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“A Rough Way Forward: The Struggles of Allochtone Students in Amsterdam Schools”

 

Ahmed was born in The Netherlands. His parents, however, are from Afghanistan, which makes him an allochtoon. Last year, when Ahmed was in eighth grade, his teacher selected him for VMBO-K, a vocational training track and one of the lowest levels of Dutch high school. When Ahmed wrote his CITO Test – the three-day national high school entrance exam taken by all students in their final year of primary school – and scored well enough to qualify for one of the higher levels, his teacher explained that he doubted whether Ahmed was sufficiently proficient in Dutch for advanced studies. Yet Ahmed had averaged seven out of 10 on all his previous language tests. Ahmed’s parents protested the teacher’s decision, but were rebuffed; the school’s policy is that the recommendation of a teacher is a better measure of a student’s potential than his CITO Test score. Meanwhile, several autochtone students in Ahmed’s class – that is, as opposed to the allochtone, those of pur laine Dutch descent – were surprised to discover their teacher had advanced them to a more challenging level of high school than they deserved according to their CITO Test scores.

Is Ahmed’s experience singular or typical? On February 20, 2007, the nightly Dutch news program Nova aired a segment claiming that teachers often give allochtone students lower high school advice than autochtone students with the same CITO Test scores. But the author of the report that inspired the news program, Kees Waijenberg, insists his findings were misinterpreted. In an interview, he explains that of the roughly 6,000 students who passed from primary to high school in Amsterdam last year, 121 of them were under-advised, a slight majority of whom were allochtonen. “If you actually read the report,” he says, “there’s no issue.”

Yet in reality there are several issues confronting allochtone students in Amsterdam. Every year, a small fraction of them are under-advised by their teachers – often, like in the case of Ahmed, for what appear to be discriminatory reasons. Furthermore, allochtonen are statistically underrepresented in the highest levels of Amsterdam’s high schools. For each of the past five years, another Dutch education researcher, M.L.V. Babeliowski, has been commissioned to produce a report for the Amsterdam municipal council about the city’s high school system. Over that time, his research shows that the attendance rate of Dutch and Western autochtone students at the highest levels of high school has risen sharply, from 51% in 2000-01 to 68% in 2004-05, while it remains low and mostly stagnant for non-Western allochtonen. Over that same period of time, the HAVO and VWO attendance rate of students from a Moroccan background rose to just 24% from 21% five years earlier.2 Compared to their autochtone peers, allochtone students are undereducated. Furthermore, because only graduates of the highest level of Dutch high school can attend university, allochtone students are less likely to pursue post-secondary education. Moving up a level is possible, but usually only if a student is willing to spend more years in school.

If Waijenberg offers evidence that the annual number of under-advised allochtone students is very low, how is it possible that allochtonen are so underrepresented in the best Amsterdam high schools? Babeliowski says the main reason is that allochtone parents are poorly educated. In fact, the best way to predict how a child will fare in school is to look at the educational background of that child’s parents. And the evidence, Babeliowski says, points to a widening educational gap. “The Dutch and non-Western allochtonen are staying in school longer and attending university more than ever before,” he explains. “The result is that their children are getting ahead, and the rest are falling further behind.” All else being equal, the undereducated families of today will raise the undereducated families of tomorrow, in an unending cycle that could leave allochtonen permanently disadvantaged.

The City of Amsterdam has already taken note of this urgent issue and is starting to change its policies accordingly. Until recently, for every dollar per autochtone pupil the City awarded a school, it would give that school an additional ninety cents per allochtone pupil. It is slowly fading out this system in favour of one that will give a greater amount of funding for children from low-educated families. Waijenberg, however, doubts how effective this system will be in creating a more level playing field. “Education can’t compensate for society,” he argues. “If children aren’t taught proper social manners, if they don’t learn Dutch well, if they aren’t encouraged to read at home, then no amount of money will fix the problem. It comes down to the cultural package of the parents.”

