Immigrant Children’s Educational Achievement in Western Countries: Origin, Destination, and Community Effects on Mathematical Performance

How well do migrant’s children fare in the schooling systems of the receiving countries? That has been the main question of sociologists Levels ((I personally know and work with the main author of this publication.)), Dronkers, and Kraaykamp. Using advanced statistical techniques on newly available (survey) data, they were able to improve upon existing research in the field of educational sociology in exiting ways.

The authors of the article — recently published in American Sociological Review — were able to take into account influences from both (characteristics of) country of origin, country of destination, and the migrant community in the country of origin. The did so by estimating advanced Cross Classified hierarchical regression models on the newly available data from the 2003 wave of the Project for International Student Assessment (PISA). Student performance of migrant’s children was measured at the hand of their math test scores.

Several of their findings stand out, and might have important policy implications. Regarding the migrant community a pupil resides in, it was found that the more economically prosperous that community, the better he or she performs at school. It seems that money, or the lack of worries, helps children perform well. More urgent is their finding that children from migrant parents that come from politically unstable countries, perform less well. Since it has been shown that these negative consequences are carried over across generations, Levels said (from the press release):

Specific educational programs designed to counter the negative effects of political migration may be essential to ensure that the children of politically motivated immigrants achieve their full potential

Perhaps even more fascinating is their prime finding on the effects of economic development in the country of origin. From the ASA Press Release:

The research, which looked at the mathematical literacy scores of thousands of 15-year-old immigrants to 13 Western nations from 35 different native countries, indicates that economic development and political conditions in an immigrant’s home country impact the child’s academic success in his or her destination country. Counter-intuitively, immigrant children from countries with lower levels of economic development have better scholastic performance than comparable children who emigrate from countries with higher levels of economic development.

So, children from migrants originating from a economically impoverished region outperform those from economically developed countries. This might seem seem contra-intuitive for many, especially when it is contrasted with their other finding that living in an economically strong migrant community helps children in their academic performance. However, what we actually see here, is the strength of the quantitative sociological perspective and the statistical techniques that were employed: being able to correctly differentiate between individual and context, and to relate the contextual characteristics to individual outcomes. Using that perspective, it may very well be that immigrants coming from economically impoverished countries are a specific selection of the people living in that country. It may very well be that for instance particularly enterprising people, the higher educated, the intellectuals, and the people that are financially (relatively) better of, are the only ones that are able of leaving their country to start a new life in a more developed country. In developed countries a larger part of the population has the means to migrate, so the countries of origin receive a more ‘average’ group of migrants from these countries.

This leads to many new, interesting questions. Is indeed selection taking place: are only the better of parents able to escape impoverished regions? And do indeed their children perform better than the ones that are left behind would have? If this is indeed the case, I wonder what the effects of recent changes in migration policy in many European countries may have been.

Are we picking the cherries from the pie?


Mark Levels, Jaap Dronkers, Gerbert Kraaykamp (2008). Immigrant Children’s Educational Achievement in Western Countries: Origin, Destination, and Community Effects on Mathematical Performance American Sociological Review, 73, 835-853

6 comment on “Immigrant Children’s Educational Achievement in Western Countries: Origin, Destination, and Community Effects on Mathematical Performance

  • This article seems self-contradictory, anyway unclear.

  • Dear Jon,

    Although I appreciate you commenting my blog, I would have appreciated some more detail on what exactly is self-contradictory.

  • I’ve had some direct communication with Jon Claerbout on his statement that this blog article seems self-contradictory.

    He argues that to many, impoverished and politically unstable countries are strongly overlapping categories. Although this might often be the case, the authors were able to disentangle the effects of impoverishment and political instability. Moreover, these two categories appear to bring about different effects in the migrant’s children school achievements.

    Therefore, I do not agree that this is self-contradictory. However, Jon also mentioned that the title of the post did not do justice to the content of the post. I agree, and I changed the title to the title of the original research paper. The original title only highlights one part of the research, which apparently gave way to some misunderstanding, which the new title hopefully will not. I thank Jon Claerbout for pointing that out.

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