OECD study Migrant students behind the curve in German schools

Language barriers and socio-economic hurdles mean immigrant students perform worse in classrooms across Germany than their native peers, according to OECD research.
Quelle: dpa
Lost in translation.
(Source: dpa)

More than one million migrants have crossed German borders since 2015. Now that the influx of newcomers, among them many children, has slowed down, Germany is facing the task of integrating them into society. But a new study revealed that immigrant children increasingly feel left behind in German schools.

Pupils with an immigrant background are performing worse in German schools than their native peers, a special report by the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) found. It revealed that 43 percent of pupils with foreign backgrounds in Germany demonstrate poor results at school.

German classrooms are increasingly diverse in nationalities and ethnicities. More than one in four students have an immigrant background. The study is based on data from the 2015 Pisa survey, which looked at the performance of 15-year-olds across 35 nations. Currently, 1.2 million pupils in Germany only have a foreign nationality, according to the Federal Statistical Office. That means every tenth student has no German passport.

Germany’s new minister of integration, Annette Widmann-Mauz, sees integration as the key to the country’s prosperity. She is putting her emphasis on working together, not beside one another. But in classrooms, where the foundation for a successful coexistence should be created, this is not yet the case.

Many immigrant students must overcome displacement and language barriers. OECD

Helping migrant children settle in is a challenging task in Germany’s decentralized education system. On top of that, “many immigrant or mixed-heritage students must overcome the adversities associated with displacement, socio-economic disadvantage, language barriers and the difficulty of forging a new identity all at the same time,” the OECD said.

The pupils’ underperformance cannot be attributed to a lack of motivation. The OECD found that young people with a migrant background are in fact more eager to learn than their peers without a foreign parent. The children’s nationality also does not play a decisive role. Students born in Turkey have a similarly high risk of poor performance at school as children do from Poland, for example.

The language barrier may be one reason, according to the OECD researchers. With first-generation migrants, who were born abroad and immigrated to Germany, almost 80 percent do not speak German at home. Another reason for the comparatively poor performance of many immigrant children is that their parents often have lower levels of education or come from simpler economic and social backgrounds.

Migrants often feel marginalized in German school classes, the study said. Immigrant students tend to feel like they do not belong, complain more often about fears associated with school and are more dissatisfied with their lives overall than children without a migrant background. They are also less optimistic about their future. In Germany, only a quarter of students from immigrant families expect to achieve a university degree. The overall OECD average is much higher at 41 percent, as well as in the European Union with 37 percent.

The risk of parallel societies in classrooms and beyond increases if politicians fail to tackle students’ frustrations. The OECD recommends, for example, increased access to early childhood education, information campaigns on education and career opportunities or greater financial support for schools with a high proportion of migrant children.

But the key to successful integration is language. Teachers need to be better equipped to be able to teach in multilingual classes with students from a wide range of nations, the OECD said. Too often, children from immigrant families still feel misunderstood or out of place.

Frank Specht writes about the jobs market and labor unions from Handelsblatt’s Berlin office. Stephanie Ott is a writer and editor at Handelsblatt Global in New York City. To contact the authors: [email protected] and [email protected].