In Waijenberg’s opinion, the extent to which parents are involved in the education of their children is not connected to ethnicity. However, from another perspective, the “cultural package” of parents with respect to the education of their children is influenced to some degree by their cultural mores. In this view, the tradition of extensive parental involvement in childhood education runs deep in Dutch culture, and not necessarily in others. For example, the Dutch gymnasia – the elite VWO schools that specialize in the study of ancient Greek and Roman culture – were rescued recently from planned dismantlement by activist parents, most of whom were autochtonen.  Autochtone parents might also seem more disposed to promote the ‘genius’ of their children. Rinse van der Hoek – chairman of a regional branch of HINT, an organization of parents with gifted children – says that of the 75 families that belong to his group, only about two or three are allochtonen. Although HINT does not make any special effort to attract allochtone parents, it also does not try to exclude them. HINT does not require that children pass a test to prove their exceptional intelligence, and any parent that can pay the annual fee of 35 Euros can become a member.

It is equally possible, however, that many allochtone parents are simply unaware of organizations like HINT, or that they choose to help their children without the assistance of a formal organization. Perhaps in a small number of cases the giftedness of allochtone children goes unrecognized by their parents, just as it does sometimes in autochtone households. Also, it is unfair to expect allochtone parents to take any interest in saving the gymnasia, the bastions of Dutch elitism that are attended overwhelmingly by autochtone students.

Even some allochtonen think that ethnicity can play an important role in shaping the behaviour of parents towards their children. Take Salima Belhaj, for example, a successful and politically active university student, museum coordinator and allochtone of Moroccan descent. In her opinion, Moroccan families are less proud of the accomplishments of their children than, say, Turkish families. She conjectures that when their own dreams go unfulfilled, Moroccan parents become jealous of their children, who often integrate more easily into Dutch society. “Sometimes they tell their children, ‘you’re stupid,’ or ‘you won’t make it,’ to discourage them,” she says.

But Ahmed’s parents show him no jealousy and refuse to give up on his future. When Ahmed excelled on nearly all his tests in his first year of high school, his parents worried that he might become bored. Now they encourage him to read after he finishes his homework, which he does avidly. The parents who met recently at the first assembly of the Allochtone Parents Platform also break with the stereotypes of allochtone parents. Before coming to the Platform, Fatima was already active with the local branch of the Parents and Children Centre, where she often counsels allochtone parents who think their children are capable of going to a higher level of high school education than they were assigned by their primary school teachers. Fatima is contemplating enrolling her sixth grader in lessons outside of the regular school curriculum, especially ones that teach Dutch language skills. Another allochtone mother at the Platform meeting, who declines to give her name, tells us that in seventh grade her daughter was recommended for VMBO-K. That served as a warning and prompted her to register her daughter in a course that prepares students for the CITO Test. Now her daughter is breezing through her third grade of VWO.

The Platform, which is an initiative of the Multicultural Institute Forum and the Ministry of Education, consists exclusively of allochtonen, but only out of necessity. Currently there is not a single allochtoon serving in any of the four main parents’ organizations catering to the Amsterdam school district; the Amsterdam City Council hopes that in a few years the parents from the Platform will be ready to join some of those four organizations. It is especially important for the families of allochtone children to offer their children a strong support network when teachers – the very people to whom their children look for guidance and support – try to dissuade their students from realizing their potential. The story of Hulya, who is of Turkish origin, is a case in point. When she was in primary school Hulya’s CITO Test score qualified her for a relatively low level of high school, yet her teacher wanted to send her to the very lowest level of high school. At the time CITO Test scores were more influential than the advice of teachers, but Hulya was devastated by the lack of confidence displayed in her by someone she considered a role model. When Hulya graduated cum laude from MAVO, the contemporary equivalent of VMBO, she confided in another teacher that she wanted to become a lawyer. Her teacher replied that trying to become a lawyer would be a waste of her time.

Hulya was fortunate that she could aspire to be like her aunt, who showed by her example that it was possible for a Turkish woman in The Netherlands to study and accomplish her goals. Now, as a graduate in law from the University of Amsterdam, Hulya mentors children from poor socio-economic backgrounds. Last year, a Moroccan girl in her group wrote a perfect CITO Test and received VMBO advice from her teacher, who explained that she was concerned the girl would not receive sufficient support from her parents to succeed at a higher level. Hulya went to the school and confronted the teacher. “I asked her, ‘How come the Moroccan girl could have done so well on her test without the support of her parents?’” Hulya recalls. “Either she had her parents’ support or she didn’t need them anyway.” The decision was overturned, and the girl is now enjoying school at the VWO level.

