Where diversity doesn’t mean disadvantage

by Marilyn Achiron 
Editor, Directorate for Education and Skills

OECD publications and international media regularly discuss the impact of immigrants on host-country societies. This month’s PISA in Focus looks at the issue from a different perspective: how effectively do the education systems of host countries integrate their immigrant students?
Between 2000 and 2009, across OECD countries the proportion of 15-year-olds with an immigrant background increased from 8% to 10%. In Ireland, Liechtenstein, New Zealand, the Russian Federation, Spain and the United States, the proportion of immigrant students increased by five percentage points or more during that time, and these students now represent from 8% to 30% of these countries’ student population. Education systems play a critical role in the process of integration: they give immigrants and their children opportunities to acquire the skills needed for them to join the labour market.
Results from PISA 2009 show that immigrant students of similar socio-economic status who come from the same country perform very differently, depending on their destination country. For example, immigrant students from the Russian Federation living in Finland, Germany and Israel perform around the OECD average in reading while those in the Czech Republic score about 30 points below the OECD average – the equivalent of a full year of school. Similarly, immigrant students from the Former Yugoslavia living in Denmark score about 40 points below the OECD average while those in Luxembourg score more than 80 points below average. 
The same pattern is observed among students from OECD countries who have immigrated to other countries. For example, on average, German students in Austria and Luxembourg perform at least 10 score points below the OECD average in reading, while those in the Netherlands and Switzerland score more than 30 points above average. On average, French students going to school in Belgium, Israel and Luxembourg perform around the OECD average, while those in Switzerland score 35 points above average.
While immigration policies, similarities between the immigrants’ and the host cultures, and other social policies also explain some of these differences in performance, some education systems appear to be able to facilitate the integration of immigrant students better than others. Immigrant students tend to perform better in school systems that have relatively large populations of immigrant students and where immigrant students are as diverse in their socio-economic status as other students. For example, between one in four and one in five students in Australia, Canada, Israel and the United States have an immigrant background. In these four countries, all students with similar socio-economic status perform equally well, regardless of whether or not they are immigrants. By contrast, in countries where immigrant students represent only a small proportion of the overall student population, and this group is more socio-economically diverse than the overall student population, performance differences between immigrant and non-immigrant students are relatively large, even after taking socio-economic status into account.
PISA results show that immigrant students tend to do better in countries and economies that rise to the challenge of diversity and whose school system is flexible enough to adapt to students with different strengths and needs. Countries that are just beginning to receive increasing numbers of immigrant students from diverse backgrounds can learn from the experience of those systems that have been confronted with this challenge for longer and have succeeded in integrating these students into their school systems.

For more information on PISA: www.oecd.org/pisa/
PISA in Focus No.33: What do immigrant students tell us about the quality of education systems?
Related PISA in Focus issues:
How are school systems adapting to increasing numbers of immigrants students?
How do immigrant students fare in disadvantaged schools?
Do immigrant students’ reading skills depend on how long they’ve been in their new country?
Photo credit: road made with flags from around the world/@ Shutterstock

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