How immigrants’ places of residence influence secondary school choices

PublicCo, Pixabay.com, CC0 1.0
PublicCo, Pixabay.com, CC0 1.0

Every spring, a new cohort of parents in Germany is faced with the challenge of choosing the right type of secondary schooling for their children — a choice that furthers the children’s life chances while taking into account their individual needs and talents. Conventional wisdom has it that immigrant families are at a disadvantage because of persistent language barriers and their unfamiliarity with the German school system, which makes it difficult for them to determine which secondary school track is most likely to allow their children to climb up the social ladder.

In fact, however, immigrant families usually make very ambitious school choices. Given the same ability level, children from an immigrant background tend to aim higher than their nonimmigrant peers. For example, immigrants in Germany are more likely than nonimmigrants to choose the more academically rigorous Gymnasium, provided that they have comparable grades. When it comes to secondary school choices, immigrant families thus seem to be moving toward successful integration into society.

“Immigrant families in Germany usually make very ambitious school choices.”

What accounts for these immigrants’ high educational aspirations? To answer this question, my colleague and I investigated preferences for secondary school types in Germany, which is known for its early assignment of students to separate school types.

Our findings suggest that not all immigrants are equally ambitious when it comes to choosing which type of secondary school to attend. In line with previous findings, we found that immigrant families in Germany have a stronger preference for the Gymnasium, the most rigorous secondary school type, than nonimmigrant families. Intriguingly, however, this was especially true of immigrants whose children attended primary schools with many immigrant peers. In other words, the higher the percentage of immigrants in a primary school class, the greater the chances that immigrant families will send their children to a Gymnasium.

It thus appears that high aspirations are associated with a specific local environment. Immigrants and nonimmigrants tend to live in different neighborhoods, so they are likely to attend different local primary schools. Immigrant families living in immigrant-dominated neighborhoods are influenced by local peer cultures that encourage high aspirations. At least to some extent, therefore, immigrants’ places of residence seem to fuel their ambitions. This finding holds in the case of immigrants and nonimmigrants having the same grades – this in turn depends on a number of determinants, which we did not address in this study.

“Immigrant families living in immigrant-dominated neighborhoods are influenced by local peer cultures that encourage high aspirations.”

These findings suggest that in order to gain a better understanding of the educational trajectories of immigrant students, policymakers need to take a closer look at the living conditions of immigrant families and their children, beyond the school environment. Local environments matter, given that (educational) choices are seldom made in isolation.

Project: “The Structural Origins of Separate School Lives. A Combined Perspective on Ethnic Stratification and Segregation in German Secondary Schooling – SEPLIVES”, Janna Teltemann and Hanno Kruse.

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