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New Policy Solutions for Closing Educational Gaps for Immigrant Children
Press Release
Thursday, September 20, 2007

New Policy Solutions for Closing Educational Gaps for Immigrant Children

Three studies from the Migration Policy Institute, released today, give policymakers new ideas for how best to close achievement gaps between native-born students and immigrant students or the children of immigrants across European countries.

International data show that, on average, 15-year-old immigrant students who speak the language of instruction at home lag about a half-year of learning behind nonimmigrant students in mathematics; those who do not speak the language lag a year behind. The results are even more pronounced for reading. These achievement gaps have striking implications for European education systems when, in Amsterdam and Rotterdam, one in two students is the child of an immigrant, and, in Brussels, the statistic is one in four. In the United Kingdom, English is a second language for a third of all school children. 

Written by internationally renowned education policy experts, the reports recommend that lawmakers focus on policies that bring children of immigrants into the education system by the age of three, immerse them in the language of their host countries, provide language support through both primary and secondary school within a clear framework, and afford more flexibility to move between academic and vocational education.

In Early Education for Immigrant Children, Paul Leseman, an advisor to the Dutch government on early childhood education and a professor at Utrecht University, looks at factors that create educational disadvantages among children of immigrants, including socioeconomic and psychological risks and lack of cognitive stimulation at home.

Dr. Leseman finds that while early education can improve the educational and socioeconomic position of low-income and minority communities, the program’s design is fundamental to its success. He recommends that policymakers focus on providing center-based care, with programs grounded in teaching children the host language and with strong outreach to minorities that includes additional help for parents. He also recommends that governments directly subsidize early-education programs rather than providing parents with vouchers, which can be confusing and are underused.

In Pathways to Success for the Children of Immigrants, Maurice Crul from the University of Amsterdam looks at how the children of Turkish immigrants, the largest immigrant group in Europe, are faring across the continent. He finds disparities across countries in the age at which children start school, the number who drop out of secondary school, and the number of youth who are unemployed. He notes that, because immigrant students tend to start school at a linguistic and cultural disadvantage, compelling them to choose either an academic or vocational education “track” too early may relegate them to a less enriching education. Dr. Crul suggests a range of policy tools to avoid this outcome, such as establishing strong apprenticeship programs and allowing vocational students to switch back to academic schools if they show the potential to succeed.

In Language Policies and Practices for Helping Immigrants and Second-Generation Students Succeed, Gayle Christensen from the Urban Institute and Petra Stanat from the Free University of Berlin draw on the results of a unique survey of school language policies and practices to close the achievement gap in 14 immigrant-receiving countries. The authors find that countries where immigrant and second-generation students succeed tend to have long-standing language support programs, for both primary and secondary students, with clearly defined goals and standards.

Drs. Christensen and Stanat highlight Sweden; Victoria, Australia; and British Columbia, Canada, as places with smaller achievement gaps between native-born and immigrant students. These programs’ common strategies include centrally developed curricula, high program standards, time-intensive programs, support in both primary and secondary school, second-language teachers who have received specialized training, and cooperation between language and other teachers.


These reports were completed under the auspices of the Transatlantic Task Force on Immigration and Integration, convened by the Migration Policy Institute and Bertelsmann Stiftung.