On Education and Participation

Prof. Dr. Marcus Hasselhorn is the Executive Director of the German Institute for International Educational Reseach.
Prof. Dr. Marcus Hasselhorn is the Executive Director of the German Institute for International Educational Reseach.

UNEDITED What does this growing multiculturalism imply for the future of countries in Europe? „Education is at least one of the most powerful tools for successful integration and participation“ says Professor Marcus Hasselhorn, who spoke in front of the Arraiolos Group, which includes all non-executive heads of state of the EU. The speech on education and participation, held on September 22, in exact wording:

„Populations in most European countries are increasingly multicultural – though to a different extent. In 2012, for example, more than 12 percent of the people living in Europe had not been born in their country of residence. The current flow of refugees has now probably led to a far higher ratio.

What does this growing multiculturalism imply for the future of countries in Europe? First of all, this poses significant challenges to social cohesion and the prosperity of individual countries. These challenges can only be successfully dealt with to the extent in which it is possible to integrate the new additions to the population arising because of abscondence or other migration processes, and by enabling them to participate in society. The two most important key elements for successful integration and participation are the language and culture of the specific country. Imparting both – the national language and culture of the country – succeeds best in the context of the educational system with its pre-school and school institutions.

One in eight young people in Europe leaves school without a generally recognized qualification.

Thus, education is at least one of the most powerful tools for successful integration and participation. However, this basic central role of education does not mean that our education systems in Europe are already prepared to successfully fulfil this task in an optimal way. At present, they are by no means able to assure that persons who progress through the regular education system will also succeed in graduating and thus also highly likely to be able to participate successfully in the society of the specific country during their further life-course. On average, the proportion of students in EU member countries who finish compulsory schooling without a formal school leaving certificate is 12.8 percent. In other words: one in eight young people in Europe leaves school without a generally recognized qualification. This number is alarming for the future of national economies in Europe. Just as worrying is the fact that in all European countries this proportion is noticeably higher for young people from immigrant families than from non-immigrant families. Thus, the most urgent issue educational systems in Europe need to address currently concerns the lack of equal opportunities; in particular, social disparities and migration-related disadvantages are obvious consequences.

This leads to the question of how such social disparities and migration-related inequalities in education can be overcome. To tackle these problems, it seems helpful to consider a number of recent insights.

For 15 years, the OECD has conducted international assessments of student achievement every three years in most of the member states. These are known as PISA studies (an abbreviation of Programme for International Student Assessment). Selected general and occupational competencies are assessed. Findings from the PISA assessments are clear-cut for students from immigrant families. In all West European countries the acquired competencies in reading, science and mathematics of students with an immigrant background are lower than those of their non-immigrant peers. However, there are also indications that the process of integration is gradually and partially succeeding: students from immigrant families who were born in the host country (the so-called second generation) on average acquire better academic competencies than those who immigrated themselves (the first generation). Another finding is also remarkable: among first-generation immigrants educational outcomes prove to be better the younger the students were when they entered the country.

Insufficient knowledge of the host country’s native language is a key measure for failure in education.

Lower educational outcomes for children from immigrant families can be found across the board in European countries. This also applies to children from families with lower socio-economic status. Experts have therefore investigated whether the lower educational outcomes of children from immigrant families might rather be explained by the usually lower socio-economic status of immigrant families. In complex analyses of PISA data, researchers utilized the fact that OECD states differ in the extent to which differences in educational outcomes are determined socially and/or by migration. One of the most important findings of these analyses is that insufficient knowledge of the host country’s native language is a key measure for failure in education, though this mainly pertains to children who are already school-aged at the time of immigration. But even children who were born in the host country may demonstrate such language disadvantages if they did not have enough opportunities to interact with non-immigrant peers during their first few years.

In Germany, children from immigrant families who have been attending day-care for at least two years prior to school enrolment achieve higher outcomes at school than children with an immigrant background who only started attending day-care less than one year before school. In Scandinavia, an interesting phenomenon can be observed: children from immigrant families in countries where the compulsory age of school enrolment is seven years (Sweden, Denmark, and Finland) demonstrate significantly more learning difficulties than in Norway, where children already start school at the age of six. To give a third example: in France, where nearly all children aged between three and six years attend a day-care institution, migration-related disadvantages in education are less pronounced than in the French-speaking parts of Switzerland, where the participation rate of children in pre-school day-care is below 40 percent.

A national economy that invests 1 Euro in suitable early childhood care measures will receive approximately 7 Euros in return.

Let me now turn to the central argument of my talk, which is: Early childhood education has proven to be the most important key for successful participation, associated with both individual as well as economic returns. Living in a European country, children from a non-immigrant family with low educational status or from an immigrant family will have the best chance to achieve the best possible educational outcomes given their general learning capacity if they attended early childhood care at an early age, and thus were exposed to regular verbal exchanges with peers from non-immigrant families and families with higher socio-economic status.

Investment in early childhood education is also worthwhile for national economies. The economist and winner of the Nobel Prize, James Heckman, has demonstrated in model calculations that in the long run, a national economy that invests 1 Euro in suitable early childhood care measures will receive approximately 7 Euros in return.

Given the current wave of refugees across Europe, politicians are also discussing the question of whether compulsory schooling should be suspended for children from refugee families. From an educational scientist perspective, the answer is clearly ‚No‘. On the contrary: even before reaching compulsory school age, children from such families should be integrated into early childcare institutions as soon as possible, at least from the age of three onward.

Early childhood education is the basis for successful integration and participation of immigrants, and for reducing social disparities in educational outcomes. In addition, however, institutional strategies and pedagogical concepts for individualized learning are essential to optimize individual advancement. A number of suitable approaches have already been identified by educational researchers. Institutional strategies identified as successful in this context are, for example, mandatory individual intervention plans, regular case-related consultations in the team and regular parent counselling. Appropriate instructional strategies are also available, among others mastery learning, scaffolding, and adaptive teaching. The latter is particularly promising in situations where teachers regularly obtain information on individual learning outcomes and learning progress. Unfortunately – especially in the German-speaking region – this does not happen very often at present even though a growing number of instruments for diagnosing individual learning progress have been developed under the keyword ‚formative assessment‘.

Measures to increase equal opportunities in education should be reflected in light of empirical evidence.

There are thus enough reasons to reassess the strategies used to ensure that all children in a country become participants in education at a preferably early age, and strategies that offer the best support at school. To achieve this, reform endeavours are observable in nearly all countries. However, such reforms have not always been based on scientific evidence. And even more rarely have scientists been consulted to assess the effectiveness of reform measures and their implementation. Here there is still much room for improvement.

Measures to increase equal opportunities in education should be reflected in light of empirical evidence, and scientific monitoring of the implementation of those measures might increase their success.“

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