Salima Belhaj might look to Hulya as a shining example of what an allochtone woman can accomplish with some will and determination. “This is Holland,” Belhaj insists. “If you want to succeed, you can. Perhaps it will take longer for some people, and it’s definitely wrong for allochtonen to get lower advice than they deserve. The bigger obstacle is the attitude that they can’t make it because the system is against them.” Hulya does not blame her long struggle through the Amsterdam school system on discrimination; but she does think that she was sensitive to the comments of her teachers, especially those that made her doubt herself. “You don’t hear discrimination but you certainly feel it,” she says.

Like Hulya, Oguz Dulkadir also offers support to smart young students, allochtonen and autochtonen alike, who are set back by various educational disadvantages. He is one of the founders of The Weekend Academy, a program that focuses on children ages 10 to 16 from the Slotervaart and Bos en Lommer neighbourhoods. Dulkadir noticed that in particular many allochtone students from those areas would practice exhaustively for the CITO Test to compensate for their deficiency in Dutch and because they felt dissatisfied with the first advice they received from school, which did not meet their parents’ or their own expectations. When they scored good test grades as a result of their practice, their teachers would overestimate their ability and recommend them for HAVO. Once in high school, however, many of them would fare poorly because their deficiencies in Dutch lingered and would be transferred to VMBO, a point confirmed by Babeliowski’s research. These often very bright children would become disillusioned and lose their motivation, some of them dropping out of school altogether. 

One problem is the neighbourhoods themselves. Babeliowski found that in the ‘white’ neighborhood of Amsterdam Centrum, 77% of students attend HAVO or VWO and 22% attend VMBO or LWOO, the lowest tier of high school education. Here live the parents who enroll in HINT and pressure the City to keep the gymnasiums intact. In contrast, 32% of students in the ‘black’ neighbourhood of Bos en Lommer attend HAVO or VWO, and 63% attend VMBO or LWOO. Of course it is impossible to tell whether the neighborhood drives behavior or merely reflects the behavior of the people living in it. What is certain is that Bos en Lommer and to a lesser degree Slotervaart are poorer and more criminal than other areas of the city. Parents are often too busy surviving to be able to spend extra time with their children. HINT is a luxury they simply cannot afford.

In addition to providing help with their homework and their Dutch language skills the Weekend Academy tries to instill the basics of social etiquette in its students. “Dutch children are taught from a young age to think critically and speak their minds without losing their tempers,” Dulkadir explains. “This sort of training is often lacking in allochtone homes, but it is very important if you want to function in Dutch society. Not doing anything about it is like knowing it rains a lot in Holland and not using an umbrella. You’re going to get wet.” Does this program not run the risk of assimilating allochtone children? No, Dulkadir retorts, it prepares them to be citizens of the world. To whatever extent allochtone children are disadvantaged by their socio-economic class, neighbourhood, or ethnic heritage, programs like those of the Weekend Academy should afford them an opportunity to learn at the same pace as their autochtone peers.

But the most important aspect of the Weekend Academy is its approach towards parents: it encourages them to sit in on sessions, offers services and information in their native languages and facilitates networking with teachers. This is crucial because as Anneke Bainathsah, project coordinator of the Allochtone Parents Platform points out, recent research shows that allochtone parents in Amsterdam are barely visible participants in the schools of their children. Mrs. Bainathsah says it is not as if most of those parents are uninterested. Rather, they often feel that they are not treated seriously, they do not know enough about the education system to engage it and they cannot effect positive change so long as they approach schools as individuals and not as a united front. In addition to funding schools more per student from an undereducated family, the City of Amsterdam should also help expand programs like the Weekend Academy and the Platform, both of which can help allochtone parents learn from one another and develop common strategies to serve the interests of their children.

However, not every allochtoon student is fortunate enough to attend the Weekend Academy or to have a parent participating in the Platform. Changes from within the school system are also essential to addressing the issues confronting allochtone students. For those who genuinely suffer a disadvantage in the Dutch language, Liesbeth Verheggen, a member of the daily board of the General Educational Association, recommends the creation of an intermediate grade between primary and high school that specializes in language training. This kopklas would not only assist allochtone students in genuine need of extra lessons; it would also deny teachers like Ahmed’s an excuse to hold back allochtone students who are qualified to learn at the top level of high school. And to prevent teachers from dumping all of their allochtone students into the kopklas by default, it should only be required for those students who fare poorly on a standardized language test. Verheggen also stresses the focus of other new educational initiatives should not be on ethnicity but instead on socio-economic disadvantages affecting allochtonen and autochtonen alike.

