International Reads: Educational Attainment Among Immigrant Students

OECD Education Working Papers. (2012), “Immigrant Status and Secondary School Performance as Determinants of Post-Secondary Participation: A Comparison of Canada and Switzerland.”
Here’s a puzzle:  First- and second-generation students in Canada are both 18 percent more likely than students with domestic backgrounds to continue on to the post-secondary level.  While in Switzerland, first-generation students are 14 percent less likely than domestic born students to continue on to the post-secondary level and second-generation students are 5 percent less likely.

The authors of an OECD paper on Immigrant Status and Secondary School Performance as Determinants of Post-Secondary Participation set out to find out what accounts for the difference in education attainment among immigrants in these two countries.

Up to 50 percent of the participation gap between immigrant students in Canada and Switzerland can be accounted for by immigration policies in those countries.  Canada has what the OECD calls a “highly managed” immigration system.  This form of managed immigration is designed to attract highly skilled and educated immigrants, many from Asian countries.  Because these immigrants are highly educated, they have high aspirations for their children’s education and they can provide their children with an environment that is very conducive to high student achievement.

Switzerland’s immigration system is a different story.  Prior to the early 2000s, people immigrating to Switzerland tended to be lower-skilled workers from developing countries.  Although this has changed somewhat in the last decade due to the European Union’s free movement of labor (with an increasing number of highly skilled immigrants arriving from places like France and Germany), it means that Canada and Switzerland have very different immigrant populations, particularly with regard to socioeconomic status and education backgrounds.

But what accounts for the other 50 percent of the difference in attainment?  Another major contribution is the design of the education system itself.  Our own benchmarking tells us that Swiss students are tracked at a very early age, starting at the sixth or seventh grade, into roughly three steams: an upper school track with demanding courses targeted at university attendance, an intermediate track and a third track offering very basic courses.  Only three percent of students from the basic track enter post-secondary education by age 23 compared to 30 percent of those in the upper track.  Students with a migrant background are overrepresented in the lower tracks, which impacts their later opportunities.  After compulsory education, students move to upper-secondary school, which is also very heavily segmented and affects students’ opportunities to attend university.  Canadian immigrant students attend comprehensive high schools where tracking is largely avoided, and immigrants who need to learn English are provided with early opportunities to learn the native language at all levels of the system.

So not only do Swiss migrant children tend to come from lower-income, lower skilled and less educated families, but those children are shunted early on into ability tracks where expectations for their performance are lower and they are given a less challenging curriculum.  It is hardly surprising that they do not do as well as the average Swiss youngster and do not progress as far with their formal education.

Canadian immigrant children, on the other hand, tend to come from well-educated, higher income families with above average expectations for their children and more cultural resources to offer them as they are growing up.  These kids are in classrooms where the expectations for all children are high and the curriculum is challenging.  Given all this, and the presence in the midst of a large proportion of children from Asian families in which the drive for school achievement and the willingness to work very hard in school is especially high, it is not surprising that the children of Canadian immigrant families do even better than the average Canadian student.  You can think of this analysis as a four-cell matrix, one dimension of which is immigration policy and the other dimension of which is school structure.  The high attainment cell is the one marked “Immigration policy favors high skill immigrants/education policy favors high expectations for all students and provides support for all students to achieve at high levels.”

One last thing of note about the design of the Swiss education system compared to the Canadian system:  the Swiss streaming system makes it possible for students to leave education at the end of secondary school and have fairly favorable job market prospects.  In Canada, this is not the case.  Students generally need some postsecondary education in order to acquire skills that will serve them well in the workforce.  So this last item also contributes to the lower participation rate in post-secondary education in Switzerland.

Attainment, of course, is not everything.  Switzerland has one of the world’s most successful vocational and technical education systems, and that system is the one that recruits from the students in the lower streams.  So, as always, it is most important for a country to think carefully about what it wants from its education system.  But, whatever a country’s goals are, this report raises questions for other countries about both immigration policy and school structure that are very important.

OECD. (June 2012), “Are Large Cities Educational Assets or Liabilities?”
Inner-city school students perform differently depending on the country context.  In most OECD member countries, students in large urban areas (defined as cities with over one million inhabitants) outperform students in rural areas by the equivalent of more than one year of education, according the latest PISA in Focus.  In fact, students in urban areas in countries such as Portugal and Israel, countries that typically perform around the OECD average, perform on par with students in Singapore.  And students in Poland’s big cities compare favorably with students in Hong Kong.

