Immigrant Education: History Essay

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The United States of America is often referred to as a nation of immigrants; hence, it is difficult to separate immigrant education from mainstream American education. However, immigrant education is generally viewed as being the education of those whose native language is other than English and whose culture is other than North American. Thus, the education of immigrant children has always revolved around language education. This entry looks at how immigrant education evolved over the years and briefly touches on current issues.

Historical Timeline

As it became evident that the predominant language of the United States would be English, efforts began to coordinate educational efforts among the colonies. The noted educational historian Lawrence A. Cremin records an early instance of attempts at immigrant (English-language-based) education.

Early Years

A system of charity schools was established and financed with British and American money in 1755 with the purpose of anglicizing German immigrants. The effort was unsuccessful, however, resulting in increased resistance by the Germans, firm in their desire to maintain and perpetuate their own language and culture.

Early in the life of the young country, education was considered to be exclusively for religious purposes. As the nation settled into life as a country instead of a colony, education began to focus on citizenship and national loyalty. Nationalist and Nativist movements fostered this shift in focus. Such an educational focus was necessary not only for native-born citizens, but also for immigrants. Citizens and leaders alike feared large groups of immigrants who maintained their native habits; these were considered incompatible with American culture. Thus, it became the responsibility of the schools to Americanize the immigrant.

In the early years of the country, the push for universal education advanced by the Nationalism movement produced a “Republican education” in order to ensure that all citizens understood the concept of the republic. Included within this notion was the concept of education for patriotism, which demanded the universal indoctrination of American and republican values. Education was seen as the instrument for breaking ties with Europe (the origin of the majority of immigrants) and establishing loyalty to America and her institutions.

Because of efforts to teach American values in the public schools, multiple immigrant groups established their own private schools, with lessons taught in the native languages of these groups. In many areas of the country, these schools were recognized as offering levels of education above those offered by the public schools. American parents seeking a superior education for their children enrolled them in these schools, thus effecting a reverse immigration, at least in the matter of language.

Post–Civil War

Following the Civil War, it became the added responsibility of the public schools to teach the English language. For immigrant children, the schools provided the only opportunity to learn English, because they were surrounded at home and in their communities with their native languages. Along with instruction in English came instruction in American customs, values, dress, and traditions.

The Americanization movement of the early twentieth century (approximately 1914–1924) focused on Americanizing adult immigrants. Despite this intense focus on citizenship education, the education of immigrant children remained unchanged. The focus continued to be on teaching republican values and the English language, including cultural elements.

The majority of immigrants preceding World War I did not speak English and had little education; immigrant parents recognized the value of education and the opportunities it provided their children. Recognizing that the person with an education was the first to get employment, parents sacrificed everything to be sure their children could attend school. Once again, the school took on an additional purpose. In addition to fostering assimilation, the school provided opportunities to individuals for social and political advancement.

Key Court Rulings

Several legal rulings have directed the course of immigrant education. One important legal precedent defined just how far schools could go in Americanizing immigrant children. The Oregon case Pierce v. Society of Sisters sought to enforce school attendance in order to teach loyalty to America, the government, and American institutions. The U.S. Supreme Court, however, overturned the ruling, stating that children are not wards of the state and therefore could not be forced to attend school. Thus, private schools established by immigrant groups continued to thrive.

Several other rulings have affected the course of immigrant education, resulting in guarantees not only of equal education for all, but also, in recent years, of equal education in students’ native languages. The Fourteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution established the constitutional basis for the educational rights of language minority students. Following World War II, Brown v. Board of Education established the principle of equal educational opportunity for all students no matter what their racial or ethnic heritage.

The Title VI Civil Rights Act of 1964 further enforced Brown by prohibiting discrimination on the basis of race, ethnicity, religion, or national origin. It allows school districts to determine what is needed to support their locally designed plans to meet local, state, and national standards. The Title VII Bilingual Education Act (1968) was the first congressional effort to endorse appropriate and adequate education for students with limited English proficiency through federal funding. Further laws have been enacted on the state level in order to meet the specific needs of nonnative-speaking inhabitants.

Current Perspectives

At the beginning of the twenty-first century, data show that approximately 17 percent of the public school population is made up of immigrants or children of immigrants. Because of changes to immigration policy, these immigrant children now come from all over the world instead of only from European countries, as in previous centuries. Additionally, immigrant parents are more likely to have reached higher levels of education than their predecessors, which greatly influences the education they expect their children to receive. Of the myriad language groups represented, Spanish-speaking students are most likely to remain bilingual throughout their lifetimes, due in part to the large Spanish-speaking immigrant population, but also to the lack of education of many Spanish-speaking immigrant parents.

The current focus of immigrant education is on the acquisition of the English language while allowing students to retain fluency in their first languages (mostly for Spanish-speaking students). The focus of immigrant education has shifted from a balance between language teaching and the indoctrination in American and republican values to a singular focus on teaching the English language.


  1. Butts, R. F., & Cremin, L. A. (1953). A history of education in American culture. New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston.
  2. Cremin, L. A. (1961). The transformation of the school. New York: Knopf.
  3. Cremin, L. A. (1977). Traditions of American education. New York: Basic Books.
  4. Garcia, E. E. (2005). Teaching and learning in two languages. New York: Teachers College Press.

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