It’s wrong to blame immigrants for lowering schools’ performance

A closer look at what prevents kids from succeeding.
A closer look at what prevents kids from succeeding.
Image: Reuters/Fabrizio Bensch
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Immigrant children do not negatively affect school performance in their host country, a new OECD (pdf) report finds. But higher concentrations of disadvantaged students in schools hinders the achievement of both immigrants and non-immigrants.

The OECD, which runs the global PISA tests, examined migration between 2000 and 2012 and results from PISA tests taken in 2003 and 2012 (PISA tests 15-year-old students around the world in math, science and reading every three years; different children took the test in each year).

“Across OECD countries, there is no significant association between the share of immigrant students and student performance,” it concluded, weighing in on a heavily charged debate.

The report looked at how successfully, or not, countries had integrated their immigrant populations. Migrant students in France felt the most alienated, reporting the least “sense of belonging,” a sobering data point after the attacks on Paris last weekend, with Belguim close behind. Second-generation immigrants felt even more disenfranchised than those who just arrived. First-generation students in the United States and the UK felt a stronger sense of belonging than other students.

Amidst an unprecedented flux of migration and fears about pressure on social services, the report looks at how immigrant populations in different countries perform academically.

High concentrations of poor children lead to the worst performance, and many immigrants tend to be poor. Across OECD countries, kids who attend schools where more than 25% of students are immigrants score 18 points—about 6 months of schooling—lower in mathematics than those in schools with no immigrants. The largest differences between the two types of schools are observed in Belgium, Greece, and the Netherlands. “This difference reflects the fact that many immigrant students are socio-economically disadvantaged,” the report says.

When controlling for socio-economic differences, the disparity falls to 5 points, and loses statistical significance in most countries.

The report reveals the importance school systems can make in accelerating performance or hindering it. For example, on average, foreign-born students from Arabic-speaking countries who live in the Netherlands score 100 points higher in mathematics than those who settled in Qatar, after accounting for socio-economic status. In one decade, Germany reduced the share of underperforming immigrant students by 11 percentage points and improved the math performance of second-generation immigrant students by 46 points, the equivalent of one formal year of schooling.

The report concluded that immigrant students do better in countries with highly selective immigration policies but that performance is more strongly linked to the school systems they join than the education they had beforehand.

“These findings suggest that school systems play a large role in integrating immigrant students—and that some destination countries are better than others at nurturing the talents and abilities of students with different intellectual and cultural backgrounds,” it said.

The report recommend a series of policy interventions, including improving access to information for immigrant parents about schooling options and integrating migrant children into mainstream classes from the beginning of schooling with language classes on the side (rather than enrolling them in language classes first, and then mainstreaming them). The report also highlights the importance of  early childhood programs.

Andreas Schleicher, director of education and skills at the OECD, said many migrant families were “hugely motivated” to succeed in education and that the study showed there was nothing inevitable about the success or failure of migrant children.

“It’s a question of political will,” he said.