New book shows Canada outperforms peers on immigrant student achievement

Growing up in the 1970s with his family new to the country, Louis Volante and his siblings experienced the challenges many Canadian immigrants face, both inside and outside of the classroom.

Now a professor in Brock University’s Faculty of Education, Volante has edited a recently released book that explores how some of these issues affect immigrant students in schools, while also looking at immigrant student performance in various countries around the globe.

As it turns out, despite challenges that exist, Canadian immigrant students in select provinces outperform their peers elsewhere in the world.

Volante edited and included some of his research in the book Immigrant Student Achievement and Education Policy: Cross-Cultural Approaches with Don Klinger from Waikato University in New Zealand and Ozge Bilgili from Utrecht University in The Netherlands.

Authors from several countries contributed 10 chapters to this cross-comparative edited volume, comparing the collective achievement of first- and second-generation immigrants with their non-immigrant peers. Countries examined include Canada, England, Germany, Italy, Sweden, Finland, the Netherlands, Republic of Ireland, Australia and New Zealand.

First-generation immigrants are those who were born outside of their country of residence, while second-generation immigrants, such as Volante, are those whose parents were born in another country.

“Around the world, immigrants typically underperform. We refer to that as the performance disadvantage,” says Volante. “Canada is quite unique in the sense that our immigrants are on par with, and in some provinces ahead of, their same-age peers. We actually have a performance advantage, not a disadvantage, when it comes to our immigrant students.”

About 30 per cent of students across Canada are first- or second-generation immigrants, one of the highest proportions in the western world, explains Volante. First- and second-generation immigrants make up about 37 per cent of students in Ontario and 39 per cent in B.C. The U.S., New Zealand and Australia fall into the 20 to 25 per cent range as traditional destinations for immigration.

Canada is also unique among its peers in not having centralized national education policies, leading to varied provincial education systems across the country. Immigrant students in Ontario and B.C., for example, perform better than those in other provinces.

The book reveals several trends around immigrant student success as well as policies that can help improve their achievement.

One factor related to success is the age of arrival. Students who immigrate before the age of 12 tend to perform better than those who arrive as teenagers. One possible reason is that those who arrive later may not have enough time to become proficient in a new language before finishing secondary school. Volante suggests policy-makers can increase immigrant student achievement by providing more supports for these older students.

For many immigrants, language is a significant factor in academic success. Overall, the book shows the current trend is to mainstream students, supporting their movement into a new language and a regular classroom as quickly as possible.

“We know in the research that additive bilingualism, which is the ability to develop proficiency in a second language while maintaining your home language, tends to lead to better outcomes as opposed to subtractive bilingualism,” Volante says.

The subtractive method was favoured during the 1960s and 1970s, with the aim being to help students learn a new language quickly by diminishing the importance of their home language in school environments. This was the experience of Volante, whose parents and siblings immigrated from Italy.

Policies around the tracking of students into academic or vocational streams also impact student achievement.

“As a general rule, systems that track or stream later tend to have a better overall level of achievement for their student population,” says Volante. Ontario streams students into academic and applied courses starting in Grade 9.

“What we do know from the research is that immigrant students are disproportionately directed into vocational streams or high schools. So, one key thing for governments around the world to think about is when should they introduce streaming and what kinds of pathways do those streams lead to?”

For the teacher candidates Volante instructs in the Faculty of Education, these findings have real implications for their classroom practices, from having material available in a student’s home language to developing an understanding of the unique learning needs immigrant students might have.

“In my own teaching, I try to give them some concrete examples,” he says. “In my assessment and evaluation course, I discuss strategies to modify classroom assessments so that all students have an opportunity to be successful. What are some things you can do to help them but still have reliable and valid evaluation for their level of achievement?”

These discussions matter for communities too. When immigrant students don’t realize their full potential, communities don’t benefit from the many ways they could contribute to social and economic development.

“They deserve an opportunity to thrive based on their abilities and they’re not getting it in some cases,” says Volante.

Volante was awarded a Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada (SSHRC) Insight Grant in 2017 for a pan-Canadian analysis of immigrant student achievement and education policy. Part of this volume was supported by SSHRC funding.

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