• by Abelardo Villarreal, Ph.D. and Anita Tijerina Revilla, M.A. • IDRA Newsletter • February 1998 • Dr. Abelardo Villarreal

Migrant students are perhaps the most educationally disenfranchised group of students in our schooling system. They are highly mobile and have diverse linguistic backgrounds, which pose challenges that our educational system is minimally prepared to address.

Schools must adapt the delivery of educational services to ensure that migrant students meet graduation requirements. This adaptation must not compromise the quality of education migrant students receive, and it must not limit opportunities for migrant students to continue their education beyond high school.

Many migrant students who graduate from high school do so through a General Education Development (GED) program. While a GED is often thought to be equivalent to a high school diploma, many college admission committees and employers consider it meaningless. Educators are responsible for ensuring that more migrant students meet graduation requirements and are awarded a diploma. Furthermore, for limited-English-proficient (LEP) migrant students, instruction in English must reflect the adequate use of English as a second language (ESL) techniques.

Migrant students’ families seek economic survival in unskilled laboring, and they are forced to accept employment that requires constant travel and unsteady living conditions. A child should not suffer educationally because of the economic situation of his or her family. In fact, national leaders affirmed this in the objectives of Goals 2000 by charging the nation to strive for higher educational standards for all students, including migrant students. High standards are essential elements of quality education that are not offered to many migrant students, and such standards are necessary for high academic performance to occur schoolwide.

Texas has the second largest migrant student population in the nation with 115,000 migrant students. A large percentage of these students’ families are agricultural workers. According to the Texas Education Agency (TEA) migrant education office, 98 percent of all migrant students are Hispanic, and between 30 percent and 40 percent are LEP.

The condition of education for migrant students in Texas is dismal. They are a subgroup of the LEP student population that performs considerably below the state average in the Texas Assessment of Academic Skills (TAAS) test. The table on Page 2 provides a comparison of the academic performance of student groups and the state average.

While TEA reports that the dropout rate of migrant students in Texas in the 1995-96 school year was only 2.2 percent for students from seventh to 12th grade, this figure is misleading. It is an annual percentage, not a longitudinal percentage, which means that it only measures whether or not a student completes one academic year instead of measuring how many students continue school into the next grade. It does not account for the hundreds of migrant students who leave school before reaching the seventh grade. Furthermore, this figure does not differentiate between students who receive a high school diploma and those who receive a GED.

TEA is currently conducting a study to determine the number of times migrant students are retained in one or more grades compared to other students. There are definite indications that the retention rate is much higher among migrant students.

States with migrant student populations receive federal funds to comply with the Improving America’s Schools Act. Title I of the act requires schools to supplement state and local funds to improve educational opportunities for migrant students to enable them to meet the state’s challenging content and performance standards. States are required to provide high quality instruction that meets the needs of all students. Federal grant money is further used to ensure that the same high expectations are held of migrant students and of non-migrant students.

Texas receives about $43 million, which is distributed to local education agencies for supplemental services to migrant students.

The U.S. Department of Education has created a network of comprehensive regional assistance centers to deliver technical assistance and training services to state, regional and local education agencies. Among the areas of focus is the education of migrant students. The comprehensive regional assistance center in Texas, the STAR Center, is a collaboration of the Intercultural Development Research Association, the Charles A. Dana Center at the University of Texas at Austin, and RMC Research Corporation in Denver. The STAR Center also works collaboratively with the Education Service Center in Region I in Edinburg, Texas, to provide technical assistance in migrant education.

Through this collaboration, the STAR Center has created a resource guide for high school administrators who design strategies to make a high school education accessible to migrant students. The guide is also designed for counselors who advise migrant students through a myriad of educational requirements that sometimes are in conflict with the migrant lifestyle. This resource guide, GEMS: Graduation Enhancement for Migrant Students, addresses several essential areas, including counseling, leadership development, student entry and withdrawal from schools, ESL instruction, personal growth, and recovery programs (see Page 4). The guide was developed with the help of counselors and administrators who have extensive experience in making quality education accessible to migrant students (STAR Center, 1997).

The guide assists schools in re-examining policies that are barriers to educational access for migrant students to allow for alternative ways of meeting graduation requirements. To meet the Texas state standards of the Academic Excellence Indicator System, schools should do the following:

  • Ensure the availability of courses needed for graduation to accommodate late entry and early withdrawal.
  • Provide credit consolidation for partial credits and incomplete course work.
  • Maintain dropout recovery activities and adult basic education intervention through non-district agencies, such as community colleges and non-profit organizations.
  • Support intrastate and interstate coordination with teachers, counselors and registrars.
  • Supply adequate opportunities for migrant students to participate in extracurricular activities such as sports, student organizations and leadership conferences.
  • Provide TAAS administration out-of-state or elsewhere in Texas for cases of students’ early withdrawal from their home districts.
  • Allow the completion of course work by correspondence or distance learning, such as through the University of Texas at Austin Migrant Program or Project SMART.

Another barrier to migrant students’ access to quality instructional programs occurs when schools fail to integrate migrant students’ cultural and experiential richness associated with the mobile lifestyle of a migrant population. Migrant students are often not viewed as valuable resources. However, teachers and schools that integrate students’ culture and rich array of experiences into the curriculum find it beneficial to all students. A curriculum that acknowledges all members of a school community serves to create a more complete and realistic educational experience for all students.

Other reasons for low performance among migrant students include the following (McCollum and García, 1996).

