Classroom Dynamics

Professor of Sociology Grace Kao studies the immigrant experience and its effect on educational outcomes.
May 1, 2013

Study hard and you’ll succeed—seems simple enough. When viewed through the eyes of a sociologist, however, it’s a gross simplification. “As a country of immigrants, each child in the American school system faces a unique set of challenges, defined by their parents, their acclimation, and their resources, all of which help to define their educational outcome,” says Professor of Sociology, Education, and Asian American Studies Grace Kao. As a quantitative sociologist studying the immigrant experience and its effect on education, Kao relies on hard numbers to evaluate patterns that play out in the classroom. And now she has literally written the book on it.

“I was approached by a publisher to write a textbook of sorts on my research. As someone who mainly works with large subsets of data, it was rewarding to have the opportunity to transfer that knowledge into a teachable text,” says Kao, who co-authored Education and Immigration with Elizabeth Vaquera, Assistant Professor of Sociology at the University of South Florida, and Kimberly Goyette, Associate Professor of Sociology at Temple University. “We reinforced the research with cultural examples. Vito Corleone, ‘The Godfather’ himself, came off the ship penniless and uneducated—it’s a story kids can relate to.”

Kao draws from a career of trailblazing research that began with a paper she wrote while she was a postgrad. “Optimism and Achievement” has since become the most widely cited article in the history of Social Science Quarterly. The article, which helped define Kao’s subsequent work, compared first, second, and third generation individuals within racial groups and across racial groups to determine their socioeconomic mobility over time.

“What I found early on was that the first generation kids and, especially, second generation kids do exceptionally well,” says Kao. “I refer to this as ‘immigrant optimism’—the idea that when you first come to the United States, you are wide-eyed and eager to succeed, which translates to a positive outcome. But this changes over time.” Kao used this foundation in generational study to transition to the comprehensive study of students and their personal history’s impact on their education and socialization. Harnessing a dataset that involved a survey of 90,000 students, she analyzed patterns of success, as well as interracial and interethnic relationships between youths.

Educational outcomes varied widely among racial groups. White children in immigrant families tended to perform better than whites in non-immigrant families, with the same being true for Asian and African-American students. Non-immigrant Hispanics, however, tended to be more successful in school than immigrant Hispanics, likely impacted by mitigating factors like English proficiency. “There are so many variables that contribute. The ability to study these massive datasets allows us to begin to understand the dynamics,” says Kao.

In order to study interracial friendships, which ultimately affect confidence and learning ability, Kao and her fellow researchers combed through surveys that asked students to identify their five best friends, not by ethnicity, but merely by name. “In the popular press I think there’s a lot of discussion that children at schools tend to segregate themselves based on racial groups,” says Kao. “And to some extent that’s true. But really the biggest effect was going to diverse schools. It had a huge effect in terms of the likelihood of you having different-race friends, and dating different-race people.”

One aspect of the surveys they studied was reciprocity. Minority males tended to nominate fewer friends, and were less likely to be listed. And if they nominated friends, they were the least likely to get the nomination back. “Clearly there are challenges, and some of the results are depressing. But the important thing to remember, whether you’re talking about friendships or education, is that people are coming to this country with such different resources, they’re going to have different outcomes—no matter what. That’s not easy to teach to kids. But by better understanding the numbers, it provides a clearer view of how we might help these young students.”