Why some migrant school students do better than their local peers (they’re not ‘just smarter’)

Asian Australian students tend to spend more time studying than Anglo-Australians. from shutterstock.com

Why some migrant school students do better than their local peers (they’re not ‘just smarter’)

Australians from some migrant backgrounds achieve better results than their local peers, according to recent reports on the academic performance of school students.

The 2017 OECD review of migrant education found that students from the Philippines, China and India were more likely to achieve baseline academic proficiency than their Australian born counterparts. Baseline academic proficiency is demonstrating key knowledge and skills in science, reading and mathematics at the standard expected for age 15.

Similar patterns have been seen in the 2016 National Assessment Program – Literacy and Numeracy (NAPLAN) results. Students who don’t speak English at home scored higher in spelling, grammar, writing and numeracy tests than those from English speaking backgrounds. Numeracy scores were also higher among primary school students who came from a non-English speaking background.


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This isn’t a new phenomenon, nor is it unique to Australia. Since the 1980s, researchers have hunted for explanations. Why do migrant students, who otherwise experienced considerable challenges settling in a new country, do better than local-born students? And why is this seen not in all, but in particular, migrant groups?

Not just smarter

The stereotype of the model minority student dates back to a 1966 US report that found Asian Americans matched or exceeded the performance of “white” Americans on IQ tests and basic achievement. Studies in the 1980s and 1990s showed similar findings.

The answer isn’t as simple as “they’re smarter”. In 1991, the intelligence researcher, James Flynn, reanalysed previous IQ research with Asian Americans and concluded that their mean IQs roughly equalled those of North Americans. Similarly, our study with Chinese and Vietnamese Australian primary students found they had higher mathematics achievement than their Anglo-Australian counterparts, despite having the same IQ.


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Asian Australian students also reported spending more time studying than did Anglo students, which contributed to their higher maths achievement. But that they worked harder wasn’t a sufficient explanation for better results.

Occupational and educational aspirations, so important to the migrant experience, were a crucial factor. Our Asian Australian participants had much higher goals for their future education and hoped for higher status- and-income occupations than did their Anglo peers.

Confucian, East Asian, cultures place a high value on education. Photo by Tra Nguyen on Unsplash

Migrant aspirations

In our research, Asian-Australian children reflected the aspirations of their parents, pointing to what might be called a migrant effect. This is a pattern of higher educational aspirations among immigrants in general.

Migrants are motivated to exploit opportunities that aren’t available in their homelands, with the ultimate goal of increasing their social standing. Researchers have proposed that education is an attractive way to achieve this as it’s a system assumed to be based on merit and less affected by the racial discrimination and prejudice encountered by migrants in other areas.


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This is particularly the case for migrants who are visibly different from the majority, such as those from India, China and the Philippines, compared to those from the UK, Scotland or non-Maori New Zealanders. The latter were found to be less likely to attain baseline proficiency than Australian born students in the OECD report.

But not every country’s educational and social systems offer educational opportunities, which may be why the OECD findings show country of destination matters.

The differences between countries could also be due to cultural factors that interact with the drive for social mobility through education. These include the high value placed on education in Confucian (East Asian) cultures and in countries like India.

Valuing education, having high educational aspirations and working hard might also translate into teachers holding higher expectations for students from some minority groups, which in turn, could enhance academic performance.

So, what about Australians?

This doesn’t mean local-born Australians don’t value education. Our study showed they just may not make it the same priority as some migrant parents.

And it’s important to remember that high expectations can have negative mental health consequences for some children and young people. This was perhaps the reason why some Anglo-Australian parents in our study said it was more important their children were happy and free to choose whatever occupation they wanted, than encouraging them to focus on academic achievement and high status occupations.


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But this is arguably the privilege of those born into the majority cultural group who aren’t subject to the same obstacles as some migrants, or Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders who still lag behind their peers in educational attainment. These differences highlight a bigger question: how can we can ensure all Australian children take advantage of the educational opportunities on offer?

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