Media Briefings

CLOSING THE ACHIEVEMENT GAP FOR IMMIGRANT CHILDREN IN ITALY

  • Published Date: April 2017

Smart kids from outside Italy more likely to be held back at school and pushed into vocational education than natives – but this can be addressed

Without specialised tutoring, bright immigrant children in Italian schools are more likely to be held back and more likely to be pushed into vocational training than similarly skilled classmates. That is the central finding of a study by Michela Carlana, Eliana La Ferrara and Paolo Pinotti, to be presented at the Royal Economic Society's annual conference at the University of Bristol in April 2017.

But, the researchers show, this ‘educational segregation’ can be eliminated using a programme called ‘Equal Opportunities in the Choice of High School Track’ (EOP). This programme increases immigrant boys’ enrolment in demanding high school tracks by 13.4%, and reduces their chance of being held back a year at school by 50.7%.

The programme targets children of immigrants who display educational potential, and the results of the intervention increased maths skills, soft skills and aspiration among students, who were then more likely to be recommended by their teachers for a more demanding high school. The impact of the programme was stronger for boys than girls.

The authors comment: ‘The findings of our study are useful to inform policy-makers on promising avenues to close the gap between the career choices of immigrants and natives. Gains in terms of aspirations through career counselling and absence of stereotypical recommendations by teachers are crucial to achieve higher equality of opportunities between immigrant and native students.’

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Compared with natives with similar test score achievements, immigrants are more likely to attend vocational education and to be held back by teachers, especially boys. These gaps can be closed with an innovative tutoring and career-counselling intervention.

These are the central findings of this research, which investigates the educational choices of children of immigrants in a tracked school system, evaluating the impact of the programme ‘Equal Opportunities in the Choice of High School Track’ (EOP) in Italy. The researchers find that the programme increased immigrant boys’ enrolment in demanding high school tracks by 13.4% and reduced their grade retention by 50.7%.

The authors have collected an original dataset on soft skills (aspirations, perception of barriers such as economic constraints and prejudice) as well as administrative data from the Italian Ministry of Education and the Italian Education Evaluation Agency (INVALSI) on test scores, teachers’ track recommendations and students’ career paths.

Figure 1 shows the extent of ‘educational segregation’ in the system. Immigrants choose demanding curricula (as opposed to a vocational ones) with lower probability compared with native students who have similar standardised test scores. The gap is greater for male students and it mirrors an analogous differential in failure rates and in the track recommendations received from teachers.

The EOP programme was administered in a random sample of middle schools in northern Italy and targeted immigrant children displaying high academic potential. These children were mainly in the top two quintiles of achievements shown in Figure 1.

The research team finds that the programme was successful in reducing educational segregation: male treated students have lower retention rates and a higher probability of attending a demanding track (as opposed to a vocational one), compared with immigrant students in control schools who started at a similar level of academic ability.

Furthermore, as shown in Figure 2, the gap with a group of native Italians with similar test scores in grade 6 was completely closed thanks to this programme. The gap between immigrant females in the top of the distribution and ‘comparable’ native females is not statistically significant. Therefore, the effects of the treatment are in the same direction but smaller and not significant for girls.

To shed light on the mechanisms underlying these effects, the researchers exploited the rich dataset available on standardised test scores and on psychological traits. Male treated students display an improvement in mathematics cognitive skills (0.2 standard deviations) and in soft skills (0.35 standard deviations for higher aspirations and 0.38 standard deviations for lower perceptions of barriers). Both effects seem to have been internalised by teachers, who recommended them for a more demanding high school.

Which are the most important factors that explain the treatment effect on high school track choice? The research suggests that the improvement in aspirations and teachers’ recommendation are the most important channels, while the effect of increases in cognitive skills is negligible.

Finally, the study analyses the impact of the intervention on native and other immigrant classmates. The researchers find evidence of positive spillovers of the programme on immigrant peers of treated students, while there is no effect on natives.

The findings of this study are useful to inform policy-makers on promising avenues to close the gap between the career choices of immigrants and natives. Gains in terms of aspirations through career counselling and absence of stereotypical recommendations by teachers are crucial to achieve higher equality of opportunities between immigrant and native students.

ENDS


‘Gains and Gaps: Educational Careers of Immigrant Children’
Michela Carlana, Eliana La Ferrara and Paolo Pinotti

Contact:
Eliana La Ferrara
Invernizzi Chair in Development Economics, Bocconi University, Milan
Email: eliana.laferrara@unibocconi.it

Figure 1: Educational segregation of immigrant children in high-school track.

Figure 2: Treatment effect and comparison with natives with similar level of initial ability measured by standardized test scores.