Tuesday, January 8, 2013

Immigration and Swedish Schools

Hanif Bali investigates the share of pupils in Sweden who fail to quality for high-school (“obehöriga”),  concluding that recently arrived immigrants cause declining outcomes. Bali is however wrong in one regard. Since outcomes among non-recent immigrants is unchanged, he concludes that “it is only the results of children who have migrated after the school start which are lowering school results”

When analyzing the impact of immigration on the national average, it is not sufficient to look at the mean of immigrant outcomes. It is also important to look at how changes in the immigrant population share affects the national average.

Between 2000-2010 the share of Swedish pupils who do not quality for high-school increased somewhat, from 10.6% to 11.8%.  Interestingly the share of native Swedes who failed remained constant at 9%. The decline in the national average is entirely driven by students who have a foreign background. 

The increase in the population share of second generation immigrants alone appears to have caused about 30% of the decline in aggregate outcomes, even though the group did not perform worse than they did ten years ago

DNs editorial page writes that it is wrong to link immigration to the education debate, noting that “recently arrived immigrants are too few to have a decisive impact” and that citing immigration as the cause of declining school results would “lead the debate into a side track”. 

A variable hardly has to be “decisive” to be discussed. As long as immigration is causing part of the decline in Swedish outcomes it should be part of the debate. This especially because we are not aware of a single “decisive” cause of declining school results, a phenomenon which may have multiple causes. If you want to explain the decline of high-school pupils who qualify for high-school between 2000-2010, immigration was indeed “avgörande”, causing 100% of the decline. Immigration is an non-negligible part of declining PISA scores and is a major driver (perhaps the main driver) of increased inequality in Swedish school outcomes. 

It is not a valid argument to say that immigration cannot drive education outcomes because “recently arrived immigrants” are too few. You also have to look at non-recent and second generation immigrants, who also have lower average scores than native Swedes.

Another thing DN doesn't appear to understand is that the test scores of native Swedes is not unrelated to immigration. Immigrant children on average need more help and take educational resources from native children. If immigration increases the level of disruption in schools it significantly hurts native education outcomes. Some education researchers believe that students who are in classes with worse pupils perform worse themselves. There is some empirical evidence that immigration lowers the test-score of natives, thought it likely depends on country of origin and the type of immigrants. 

The reason the DN editorial page doesn’t want the role of immigration for education outcomes to be discussed is not that it is not relevant. It's that they championed large-scale immigration and don’t like it when voters find out about the negative effects of these policies.


In the comments Per Gudmundson point out this study, which finds that native Swedes do worse in schools with a higher share of immigrant pupils. This is a correlation study so we should not interpret this is having established causality. There exists data on exogenous placement of refugees in municipalities in Sweden during 1985–1994, used in several high-quality studies. Someone should use it to look at school-results.

As I have written about previously, the poor performance of immigrants does not explain more than a part of the huge decline in Swedish Pisa-scores. However it explains far more of the increase in the share of pupils who fail primary school. Immigration appears to be a more important explanation for what is happening among the worst-performing pupils, and not as important for the average, since immigrants are still few. In Pisa non-native students are a disproportionate share of the worse performers. My guess is that poor language skills and disruptive school-environments are the cause for this.



  1. En svensk studie finner en tröskel vid en andel om 40 procent invandrare i en skolklass.

    ”Passing a threshold of more than 40 percent immigrants reduces grades with around a fifth of a standard deviation, affecting fourteen percent of immigrant children.”


    ”Ethnic Segregation and Educational Outcomes in Swedish Comprehensive Schools”, av Ryszard Szulkin och Jan O. Jonsson från 2007.

  2. Ekonomistas hade fö en debatt om samma ämne för inte så länge sedan, med samma slutsats som DN.

  3. Tack Per. Den första studien du citerar hittar en negativ effekt för alla, och än ännu starkare negativ effekt efter en tröskel på 40%. Det är dock en korrelationsstudie så man ska inte göra för mycket om det.

    Ekonomistas räkneexempel ger jag inte mycket för. Att avfärda en effekt för att den är liten jämfört med könsskillnaden? Könsskillnader i betyg är gigantiska. Skillnaden mellan Finland och Sverige är också gigantiskt, Finland är etta på PISA och hästlänger före alla andra europeiska länder.

    Sverige skulle gått från plats 27 på PISA till plats 17 om man invandrare hade samma betyg som etniska svenskar.

    Dessutom ökar den här effekten varje år i takt med den demografiska förändringen, det blir bara större och större för varje år.

  4. I don't know Swedish, so I'm unable to tell whether or not the first couple of commenters addressed this issue. But when we have statements like

    "the share of Swedish pupils who do not quality for high-school increased somewhat, from 10.6% to 11.8%. Interestingly the share of native Swedes who failed remained constant at 9%."

    ... this shows that the introduction of non-Swedes may have lowered the overall average in Sweden. But this is not a decent argument against immigration, since the total (Swedish + non-Swedish) population should be evaluated pre- and post-immigration. It's likely that the immigrants were receiving poorer education beforehand, or that their "scores" would be much, much lower. Looking at this population in both the numerator (post-immigration) and denominator (pre-immigration) may present a clearer picture.

  5. I don't want to sound like a conspiracy nut, but when it comes to European social scientists, you cannot really argue with them because they're withholding/deliberately misinterpreting/ignoring results for political reasons.

    Sounds a little far-fetched? Check out this Norwegian mini-series (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hjernevask) on the nature vs. nurture debate, and see for yourself.

    No one says this out explicitly, but I invite you to check out the behavior of Norwegian social "scientists" in one of the episodes of this show and their reaction to views contradicting their own.

  6. This comment has been removed by the author.

  7. In 1980, Arthur R. Jensen wrote that IQ X Opportunity X Motivation is the best explicatory model for achievement in society (school, college, university, at the job). In 1996, Richard Lynn wrote that the slightly adjusted model IQ Opportunity X Conscientiousness is the best explanatory model for achievement. Both innate and environmental factors can be related to these (as least within groups), and that is also the case if you add other personality traits like agreeableness, openness and neuroticism, which are at least 40% inherited (albeit no studies in regard to Swedish immigrants exist):

    You can also add other factors to opportunity, such as the amount of school days during a full year. For example, Japanese children/students have in comparison with Swedes generally longer school days and about 50-60 more school days during a whole year:

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