Aiming high and missing the mark?

In Episode 2 of Series 3 of the DIAL Podcast, Jesper Fels Birkelund from the Lifetrack project talks about his research looking at the educational aspirations and achievements of the children of immigrants in Denmark. He shares findings from the research and outlines their implications for policy in Denmark and more widely in Europe. 

Aiming high and missing the mark? Educational Choice, Dropout Risk, and Achievement in Upper Secondary Education among Children of Immigrants in Denmark is research by Jesper Fels Birkelund, and is published in the European Sociological Review.

Transcript

In Episode 2 of Series 3 of the DIAL Podcast, Jesper Fels Birkelund from the Lifetrack project talks about his research looking at the educational aspirations and achievements of the children of immigrants in Denmark. He shares findings from the research and outlines their implications for policy in Denmark and more widely in Europe. 

Aiming high and missing the mark? Educational Choice, Dropout Risk, and Achievement in Upper Secondary Education among Children of Immigrants in Denmark is research by Jesper Fels Birkelund, and is published in the European Sociological Review.

Christine Garrington  0:00 

Welcome to DIAL, a podcast where we tune into evidence on inequality over the lifecourse. In this series we are discussing emerging findings from some of the projects in our programme. Our guest today is Jesper Fels Birkelund from the Lifetrack project. As part of the project he has been looking at the educational aspirations and achievements of the children of immigrants in Denmark but he starts by outlining what the wider project is all about. 

Jesper Fels Birkelund  0:26  

Lifetrack is a country comparative investigation of how educational institutions influence the formation of social inequality. So the first research aim of the project is to examine the unequal access to secondary education based on socio-economic and ethnic origin, and then we examine how inequalities and access, potentially differ across institutional contexts. So I work as part of the Danish research team, and we collaborate with teams across Europe. So we have teams in Germany, in England, Finland, France and Italy. So we cover six European countries in total. Our second research aim is then to examine how consequential, the choice of secondary education is for later life outcomes, both in the short run, in terms of educational attainment, and in the longer run in terms of labour market outcomes. So this way you can say we attempt to capture the entire process of how socio-economic advantages are passed down through generations, and then we assess the role of educational choice, and educational institutions in this process.

Christine Garrington  1:28  

As you were saying there you’re part of the Danish team you’ve been investigating the situation, in, in Denmark, what can you tell us about what was already known about the educational ambitions and the choices of, of the children of immigrants who, who have come to Denmark?

Jesper Fels Birkelund  1:46 

Yes, well I take my starting point in a quite well-established finding international research, known as immigrant optimism, or the immigrant paradox, and the paradox being that, although children of immigrants performed relatively poorly in school, they have quite high educational aspirations for the future. So what researchers have found in different settings, is that in given levels of school performance, children of immigrants, choose more academically challenging paths than children of native born parents do. So for example, when looking at the transition to secondary education as we do children of immigrants choose academic tracks over general and vocational tracks, and they do so with even relatively low levels of performance. So, over the past 10 or 15 years. This pattern of immigrant optimism has been recorded in in different settings as I said, so we’ve seen in France and Germany in the UK and in Sweden, and I also show it for Denmark. Unfortunately, this line of research does not really say much about the reasons behind children of immigrants, high aspirations but I just wanted to add that essential explanation in the literature is that immigrants are a positively self-selected subgroup of their home country’s population. So you can say that those who chose to leave their home countries, often with the goal of settling in a new country, to achieve some degree of upward socio-economic mobility, and if not for themselves, then for their children, and then they sort of speak past those high aspirations onto to their children.

Christine Garrington  3:09  

Yeah, understood, let’s talk about specifically what you did Jesper.

Jesper Fels Birkelund  3:13  

Yes, to estimate how ethnicity influences educational choice, it is important to compare children of different ethnic origins, that are otherwise similar in terms of the socio-economic background on the one hand, and the school performance on the other. So what I do is to control the these two groups of factors to provide an estimate of just how much more likely children of immigrants are to enrol in academic tracks, compared to children of Danish origin, at given levels of socio economic background and performance.

Christine Garrington  3:42

And where did your information come from? Was there a data set that you used for this?

Jesper Fels Birkelund  3:46  

Yes. So I used the Danish administrative registers which are a very nice data source, so they hold very detailed demographic and educational information on pretty much all the citizens born from 1960 and onwards, and for this specific project, I study a younger cohort of children born in 1994, and 95, and I follow them until they’re 21 years old, and that includes about 120,000 individuals. 

Christine Garrington  4:12

That’s a substantial number of people to be able to look at. So when you looked at the data, which children were most likely to enrol in upper secondary school, and, and take that more challenging path?

