is welcoming to immigrant students and integrates the richness and educational value of international studies for all students to benefit from.

A true global classroom will provide the space for immigrant students to safely balance their identities, learn in context, have their experiences valued, and be free to express cultural traditions and perspectives that will be met with curiosity instead of hostility. Immigrant students will be encouraged to study and share their ethnic heritage instead of part with it to assimilate. They will also learn about key historical figures they may identify with more than someone like George Washington. Maria Anglin, a Mexican-American Texas resident shares the importance of school curricula that reflect their student audience in the article “The History We Aren’t Taught is the One We Need to Learn.”18 Here, Anglin laments the short-sighted view of her education, which failed to introduce Anglin to such key figures as Jovita Idar, a Mexican-American civil rights activist who was a prominent Laredo-born journalist. Anglin, having been born in Laredo and having dreams of being a journalist since before she had obtained fluency in English, expresses anger at her education, stating “nobody told me about this woman, who probably would’ve been my hero.”19 Immigrant students need a curriculum that empowers them, that gives them materials they can connect with and historical figures to look up to.

A global education isn’t ideal only for immigrant students, however. It’s about the community around which the curriculum is built, and the practice students and teachers will gain interacting with foreign cultures and concepts. The classroom is the place to learn how to be a good citizen—a global education prepares students to be global citizens, which is what they need to succeed in the modern world. Additionally, a global education creates more conscientious students who have learned how to embrace differences and respectfully navigate a society filled with varying histories, ethnicities, and perspectives.

Finally, interacting with a global education curriculum prepares teachers and school administrators to create and enforce lesson plans, policies, and workshops that identify and acknowledge challenges faced by immigrant students. It creates a school-wide environment of open dialogue and support where teachers can learn how to best support immigrant students through their transition and development.

Ultimately, immigrant students not only deserve compassion and understanding from their education system, but also an education that values their culture and experience and recognizes their unique needs. Though global education is not a perfect model, it encourages cross-cultural collaboration, multi-ethnic learning environments, and skills to think critically about American society and international matters. If done with sensitivity, a more global, inclusive classroom can result in more empathetic and knowledgeable students and citizens.

  1. Judith A. Howard, “A Social Psychology of Identities,” Annual Review of Sociology 26 (2000): 367- 393.
  2. Sara Trechter and Mary Bucholtz, “White Noise: Bringing Language into Whiteness Studies.” Journal of Linguistic Anthropology 11, no. 1 (2001): 3 – 21.
  3. Jericka Duncan, Christopher Zawistowski, and Shannon Luibrand, “50 States, 50 Different Ways of Teaching America’s Past,” CBS, February 19, 2020.
  4. Duncan, Zawistowski, and Luibrand, “50 States, 50 Different Ways of Teaching America’s Past.”
  5. Duncan, Zawistowski, and Luibrand, “50 States, 50 Different Ways of Teaching America’s Past.”
  6. Stephen Sawchuk, “How History Class Divides Us,” Education Weekly, October 23, 2018.
  7. The State Education Department, “New York State K-8 Social Studies Framework,” New York: The University of the State of New York, Revised February 2017.
  8. Texas Education Agency, “Chapter 13: Texas Essential Knowledge and Skills for Social Studies, Subchapter A. Elementary, 19 Texas Administrative Code (TAC) Part II: Texas Education Agency, August 23, 2010.
  9. Merriam-Webster, s.v. “nationalism (n.),” accessed May 4, 2020.
  10. Sawchuk, “How History Class Divides Us.”
  11. Susan K. Brown and Frank D. Bean, “Assimilation Models, Old and New: Explaining a Long-Term Process,” Migration Policy Institute, October 1, 2006.
  12. Hiba Ali, “Even in a Diverse School, Assimilation can be a Formidable Force,” The Beachcomber, January 27, 2020.
  13. Mae Ngai, “The Liberal Critique and Reform of Immigration Policy,” Impossible Subjects: Illegal Aliens and the Making of Modern America – Updated Edition (Princeton University Press, 2004), 227 – 264.
  14. Ngai, “The Liberal Critique and Reform of Immigration Policy.”
  15. Rosanna Capalbo, “Global Education in Brief,”, The Levin Institute, Accessed May 4, 2020.
  16. Educator Resources on Immigration,” WeTeachNYC, NYC Department of Education, Accessed May 4, 2020.
  17. Teaching Central America,” Teaching Central America: A Project of Teaching for Change, Accessed May 4, 2020.
  18. Maria Anglin, “The History That Isn’t Taught is the History We Need to Learn,” San Antonio Express-News, last updated November 13, 2017.
  19. Anglin, “The History That Isn’t Taught is the History We Need to Learn.”
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