5. Reduce the concentration of disadvantaged youth with immigrant parents

Youth with migrant parents are often concentrated in certain neighbourhoods and schools. Evidence on the impact of concentration of youth with migrant parents in schools is not clear-cut. The literature for the United States and Europe suggests that this concentration hinders the school performance of other youth with migrant parents. However, such concentration seems to have little to no impact on youth with native-born parents (Schneeweis, 2015[45]). A key variable in this context is not the migrant status in itself, but the large share of youth who come from socio-economically disadvantaged households and the resulting concentration of disadvantage in schools.

The concentration of disadvantaged youth with immigrant parents in schools is a particular challenge in European OECD countries, where significant shares of the immigrant population lack basic qualifications. For instance, in France, Germany, Greece and Belgium, students with migrant parents in schools with a high concentration of students with migrant parents perform around 40 points lower in mean PISA scores than their peers in low-concentration schools – the equivalent of one year of schooling (OECD, 2017[3]); in some countries the gap is even significantly larger. However, this gap largely disappears when the socio-economic background of their parents is taken into consideration. An example is Denmark, where the performance of youth almost evens out once these characteristics are controlled for (Beuchert, Christensen and Jensen, 2020[46]). In practice, however, it is difficult to disentangle the two, as migrant families often account for a disproportionate share of the most disfavoured. By contrast, in Australia and Canada, where immigrants are overrepresented among the highly educated, children – whether with immigrant or native-born parents – perform better when they find themselves in a school with many children of immigrants.

OECD-wide, almost three in four 15-year-old students with migrant parents go to schools where at least a quarter of their classmates also have migrant parents, and more than one in five where over three-quarters do. Such concentration can be detrimental if – and only if – coupled with low education background of the parents (OECD/EU, 2018[1]).

Policy efforts to address the problems associated with a concentration of children of immigrants from disadvantaged socio-economic backgrounds in the same schools can broadly cluster into two approaches:

  • preventing the concentration of disadvantaged youth with migrant parents in the same schools

  • mitigating the negative consequences of such concentration, including through additional funding and teaching support

Policy attempts to prevent concentration can take various forms. Some countries have established mechanisms to allocate students equitably across different schools. For example, countries can design school areas in such a way that they include a heterogeneous mix of more and less affluent neighbourhoods. Another approach is to transfer students between schools if the concentration of specific socio-economic characteristics becomes too high. Policies can also influence (enhance or limit) the possibility for parental school choices.

In the municipality of Aarhus, Denmark’s second-largest city, all bilingual pupils about to enrol in school are required to take a Danish language test. If they test below a predetermined threshold they lose their free school choice and the municipality assigns them to a school. If the school lies outside the student`s school district, local authorities provide free bus services between home and school. A recent evaluation of this policy finds that this forced form of busing has a negative effect on the academic performance and well-being of bilingual pupils (Damm et al., 2020[47]). Italy also aims to achieve a balanced distribution of foreign-born students across schools and classes through agreements between schools, the formation of school networks and co-operation with local authorities. Schools and classes where more than 30% of students do not speak Italian are identified as targets of intervention. However, meeting or exceeding this target level does not result in an automatic intervention.

Limits to the extent to which popular, oversubscribed schools can select students based on performance or socio-economic status is another way to ensure an equitable distribution of students across schools. One way to do so is to make school choice plans subject to simple lotteries (Godwin et al., 2006[48]). Another way is to provide financial incentives for oversubscribed schools to accept students with migrant parents. For example, several countries allocate funding, amongst others, based on the socio-economic characteristics of the school’s student population.

The success of such measures partly depends on the degree of discretion that public authorities have over parental decision-making (OECD, 2010[5]). Immigrant parents may find it difficult to enrol their children in the most appropriate school due to language barriers, resource constraints, lower levels of education or lack of knowledge of the country’s school system. In a system with free choice, the issue of concentration should hence also be addressed by raising awareness among immigrant parents and enhancing their access to information about the educational choices available. An example is the city of Rotterdam in the Netherlands, which organises bus tours for parents to visit local schools and discuss enrolment options (Brunello and De Paola, 2017[49]).

In Denmark, the city of Copenhagen has made attempts to encourage immigrant parents to choose a school with a predominant student population without children of immigrants. Participating schools provided specific preparation and training for teachers and provide for an integration specialist or a translator with a migration experience. The same approach has also been tried vice-versa, namely encouraging non-immigrant parents to send their children to schools with many students who have migrant parents. Copenhagen, for example, not only targeted migrant parents but simultaneously initiated publicity campaigns and collaborations with kindergartens in order to convince native-born Danes to enrol their children in local schools with a significant immigrant population. A similar example is the project ‘School in zicht’ in the Flemish part of Belgium, which motivates native-born parents to enrol their children in local schools with a high concentration of migrant students.

