Cultural Incongruence Between Teachers and Families: Implications for Immigrant Students

Selcuk R. Sirin, Patrice Ryce

Research output: Chapter in Book/Report/Conference proceedingChapter


More than half of the foreign-born population live in California, New York, and Texas (Hernandez et al., this volume), where school systems are presumably accustomed to serving immigrant students. However, what is unique about the most recent wave of immigration that started in 1990s is that cities and states that have not traditionally experienced large immigrant populations have recently encountered large influxes of new immigrants. For example, between 1990 and 2000, the number of foreign-born residents increased by 88% in the south and 65% in the Midwest (Malone, Baluja, Costanzo, & Davis, 2003). The entrance of large numbers of children of immigrants into the nation’s schools has created an immediate need for schools to address the educational, social, and psychological needs of these children and their families. While some of the historical immigrant destination cities may have school systems that are familiar with the specific issues that stem from serving immigrant students, the newly settled communities may not yet have systems in place to accommodate the special needs of children of immigrants and their parents. As the number of children of immigrants is expected to grow even higher in the next several decades, school districts across the country face the double challenge of finding teachers who are trained to successfully teach an increasingly diverse student population and an anticipated shortage of teachers in the next decade. As the numbers of immigrants and the places where they settle diversify, the topic of immigration and its implications for schooling has also become an important aspect of the American public discourse. While the US is the quintessential immigrant nation where an overwhelming proportion of the population can trace back their ancestry to somewhere outside North America, new waves of immigration almost invariably provoke anti-immigrant feelings. Some worry that immigrants will “take over” and threaten the American way of life (Suárez-Orozco & Suárez-Orozco, 2001). For others, immigrants’ desire to hold on to their culture and language is perceived as a threat to the union (Huntington, 2004). As a result, American history is full of periods when the mainstream public threatened the health and well-being of immigrants, either due to the zeitgeist of the historical period or based on the public’s negative perceptions of certain immigrant groups. Currently, we are in yet another cycle of growing anti-immigrant sentiments. According to a June 2007 national poll, 45% of respondents believed that the amount of immigration into the US should be decreased from its current level and 35% stated that immigration was a “bad thing” for the US today. In the same poll, 58% thought that immigration was making the crime situation in the US worse, 34% thought that immigration was making the job situation worse for themselves and their family, 46% thought that immigration was making the economy in general worse, and 55% thought that immigration was making taxes worse (Gallup, 2007). These negative perceptions are not likely to go away as several political figures and public intellectuals seem to exploit economic and cultural anxieties of the American public. This creates increasingly negative perceptions of immigration and immigrants, which are likely to have long-term consequences for the children of immigrants who start schools in the US. A specific group of immigrants who currently go through public scrutiny is the immigrants who come from Muslim countries. Relatively comfortable in the middleand upper-middle-class fraction of urban and suburban life, Muslims prior to the 9/11 attacks had the social capital to belong to the mainstream US culture (Deaux, 2006). Citizenship rates, educational degree, and income brackets indicate that Muslim immigrants were, if provisionally, part of the upwardly mobile middle-class American society. However, after the terrorist attacks of 9/11, mainstream US society took notice of this particular group of immigrants and pronounced anti-Muslim sentiment became commonplace. Before 9/11, 80% of Americans agreed that racial profiling was wrong. However, after 9/11, 60% favored racial profiling “at least as long as it was directed at Arabs and Muslims” (Maira, 2004, p. 3). Over 30% of Americans thought we should intern Arab Americans after 9/11 (see Swiney, 2006, for a general review). Another national opinion poll indicated that 46% of adults in the US agreed that “it is OK to detain Muslims indefinitely to protect ‘us’ " (Deane & Fears, 2006). These pronounced anti-Muslim sentiments in the American public raises the issue of how children of these immigrant groups fare in schools surrounded by teachers, administrators, and families who may echo some of these very opinions. In the next section, we will discuss how cultural differences between immigrant families and their schools, and between teachers and parents, can affect the academic and psychological well-being of immigrant students. This issue is of particular concern for those who come from stigmatized groups, such as Muslims in post-9/11 US.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Title of host publicationImmigration, Diversity, and Education
PublisherTaylor and Francis
Number of pages19
ISBN (Electronic)9781135213596
ISBN (Print)9780415456272
StatePublished - Jan 1 2009

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • General Social Sciences


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