Breaking down the barriers to immigrant students’ success at school

by Marilyn Achiron
Editor, Directorate for Education 

Education is one of the best ways of integrating immigrant children and their families into their new home countries. But most immigrant students have to overcome multiple barriers in order to succeed at school. The latest edition of PISA in Focus shows that of all the obstacles to success these students must surmount, the concentration of socio-economic disadvantage at school is among the most strongly related to poor performance.

Disadvantage and immigrant status are closely linked. Most immigrants leave their home countries in search of better economic prospects. Once immigrants arrive in a host country, they often settle in communities where there are other immigrants who share their culture, their language and often their socio-economic status. Their children often attend the same schools – and those schools frequently have large proportions of immigrant students. As a result, immigrant students tend to be concentrated in certain schools. In most cases, these schools are generally more socio-economically deprived than other schools.

PISA finds that countries vary markedly in how immigrant students are accommodated in schools. In New Zealand, for example, 50% of immigrant students – well below the OECD average of 68% – attend a school that has a large proportion of immigrant students. In addition, the concentration of immigrant students in socio-economically disadvantaged schools is also relatively low in New Zealand: only one in four immigrant students – compared with the OECD average of 36% – attends a school that has a large proportion of students whose mothers have low levels of education. (Having a low-educated mother, that is, a mother who has not attained an upper secondary education, is a measure of socio-economic disadvantage among immigrant populations.) In Germany, the concentration of immigrant students in schools is around the OECD average, while the concentration of immigrant students in disadvantaged schools is higher than the OECD average. In the United Kingdom, high concentrations of immigrant students in schools are coupled with high concentrations of immigrant students in the most disadvantaged schools.

When analysing student performance through this prism, poor student performance, particularly among immigrant students, is most strongly related to the proportion of students in a school whose mothers have low levels of education. This finding indicates that immigrant students – indeed all students – face a major obstacle to success at school when they are concentrated in schools attended by students who face similar socio-economic disadvantage.

In contrast, the results suggest that it is not the proportion of immigrant students or the proportion of those who speak a different language that is most strongly associated with poor performance. In other words, being in a school with students from different countries or who speak multiple languages does not hinder learning as much as being in a school that has a high concentration of disadvantaged students does. In fact, there are many high-achieving schools that have large proportions of immigrant students. Many schools in the Canadian province of Alberta, for example, have just this kind of profile. Often, that high performance is the result of specific national or regional education policies designed to accommodate – and make the most of – heterogeneous student populations.

What these results tell us is that reducing the concentration of disadvantage in individual schools is a good first step towards helping immigrant students integrate successfully into school and, ultimately, society.

For more information on PISA:
PISA in Focus No. 22:How do immigrant students fare in disadvantaged schools? 
Photo credit:  Colour figures / Shutterstock
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Private vs. public expenditure

by Dirk Van Damme
Division Head, Innovation and Measuring Progress (IMEP) and Head of Centre for Educational Research and Innovation (CERI)

Tertiary education institutions such as colleges and universities raise an increasing share of their funding from private sources. As the latest issue of the OECD’s Education Indicators in Focus details, the major part comes from households via tuition fees and other forms of household expenditure, but institutions also raise more contributions from private companies. Private expenditure now accounts for 30% of expenditure in tertiary education. As the latest issue of the OECD brief series Education Indicators in Focus details, the increase in private expenditure between 2000 and 2009 in OECD countries is remarkable. On average across OECD countries it more than doubled, but countries like Austria, Portugal and the Slovak Republic had growth indexes exceeding 500 points. In 2000, the United Kingdom already drew 32.3% of its expenditure on tertiary education from private sources and further increased it to 70.4% in 2009. The United States, usually seen as a country with the highest level of private expenditure, has seen a decrease from 68.9% in 2000 to 61.9% in 2009.

A simplistic interpretation might suggest that countries have substituted public funding with private resources. On the contrary the evidence shows that the increase in private expenditure did not occur at the expense of public funding. In addition, public funding for tertiary education increased in the same period from an index of 100 in 2000 to an index of 138 points in 2009 across the OECD. Countries such as the Czech Republic, Korea and Poland have seen increases for public funding to more than 180 index points.

The growth rates of public and private expenditure to tertiary education institutions are quite different across countries. Some countries combine high growth rates for both public and private expenditure, such as Austria, the Czech Republic, Mexico and the Slovak Republic. In other countries public and private expenditure have dissimilar growth patterns: Denmark, Portugal and the United Kingdom combined a higher than average growth index for private expenditure with a lower than average growth index for public expenditure for tertiary education.

With different growth rates, both public and private expenditure on tertiary education institutions increased between 2000 and 2009. However, the variation between countries in the relative proportion of private expenditure remains very high, from the Nordic countries with 10% or less private expenditure, to the United States and the United Kingdom with around 60% and 70%, respectively. Private resources have added to public expenditure, and at the country level, a higher level of private expenditure in tertiary education is not associated with lower chances for students from disadvantaged backgrounds to access tertiary education.

For more information
On this topic, visit:
Education Indicators in Focus: 
On the OECD’s education indicators, visit:
Education at a Glance 2012: OECD Indicators: 
On the OECD’s Indicators of Education Systems (INES) programme, visit:
INES Programme overview brochure
Chart source: Education at a Glance 2012: Indicator B3 (www.oecd/edu/eag2012)
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