Successfully Integrating Immigrant Children

August 26, 2009

On August 26, 2009, AGI hosted a lecture by DAAD/AGI Fellow Dr. Ann Keller-Lally. Her presentation discussed the current situation of immigrants in the United States and Germany, focusing particularly on the issue of integrating immigrant children in both countries’ compulsory education systems.

The need for successful integration arises from the fact that both the United States and Germany rely on immigrants to close the gap that would be caused by an otherwise declining population. In both countries there is a long history of immigration, even though in Germany the concept of being an “immigrant country” is still relatively new. Despite their importance for the economy and welfare systems, immigrants tend to have less access to education and are usually not as highly qualified as native Germans or Americans.

Dr. Keller-Lally argued that the integration of immigrants is necessary to raise economic output by increasing productivity, which can be achieved through better education. In fact, one additional year of training may increase the output by 3-6 percent. Integration is also important in strengthening the welfare system and maintaining living standards. In the United States and Germany immigration is, however, usually perceived as a problem and not as an opportunity.

In Germany, immigration has decreased since 2000 and it is often argued that immigration has failed since immigrants suffer from higher unemployment rates and are not highly educated. In financial terms, it is estimated that failed integration costs $20 billion per year. Overall, immigrants from Eastern Europe seem to be integrated better than immigrants from Turkey, even though Turks represent the majority of immigrants in Germany.

Unlike in Germany, the number of immigrants to the Unites States is rising and the percentage of immigrants is higher. U.S. immigrants face a similar situation in terms of lower education and skill levels. And yet, Dr. Keller-Lally argued, it is education that determines economic success.

The number of immigrant children in German schools has increased despite a general decline in enrollment. However, these children are often sent to a Hauptschule or Sonderschule instead of being recommended for the Gymnasium, which, in effect, causes them to be disadvantaged later on. The main challenges are limited language proficiency, differences in knowledge bases and learning cultures, and a lack of knowledge about the structure of the school system and its opportunities.

In the United States, immigrant children fare as well as or better than native students; however, children of immigrants from Central and Latin America struggle more than other groups. There has been relative success in some programs and empirical policies have also been successfully implemented (e.g. PRIME projects). Remaining challenges include closing major gaps in knowledge and language bases of older immigrant children, literacy problems in English as well as native languages, and the failure to adequately test students.

Dr. Keller-Lally suggested three policy recommendations. First, pre-service teaching preparation must include for both theoretical and practical training related to students with special needs (including immigrant populations). This could be achieved through the NCATE in the U.S. and the Kultusministerkonferenz (KMK) in Germany. Second, the research mission of the Institute for Educational Progress (Institut zur Qualitätsentwicklung im Bildungswesen, IQB) should be expanded to inform KMK policy decisions. Third, the United States should facilitate networking opportunities between the states. Collaborative opportunities could be between the IQB and the NCEE, as well as the EU Delegation (Education Section) and the U.S. Department of Education.

The presentation reflected on the current situation for immigrants in the United States and Germany and concluded that while there are some successes, immigrants are still disadvantaged by the education system which causes a higher unemployment rate and generally worse economic chances.