Education and Language

Not Only A Question of Origin: Study of Educational Opportunities

Unterricht; © ColourboxClass; © ColourboxSurveys of educational opportunities for young people of migrant origin often arrive at very different conclusions. A new study conducted by two researchers shows that meaningful statements can in principle only be made about individual groups – and that some migrants actually do better than German pupils.

For a long time it seemed to be an unwritten law that children of migrant origin performed less well at school than their German counterparts, but the situation is evidently not quite so clear-cut.

This is the conclusion drawn by a study conducted by Cornelia Gresch and Cornelia Kristen whose findings were published this year in the German sociology journal Zeitschrift für Soziologie. The two researchers observed that the results of studies of educational participation can vary enormously depending on the criteria used to define migrant origin and depending on whether the social background of respondents is also taken into consideration.

Nationality alone is not enough

Muslim woman working at a PC; © ColourboxOne problem arises when studies base their assessment of educational opportunities solely on nationality: “This does not nearly encompass everyone of migrant origin”, says Cornelia Gresch, a research associate at the Social Science Research Center Berlin (WZB). This type of evaluation does not for example give separate consideration to ethnic German immigrants, immigrants with one non-German parent or naturalized immigrants.

Surveys should thus take numerous other aspects into account, such as the family’s social background, the precise origin of the parents, and generational status: “Although this is done in many studies”, says Gresch, “there is no standardized procedure, which means that the findings do not paint any uniform picture.”

In their study, Gresch and Kristen use the example of Turks, Greeks, Italians, Poles, Russians and ethnic German immigrants to illustrate how educational opportunities can differ according to the method of operationalization. To this end, they use data from the 2005 microcensus which also provides information about the former nationality of respondents, for instance, and asks whether their parents were born in Germany or abroad.

Cornelia Gresch; © Udo Bochert, WZBOn the basis of these and other criteria, the authors distinguish between three variants in order to describe the origin of respondents: current nationality; nationality background, which also provides information about any former nationality and about the nationalities held by the respondent’s parents; and nationality background – additionally taking into account ethnic German immigrants and their descendants who count as German citizens and lived in Southern or Eastern Europe prior to 1945.

They also determine the generational status of respondents by ascertaining whether they were born in Germany themselves and whether both their parents come from Germany or abroad.

Generational status is also relevant

As one would expect, the proportion of immigrants in the West German population as a whole differs according to whether nationality or nationality background is used as the defining criterion: “The proportion is significantly underestimated if one bases the calculation solely on nationality, and this is particularly true of the younger age groups”, says Cornelia Gresch. The proportion of non-German newborns in the West German population is just 10 percent, while other methods of calculation produce a figure of over 30 percent.

Cornelia Kristen; © privatThe precise make-up of the population also differs according to the criteria used to define it. For example, ethnic German immigrants do not figure in the statistics if the sole distinction is by nationality. The fact that they account for the largest proportion of people of migrant origin – at around 19 percent – becomes apparent only if one looks at this particular group separately.

Educational background is more important than origin

If consideration is given only to the 18-20 year-old demographic – the one on which the authors concentrated when calculating participation in education – yet another picture is revealed. In the migrant origin group, for example, the proportion of Turkish people rises from 24.7 to 33 percent – in other words, one in three children of migrant origin, in overall terms, has Turkish roots.

This method of operationalizing the migrant origin variable thus also allows the authors to precisely assess educational opportunities and shows that no general statements can be made in principle about immigrants. The authors use multivariate analyses to show for example that Turks or Italians have educational disadvantages if they are distinguished by nationality alone – and that these disadvantages are reduced if nationality background rather than current nationality is used to identify the immigrants. If consideration is additionally given to the socioeconomic circumstances of the respondents, the educational disadvantages disappear altogether: “The educational background and professional status of the parents thus has a much greater bearing on their children’s educational opportunities than their ethnic origin”, explains Cornelia Gresch. Pupils; © Colourbox

Statements only possible about individual groups

If generational status is also factored into the equation, opposite trends actually become evident for some young people: while it can be shown that young first generation Turks have disadvantages in terms of educational opportunities even when they are from the same social background as their peers of non-migrant origin, the same comparison shows that second generation Turks actually have better educational opportunities. “It is therefore important in such studies to check very precisely which group one is focusing on”, says Cornelia Gresch, “and it is virtually impossible to make general statements about the educational opportunities of young people of migrant origin.”

The method of operationalization is thus highly relevant – even if it does not always produce entirely new findings. Once again, the study shows clearly just how important a precise analysis of the respondents is, as this is the only way to determine the potential people of migrant origin in fact have – and which groups may require particular encouragement and support.

Britta Mersch
works as a freelance education journalist, lecturer and presenter in Cologne. She works for the WDR5 and Deutschlandfunk radio stations and presents a knowledge interview programme on DRadio Wissen.

Translation: Chris Cave
Copyright: Goethe-Institut e. V., Internet-Redaktion
January 2012

Any questions about this article? Please write to us!

Related links

Funny stories about horses and soccer-players – read out on Arabic and downloadable as a podcast to be listened to anywhere!

Where to? 21 questions on migration and refuge

Learning German for Refugees

Arriving App

The guide for your first weeks in Germany

My way to Germany

Videos and practises for German learners