Jesper Fels Birkelund  4:24 

When we look at the raw data, we see that actually equally many children of immigrant and Danish origin enrolled in the academic track so just more than 70% of both groups. The rest of them choosing either vocational education, or they can choose to leave the school system. However, as I said, educational choice must be seen in relation to differences in socio-economic background, and academic performance, so when controlling for these disadvantages among children of immigrants, I find that these children are actually about 12 percentage points more likely to choose academic education, compared to children of Danish origin. And what is more I see the children of immigrants are more likely to choose a more challenging curriculum, even within the academic track. So for example, I find that children of immigrants are more likely to choose Advanced Math and Science subjects, and they choose extra advanced subjects that are optional choices, which is of course a further underscoring of their high aspirations.

Christine Garrington  5:19  

That’s really interesting so substantially more children of immigrants. Following these paths as you’ve outlined, and how did this translate though because this is the big question, isn’t it, how did this translate into actual academic achievements further down the line?

Jesper Fels Birkelund  5:34  

Yes, so this is where I like to say that my study really contributes with a new perspective. So I argue that it’s somewhat limiting, are we looking at educational enrollment, we should also consider the patterns of dropout and completion and final achievement. If we are to see the full picture here. So the actual consequences of high aspirations, both positive and potentially negative, and what I record is that high aspirations do come with a certain price in terms of a high risk of dropout, and lower achievement for children of immigrants. I find that it’s because children of immigrants are being very ambitious, and particularly in the lower part of the performance distribution. So if we look specifically at the bottom fifth of the GPA distribution, I see that almost twice as many children of immigrants, than of Danish origin, choose academic education, and it is among these lowest performing students that the risk of dropout and low achievement is particularly high, so when we observe the children of immigrants, at a higher risk of dropout than children of Danish origin, and we do, it is very much because academically weaker students of students of immigrant origin, choose the academic track while children of Danish origin are more wary of doing so. In other words, if children of immigrants, didn’t choose as ambitiously, then their average struggle would be lower, and their average achievement higher. On the other hand, then fewer children of immigrants would be getting an academic degree, and that is the trade off that I report in my study.

Christine Garrington  6:55  

Yeah, so it was in fact something of a double-edged sword in the end was it really?

Jesper Fels Birkelund  6:59 

Yes, that is exactly the point that I’m trying to make here so we see that high aspirations among children of immigrants, help them close the educational gap between them and their native peers, and that is an important point to make, then I also see the high aspirations entail of particularly low performing students of immigrant origin, choose to enrol in these educational programmes that turn out to be too challenging for them, and then they end up either dropping out of the programme, or they complete the programme but with quite poor grades, leaving them with fewer options for continuing in in higher education.

Christine Garrington  7:29  

So what would you say them that we learn from all of this and how might policymakers – those working on the ground in education in Denmark – take this into consideration when looking, obviously, to create equal opportunities to thrive for those youngsters who might have something, you know what we might think of as a as a tougher start in life if they’ve if they’ve come as, as the children of immigrants potentially to Denmark?

Jesper Fels Birkelund  7:53  

Well what we actually observe in Denmark right now is that policymakers are making it increasingly difficult to enter academic secondary education, if you have low compulsory school grades, so they have introduced recently a GPA threshold for access, and that is of course, one way of going about reducing the number of dropouts. However, as I see it, this policy also limits the educational opportunities, particularly for ethnic minority students, as many of these students have GPAs that are in the area below this threshold. So a different course of action would be to take a look at the educational institutions, and make them better equipped to serve the needs of low performing students. What do we see in the market is that some secondary schools already screened new students for the reading and math abilities, and then they provide additional support for the students, they find to be struggling, and that may be one way of helping students that have high aspirations, or who may lack the resources to realise them.

Christine Garrington  8:47 

So as we said at the beginning of our discussion this piece of research is part of a wider project looking at whether and if so how different educational systems in Europe might influence or reinforce social inequalities over the life course. Are you able to say then if this is being seen elsewhere I think you sort of hinted that this that it is at the beginning, and if so, are there important learning points for other countries as well as Denmark, would you say obviously each country has a potentially different types of system.

Jesper Fels Birkelund  9:15  

Well, in general I think the points that I just made applies to many European contexts. So if we look all over Europe, we see that an increasingly large proportion of youth cohorts, grew up and had immigrant origin. In the cohort that I study in Denmark 7% are children of immigrants, but in the cohorts that are being born now, it’s now more than twice as many, and of course as this minority group gets bigger, it becomes an increasingly pressing question whether children of immigrants are making the right educational choices in the first place for themselves, but also whether schools are equipped to serve this group of students who obviously have high aspirations but may struggle to realise them.

Christine Garrington  9:51  

Aiming high and missing the mark? Educational Choice, Dropout Risk, and Achievement in Upper Secondary Education among Children of Immigrants in Denmark is research published in the European Sociological Review by Jesper Fels Birkelund from the University of Copenhagen. You can find out more about the Life Track project at lifetrack.eu. A details of DIAL’s wider research programme at dynamics dynamicsofinequality.org.