  • School personnel with no training or preparation to meet the specific needs of migrant students.
  • Lack of support for migrant students’ smooth transitions from school to school.
  • Lack of effective assessment tools for testing migrant students.
  • Few programs that develop skills to prepare migrant students for options beyond high school.
  • Lack of financial resources and support for schoolwide changes.

A high percent of migrant students are from families whose first language is a language other than English. Oralia Rios, an administrator for the La Joya Independent School District (ISD) in Texas, provides a framework for aligning instruction with the English language proficiency levels of secondary migrant students in the STAR Center’s GEMS resource guide. According to Rios, the following teaching strategies have been successful with migrant secondary students (STAR Center, 1997).

  • Discovery Learning: Students are provided academic materials and learn the content through a discovery approach.
  • Problem-solving: Students are given a situation, and they learn about the issues as they solve a problem.
  • Cooperative Learning: Students work together in small groups to achieve an academic skill or accomplish an academic task collaboratively.
  • Product Generalization: Students research a topic and produce an outcome as a result of the learning experience.
  • Interactive Learning: Students participate in the learning process by doing rather than listening and seeing.
  • Hands-on Activities: Students manipulate objects and materials in the learning process.
  • Graphic Organizers: Students use charts and graphics to understand text structures and analyze narratives for plot, character, setting, etc.

The Second Language Acquisition Strategies and Activities for Foreign-Born Students table below this article provides an ESL framework that details necessary strategies at three different levels: beginning, intermediate and advanced. At each level, students acquire specific language skills. This framework has been used to assess the degree to which content area instruction is addressing the needs of migrant students.

The GEMS resource guide encourages administrators to implement counseling programs to assist migrant students with the transition from one school to another and to develop the students’ personal growth. The guide states, “Personally, students need to feel worthy and successful in what they do with their lives. A good self-esteem is the foundation for success” (STAR Center, 1997).

The nation cannot continue to allow migrant students to be short-changed in schools while President Clinton and educational leaders are calling for higher standards in education for all students. Migrant students have the right to receive an excellent education. Although there are exceptions where some GED graduates have continued their education at the university level, GED programs should not be seen by schools and education agencies as an acceptable alternative to graduating from high school with a diploma.

There are support services and programs that schools can actively pursue to adopt and implement. But first, administrators, teachers and community members must all decide to make education work for all children, including migrant students.

Texas Assessment of Academic Skills (TAAS)
Grade 10 Exit Level B Students in Texas Meeting Minimum Expectations (Passing) By Subject Area, Spring 1997

Data Variable
Number Tested
Percent Met Minimum Expectations:
All Tests Taken
Percent Met Minimum Expectations:
Percent Met Minimum Expectations:
Texas 210,095 67% 86% 72%
Migrant 4,735 44% 67% 54%
African American 26,830 48% 78% 53%
Hispanic 68,160 52% 75% 59%
White 107,472 81% 94% 84%
Low socio-economic status 62,340 50% 74% 57%
Source: Texas Education Agency, Texas Assessment of Academic Skills, Spring 1997.

Second Language Acquisition Strategies and Activities for Foreign-Born Students

Beginning Level
Intermediate Level
Advanced Level
Cooperative Groups
Concretes, Manipulatives and Visuals
  • Total physical response
  • Non-verbal role play
  • Rhymes, chants, songs, games
  • Hands-on projects
  • Read aloud (repetitive, predictable, stories, patterned language)
  • Choral and echo reading
  • Pre-recorded stories
  • Author’s chair (pictures)
  • Flannel board stories
  • Environmental labels
  • Word banks
  • Language experience approach
  • Cloze activities
  • Think-pair-share
  • Silent reading
  • Role play (verbal)
  • Reading, writing, reciting poetry
  • Group discussions
  • Retelling stories
  • Process writing
  • Dialogue journals
  • Quick writes
  • Graphic organizers
  • Summarizing
  • Compare and contrast stories and authors
  • Easy reading and writing
  • Evaluating
  • Predicting outcomes
  • Supporting
  • Analyzing charts and graphs
Students are asked to:

  • Point
  • Choose
  • Draw
  • Act out
  • Match
  • Label
  • Select
  • Name
  • Circle
  • List
  • State
Students are asked to:

  • Recall
  • Compare
  • Retell
  • Contrast
  • Define
  • Summarize
  • Describe
  • Restate
Students are asked to:

  • Analyze
  • Evaluate
  • Create
  • Justify
  • Defend
  • Support
  • Debate
  • Explain
Source: STAR Center. GEMS: Graduation Enhancement for Migrant Students (San Antonio, Texas: Intercultural Development Research Association, 1997).


McCollum, P. and J. García. “Immigrant Education from the Administrator’s Perspective,” IDRA Newsletter (San Antonio, Texas: Intercultural Development Research Association, May 1996).

STAR Center. GEMS: Graduation Enhancement for Migrant Students (San Antonio, Texas: Intercultural Development Research Association, 1997).

Abelardo Villarreal, Ph.D., is the division director of IDRA Division of Professional Development. Anita Tijerina Revilla, M.A., is an education assistant in the IDRA Division of Professional Development. Comments and question may be sent to them via e-mail at feedback@idra.org.

[©1998, IDRA. This article originally appeared in the February 1998 IDRA Newsletter by the Intercultural Development Research Association. Permission to reproduce this article is granted provided the article is reprinted in its entirety and proper credit is given to IDRA and the author.]