Mitigating negative impacts of concentration of disadvantaged students on students’ learning is an important focus. OECD countries have taken different steps to improve the learning environment and the quality of education in schools where the concentration of disadvantage is already above the national average. Such steps may include allocating additional funding or supplementary teaching staff, attracting qualified teachers to schools in need, and qualifying teachers to better respond to the needs of students with migrant parents.

Many countries provide additional government funding and resources to schools with a high share of students from low-educated or immigrant families. Depending on the country, such financing may be only available for specific purposes such as language training or reception classes or freely attributable according to each school’s needs.

In Switzerland, schools in the Canton of Zurich receive professional support and funding of around EUR 34 000 per year if more than 40% of their students are foreign nationals (excluding Germans and Austrians) or speak another language at home than one of the official Swiss languages. The funds are allocated in the framework of an obligatory area-wide model of quality assurance entitled ‘Quality in multicultural schools-QUIMS`. The scheme aims to raise the quality of schools with large shares of students with migrant parents (OECD, 2018[2]). An evaluation suggested that the scheme improved the writing proficiency of students across all grade levels and positive outcomes in reading ability and transition to secondary education and vocational training. However, QUIMS schools still underperform compared with other schools in both respects (Roos, 2017[50]; Canton of Zurich, 2017[51]).

New Zealand allocates funding to schools for additional initiatives to meet the needs of students whose parents are refugees. Such financial support includes bilingual tutors in mainstream class programmes as well as education co-ordinators and liaison workers to assist schools in making contact with families and communities, and supporting refugee homework centres. Funding can also target specific projects rather than schools. In Austria, the nation-wide “Lerncafe” project offers free tutoring, homework support and afternoon care programme for 6 to 14-year-old children from a disadvantaged background, of which the vast majority have migrant parents. In 2016/2017, 95% of the participating children completed the school year successfully. Evidence on the previously described busing policy in Aarhus, Denmark, suggests that school resources can more than compensate for potential negative peer effects in schools with high concentration of youth with migrant parents (Damm et al., 2020[47]). Teachers are the most important resource of schools and ensuring high-quality education in disadvantaged schools requires the best teachers. Teaching staff can make a difference in the learning and life outcomes of otherwise similar students. Yet, disadvantaged schools often struggle to attract and retain the best prepared and experienced teachers (OECD, 2018[52]; Hanushek, Rivkin and Schiman, 2016[53]). Several OECD countries introduced incentives such as higher salaries or more attractive working conditions, to attract and keep qualified teachers at schools serving disadvantaged students. The evidence on the effectiveness of such schemes is mixed. Evaluations of a bonus scheme in France in the early 2000s found that boni had no effect on turnover rates and attracted mostly inexperienced teachers (Bénabou, Kramarz and Prost, 2009[54]). In contrast, evidence from the United States suggests that higher salaries increased teacher mobility. However, the research also finds that teacher mobility is much more strongly related to student achievement and ethnic background (Hanushek, Kain and Rivkin, 2001[55]). Yet, if salary increases are substantial, they can make a larger difference. In North Carolina (United States), a USD 1 800 retention bonus for certified teachers who work in disadvantaged schools reduced teacher turnover by 17%. Retention of teachers results in savings of roughly USD 36 000 per teacher who did not move schools (OECD, 2012[56]). Korea, too, attracts teachers into disadvantaged schools through additional salary. Besides, smaller class size, less instructional time, extra credit towards future promotion and the ability to choose the next school where one works play a role. Evidence suggests that disadvantaged students in Korea are more likely than advantaged students to be taught by high-quality mathematics teachers (Schleicher, 2014[57]).

Financial and other incentives are only effective if teachers are competent to work with immigrant students from disadvantaged backgrounds. Results from the OECD’s Teaching and Learning International Survey (TALIS) indicate a need for professional development in this area (OECD, 2015[17]). While teacher training usually addresses topics associated with teaching in a multicultural setting, there is rarely a coherent and systematic curriculum for this. A country that has made efforts to change this is the United Kingdom. In 2004, the Department for Children, Schools and Families introduced a professional development programme to increase primary teachers’ confidence and expertise to meet the needs of bilingual students. The scheme produced promising results in language skills but did not affect math and sciences competencies (Benton and White, 2007[58]). Norway, too, has encouraged competence development regarding multicultural issues in the education sector.

Beyond financial and training support for the regular teaching staff, some countries also provide additional support staff in schools with many youth of immigrant parentage. In Canada, the federally funded Settlement Program provides an array of settlement and integration supports for newcomers to Canada, including targeted supports for youth and their families. The Settlement Workers in Schools (SWIS) initiative places settlement workers in schools with large newcomer populations to act as liaisons between newcomer students, their families, the school system, and the broader community. SWIS workers provide a variety of supports, including outreach to newly arrived families; information and orientation; and needs assessments and referrals. In addition, Settlement Program services can include social connection, recreational, and employment supports targeted to newcomer youth.

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