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Classroom composition affects minority students social integration and identities

New study by Prof. Dr Clemens Kroneberg suggests re-consider class allocation.

A portrait of Prof. Dr. Clemens Kroneberg in front of the WiSo Logo

Wiso Prof. Dr Clemens Kroneberg (ISS) and his colleagues Prof. Dr Hanno Kruse (University of Amsterdam) and Prof. Dr Andreas Wimmer (Columbia University, New York) published a new study in 2021 focusing on classroom assignments in schools and the resulting alignment between ethnic origin and gender across classes. The study found that fewer inter-ethnic friendships form in school classes where students of different ethnic origins tend to be also of the opposite sex. Such attribute alignment also results in diminished feelings of national belonging among minority students.

Over the last decades, many societies have become more ethnically and culturally diverse. While such diversity has many positive consequences, it also comes with questions of belonging and identity. In their Policy Brief “Classroom assignment and social cohesion: Why ethnic origin and gender of students should be considered together”, Prof Kroneberg and his co-authors point out one way in which feelings of belonging and social cohesion can be strengthened in schools. The Policy Brief of the Cluster of Excellence ECONtribute is based on the article "When Ethnicity and Gender Align: Classroom Composition, Friendship Segregation, and Collective Identities in European Schools" that was published this year in the European Sociological Review.

The study uses survey data from 6200 14-15-year-olds from 423 school classes in England, Germany, the Netherlands, and Sweden. The researchers examine the consequences of classroom compositions, in which students of different ethnic origin tend to be also of the opposite sex – e.g., when girls of Turkish origin face mostly boys without a migration background.

The results show that such attribute alignment strongly reduces the frequency of inter-ethnic friendships in the school class. In contrast, sex segregation is not affected but generally strong in this age group. In addition, Prof Kroneberg and his co-authors found that attribute alignment weakens ethnic minority students’ feelings to belong to the nation. Students without a migration background are not affected by attribute alignment. This confirms theoretical expcetations as those students usually take their national belonging for granted and are widely accepted by society as members of the nation.

The researchers conclude that “in ethnically diverse societies, schools play an important role in promoting shared feelings of belonging and positive social relations that create social cohesion and buffer against ethnic polarisation”. To reduce segregation and promote a shared national identity, schools should try to avoid attribute alignment when allocating students to classes. This is not part of common practices, as a smaller survey of school headmasters at 23 secondary schools in Germany’s most populous state showed. While 17 headmasters reported to take into account students’ sex in classroom assignment, only four of them factor in students’ migration background and only six focus also on the alignment of different attributes.

The study is part of the project "Social Integration and Boundary-Making in Adolescence" funded by the European Research Council.