However in Belgium, Slovenia, the United Kingdom, and the United States, the performance of students in large urban areas drags down overall country scores.
The OECD suggests this might be because students in these countries do not have the advantages associated with students living in large urban centers in other countries.  Instead, students living in cities in these countries must deal with high poverty, language barriers, or lack of a two-parent support system.

The study goes on to say that countries succeeding in educating their urban students to high levels should be focused on educating non-urban students to the same high standards.  Countries whose urban students underperform should use big cities’ advantages such as a richer cultural environment and more attractive professional workplaces to recruit better quality teachers.  They should also determine how students can tap into other advantages such as increased school choice and a wider variety of job prospects.

New report from the New Zealand Council for Educational Research

New Zealand Council for Educational Research. (June 2012). “Supporting future-oriented learning and teaching  a New Zealand perspective.”
Education systems must be built around the learner instead of the learner being required to fit into the system, according to a new report commissioned by the New Zealand Ministry of Education.  Supporting future-oriented learning and teacher  a New Zealand perspective, prepared by researchers at the New Zealand Council for Educational Research, identifies six emerging principles for future learning as well as describing how these principles are currently expressed in New Zealand educational thinking and practice.

The report challenges educators to use current resources for learning (time, teachers, technology, etc.) and new resources to customize students’ learning experiences.  The report recognizes diversity as a strength for a future-oriented learning system, something to be actively fostered.  In order to cultivate 21st century skills, citizens need to be educated to understand diversity and possess the ability to work with people from various cultural, religious and linguistic backgrounds as well the ability to think between, outside, and beyond past paradigms.  Thirdly, the Council emphasizes a shift from student learning focused on acquiring knowledge to student learning focused on developing capabilities to work with knowledge.  The authors write, “From this point of view, disciplinary knowledge should be seen, not as an end in itself, but as a context within which students’ learning capacity can be developed.”  A fourth key principle identified in the report is rethinking the traditional roles or “scripts” followed by learners and teachers.  If the goal of schooling is no longer to just transmit knowledge, then educators must be cognizant of how their roles should be re-envisioned to best support every learner’s potential. The report prioritizes a culture of continuous learning for teachers and educational leaders and an education system that is designed to incorporate what is known about adult learning and cognitive development.  Lastly, the report authors recommend building a wider school community that takes advantage of new kinds of partnerships and relationships.  Students must not only learn from their teachers but from other people, with specific kinds of expertise, knowledge or access to learning opportunities that exist in real-world context.

Ben Jensen, School Education Program Director for Australia’s Grattan Institute

Jensen, Ben. “Pupil power: time to ditch teacher bonuses and focus on student learning,” The Conversation, May 17 2012.
Ben Jensen, School Education Program Director for Australia’s Grattan Institute, author of the recent Catching up: learning from the best school systems in East Asia, and recent CIEB interviewee, recently published an opinion piece in The Conversation about teacher bonuses.  Jensen argues that teacher bonuses are the wrong way forward in education reform.  Jensen contends that because teacher bonuses are so often dependent on student test scores, and test scores are only a partial and often unreliable measure of teachers’ work, bonuses are not based on what truly identifies an effective teacher.  In addition, Jensen contents that newer and more data-driven measures of teacher effectiveness like those currently being promoted by policymakers in the United States such as value-added measures are also problematic, because they do not identify the “practices that most increase student learning”.  To that end, the Grattan Institute produced a report in 2011 outlining how teacher appraisal could be approached.  They recommend using at least four of the following methods, all of which provide feedback on student learning, to assess how well a teacher is performing: peer observation and collaboration; 360-degree assessment; parent surveys; student performance and assessments; direct observation of classroom teaching and learning; student surveys; external observation; and self-assessment.  It is not just teacher evaluations that focus too much on the teacher and not enough on student learning, Jensen argues.  Teacher education, professional development, and debates around teaching career structures are all guilty of the same misdirected attention.  In his article, Jensen note that, “in most examples of teacher bonus reforms around the world, the impact on students has been negligible, and in some cases the negative impact on teachers has negatively affected school improvements.”  He goes on to say that, “Singapore is the only high-performing country that still uses a teacher bonus scheme, but the bonuses are a single component of what has been broader school reform.”