Easing the learning journey for immigrant students

by Marilyn Achiron
Editor, Directorate for Education and Skills

Put yourself in their place: if you were new to a country and barely able to communicate in the local language, how do you think you’d do in school – particularly if you were living in a poor neighbourhood and attending a school with inadequate resources? It might come as a surprise to learn that, in some countries, immigrant students perform better in mathematics than their non-immigrant peers. Does that say more about the individual students or about the education systems in their host countries? 

Between 2003 and 2012, the percentage of students who were raised in immigrant families grew by around 3 percentage points across OECD countries. At the same time, as this month’s PISA in Focus notes, migration policies in some countries became increasingly selective while education outcomes in many countries of origin improved considerably. As a result, larger proportions of immigrant students are arriving in their host countries with better-educated parents. For example, in Ireland in 2003, more than 40% of immigrant students were raised by a mother who had not attained upper secondary education; by 2012, this was true of only 9% of immigrant students. 

Across OECD countries in 2003, non-immigrant students scored 47 points higher in mathematics (PISA 2012 Results) than immigrant students; by 2012, that performance difference had shrunk by around 10 score points. In Canada, Ireland and New Zealand, immigrant and non-immigrant students scored equally well in mathematics in 2012 while in Australia, Hungary and Macao-China, immigrants outscored non-immigrants. In Germany, the performance gap grew closer to the OECD average between 2003 and 2012, as the share of immigrant students performing below the baseline level of proficiency in mathematics decreased by 11 percentage points. 

These improvements in outcomes cannot be achieved by just shutting the door on all poor, less-educated immigrant families; and it would be a mistake to underestimate the talent and motivation of immigrant students from disadvantaged families. PISA data show that in Australia, Israel and the United States, the share of disadvantaged students performing in the top quarter of all PISA students is larger among immigrants than among non-immigrants (PISA 2012 Results, Volume II). And the performance gap in mathematics related to immigrant background shrinks by less than half after accounting for differences in socio-economic status (from 37 to 23 score points across OECD countries with data for 2003 and 2012). In other words, many students manage to overcome the double disadvantage of poverty and an immigrant background and do well in school – and beyond. Of course, not all poor immigrants will become Nobel Prize laureates like Mario Capecchi or Daniel Tsui; and  few people win Nobel Prizes. But if immigrant students cannot fulfill their potential, then everybody loses.

The key to unleashing the potential of all immigrant students is to reduce the disadvantages that usually make it harder for immigrant students to succeed at school. The crunch point is not the point of entry, but the myriad points thereafter, when educators and school systems decide whether or not to offer programmes specifically designed to help immigrant students succeed. Put yourself in their place…

Photo Credit: Multiracial Group of Friends with Hands in Stack, Teamwork @Shutterstock


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