Changes also need to be made to the method of evaluating students for high school. If teachers were not permitted to give advice lower than CITO Test scores, bright students like Ahmed would be guaranteed a spot in one of the higher levels of high school. Critics might suggest that such a policy would let weaker students climb their way into an inappropriately challenging level of high school because they would merely have to perform well on a single test for which they could practice extensively. Those weaker students could cause significant disruption and turnover once they reached high school. However, statistics show that under the current system in which the advice of teachers trumps CITO Test scores most allochtone students already transfer to a different level of high school than they were assigned in primary school. Thus, the number of allochtone students who switch levels is unlikely to be any greater than it already is were the recommended change to take effect.

This shift in policy might also help curb the influence of discouraging teachers. Currently, when an allochtoon is given lower advice than she deserves because her teacher perceives some deficiency in her, she might experience a loss of self-esteem and perform worse on her CITO Test than she ought to. Since it would require students to write the CITO Test first, this new policy would help reduce the negative effects of discouraging teachers and potentially raise the test scores of deserving allochtone students.

Clearly, a small number of allochtonen like Ahmed are not only under-advised by their teachers but a number of them are also routinely under-encouraged, as in the case of Hulya. The above-mentioned changes would help remedy both these issues. Furthermore, in recognition of the important role that both teachers and parents play in the education of children, the City of Amsterdam should augment its support for outreach projects like The Weekend Academy and the Allochtone Parents Platform. Bright and accomplished students like Ahmed are the hope of allochtone families that aspire to prosper in Dutch society, but without a network of support that helps them in school and at home allochtone students from low educated families will remain at a constant disadvantage. Unless some action is taken soon to assist allochtone students they face a rough way forward.

 

References

 

Interviews 

Ms. Salima Belhaj, museum coordinator, sociology student and member of political party D66 (Friday, June 22, 2007).

Mrs. Anneke Bainathsah-Bhoepsing, project coordinator at Forum Institute for Multicultural Development (Wednesday, June 20, 2007).

Mrs. Meral Nijenhuis responsible for the organisation of Bijeenkomst (Meeting) De glazen bol: Cito-score en schooladvies (Thursday, June 21, 2007).

Mr. Drs. M.I.V. Babeliowsky Educational research (Onderwijsonderzoek), responsible for the writing and composition of the Rapport together with Drs. De Boer: Het Rapport Voortgezet Onderwijs in Beeld (The Rapport High School Education in Perspective), (Monday, June 25, 2007).

Mr. Uguz Dulkadir initiator and one of the founders of Weekend Academy. (Tuesday, June 26, 2007).

Mr. Kees Waijenberg Gemeente Amsterdam, Dienst Maatschappelijke Ontwikkeling, Afdeling Onderwijs;

Municipality of Amsterdam, Service for Social Development; Department of Education (Tuesday, June 26, 2007).

Mrs. Liesbeth Verheggen lid van het dagelijks bestuur van de Algemene Onderwijsbond. 

Board member of the daily governance of the General Educational Association. (Wednesday, June 27th, 2007)

Websites 

Gemeente Amsterdam, Dienst Maatschappelijke Ontwikkeling, Basisschooladviezen en etniciteit.

Municipality of Amsterdam, Service for Social Development, Primary education and ethnicity 

February 22, 2007

Het rapport Voortgezet onderwijs in beeld (Rapport High School Education in the Picture).

http: //www.dmo.amsterdam.nl/?ActItmIdt=38067 (last visited June 26th, 2007).

Forum Instituut voor Multiculturele Ontwikkeling, Platform Allochtone Ouders en Onderwijs.

Forum Institute for Multicultural Development, Platform Allochtone Parents and Education.

http://www.forum.nl/paoo/index.html (last visited June 26th 2007).

Algemeen Onderwijsbond, Persberichten, Onjuist beeld naar aanleiding van rapport over schooladvies en etniciteit in Amsterdam.

General Educational Association, Press messages, Wrong image due to the rapport on school advice and ethnicity.

http://www.aob.nl/i.aspx?a=6327 (last visited June 26th 2007).

 

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Netherlands Netherlands 2007

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