English-Language Learners

Immigrants in Developed Nations Lag Behind Native Peers in School

By Debra Viadero — May 23, 2006 | Corrected: February 22, 2019 4 min read
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Corrected: This story misspelled the name of the study’s lead author. She is Gayle S. Christensen, a research associate at the Urban Institute in Washington.

Students from immigrant families lag behind their native counterparts in the United States and many other developed countries, concludes a 17-nation study released here last week.

“Where Immigrant Students Succeed” is posted by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development.

Experts said the report, which was published by the Paris-based Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, offers first-of-a-kind data on how the world’s 200 million immigrant children fare in school and which countries seem to be most successful at educating them. It bases its findings on 2003 results from the economic group’s Program for International Student Assessment, or PISA, which tested 15-year-olds from 41 countries in math, reading, science, and problem-solving skills. For this study, though, the authors focused on nations experiencing high levels of immigration.

The report found, for instance, that, in most of those countries, a quarter or more of immigrant 15-year-olds did not score high enough on the PISA math test to reach basic levels of proficiency. What’s more, children of immigrant families trailed native-born students academically by an average of six months to three years, depending on the country and whether they were first or second generation. The gaps remained, for the most part, even after the researchers accounted for language and socioeconomic differences between immigrant and native-born students.

But the researchers found exceptions to the pattern in four nations or territories: Australia, Canada, New Zealand, and the Chinese territory of Macauo. Newcomers scored on par with their native-born peers on the math tests in each of those jurisdictions.

Floundering in Europe

Gayle S. Christensen, the lead author, said students from immigrant families floundered particularly in continental Europe.

“European countries need to respond more effectively to the socioeconomic diversity in their populations,” said Ms. Christensen, now a research associate at the Urban Institute, a Washington-based think tank. “They’ve only in the last few years begun to recognize themselves as immigrant countries.”

Newcomers’ Performance

In many developed nations, both first- and second-generation 15-year-olds trail behind their native peers on tests of mathematics proficiency. Second-generation students fare even worse than the new arrivals in some countries.

*Click image to see the full chart.

Click to enlarge: Newcomers’ Performance

Note: Statistically significant differences are marked in darker tones.
SOURCE: Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development

In Germany, for instance, 15-year-old immigrant students scored three years behind native-born students on the PISA math tests. (“The Great Divide,” May 11, 2005.) The math achievement gap between first-generation immigrants and native students was an average of 1½ years in Austria, Belgium, Denmark, France, the Netherlands, and Switzerland—countries that did not draw large numbers of immigrants until after World War II.

While immigration is more ingrained in American culture, first-generation U.S. students trailed about six months to a year on average behind native peers on the math tests. The United States was among several countries where first-generation students fared only slightly better than in the places with the largest achievement gaps. Other countries were Luxembourg, Norway, Sweden, and the Russian Federation.

Compared with first-generation students, second-generation ones fared slightly better in most countries, but disparities remained even among that group. The gaps were smaller, the report found, in Canada, Luxembourg, Sweden, Switzerland, and Hong Kong, a special administrative district of China. Elsewhere, the gaps between second-generation students and their native counterparts were about the same, or slightly worse, than they were for newly arrived immigrants.

Ms. Christensen said the countries where immigrant students integrated most easily tended to have more established, systematic approaches to teaching the language of instruction. For example, teachers in the Australian state of Victoria use materials and texts devised by the state government to teach non-English-speaking newcomers. Immigrant students spend six to nine months learning English in special preparation programs. Once integrated into mainstream classes, they get additional English-language instruction, either through pullout classes or in the regular classroom, for up to five more years.

In comparison, the report says, approaches in Germany are more variable, with some schools offering separate preparation programs, some splitting classes into small groups for German-as-a-second-language instruction, and some secondary-level schools offering no language support at all.

The researchers gave no data on the strategies American schools use because U.S. officials did not participate in that part of the study, Ms. Christensen said.

‘Policies Matter’

“What this report suggests is that policies matter,” Marcelo Suarez-Orozco, a professor at New York University in New York City, said in an interview. He did not take part in the OECD study but said its findings highlight the importance of centrally developed curricula and guidance for teachers: “In countries where they coordinate immigration policy with integration policy, they have better outcomes.”

Alan Ruby, another researcher who reviewed the report, concurred. “The federal government could clearly foster such a thing,” said Mr. Ruby, an international education fellow at the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia. “And it’s in a country’s best interest because you don’t want 25 percent or 40 percent of immigrant children leaving school without adequate math proficiency.”

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A version of this article appeared in the May 24, 2006 edition of Education Week as Immigrants in Developed Nations Lag Behind Native Peers in School

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