Helping Immigrant Teens "Think College"

October 29, 2010 - One of the barriers that immigrant children face when they enroll in U.S. schools is the “hidden curriculum,” or the unspoken norms and values that guide U.S. education and that teachers convey implicitly through their teaching styles and expectations. U.S.-born children are acculturated to these values from an early age. Many immigrants from other cultures, often from impoverished backgrounds, don’t know that they are being measured against a normative model of the successful middle-class American student — and found wanting. 

Associate Dean Stanton Wortham and his colleagues at Penn GSE — Katherine S. Mortimer and Elaine Allard — studied one high school’s attempt to help immigrant students conform to the model of a “university-bound student” by teaching them explicitly how such a person behaves. In weekly “Advocacy Sessions” with Spanish-speaking students, teachers extolled a university education as the only way to avoid a bleak, impoverished future, and described how students should act if they hoped to attend college — for example, setting aside time each day to study in a quiet place, doing community service, joining after-school clubs, and doing research to find financial aid opportunities. 

With few exceptions, this well-intentioned program was a failure. Though the students learned to recognize and appreciate the “university-bound” identity, neither they nor their teachers truly believed that such an identity was for them. For one thing, despite the Advocacy Sessions’ insistence that a university education is the only route to prosperity, many immigrant students and their families valued other measures of success: simply graduating from high school, for example, or working after school to help support their families rather than participating in extracurricular activities. For another, the Advocacy Session materials were unrealistically sanguine about the barriers immigrant children face if they hope to attend college: those who were undocumented were not eligible for need-based financial aid and had no other way to pay for a college education. Students and teachers alike recognized that these barriers were more formidable than the program materials made them out to be, making their responses to the program ambivalent. 

The root problem, Wortham and colleagues concluded, is that the advocacy program conceived of identity as static and homogeneous, and assumed that immigrant students could easily adopt the “university-bound” identity simply by learning to recognize its attributes. The researchers suggest basing future programs on more fluid notions of identity, helping students understand and navigate the tensions between their own cultural milieu and middle-class expectations. They also recommend frankly acknowledging the barriers to a university education and finding ways to help students overcome those barriers. 

“Helping Immigrants Identify as ‘University-Bound Students’: Unexpected Difficulties in Teaching the Hidden Curriculum” appears in Revista de Educación, 353 (September-December 2010).

Media contact: Jill DiSanto-Haines at 215-898-4820 or