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The Children of Immigrants and Host-Society Educational Systems: Mexicans in the United States and North Africans in France

by Richard Alba & Roxane Silberman - 2009

Background/Context: The educational fate of the children of low-wage immigrants is a salient issue in all the economically developed societies that have received major immigration flows since the 1950s. The article considers the way in which educational systems in the two countries structure the educational experiences and shape the opportunities of the children of immigrants.

Purpose/Objective/Research Question/Focus of Study: This article examines the experience of the children of Mexican immigrants in the United States and of North African immigrants in France. Both groups are low-wage labor migrants with low educational attainment relative to the native born.

Research Design: The article uses data from the U.S. Census and the 2003 Formation Qualification Professionelle Survey in France, as well as analysis of other research on the two countries to compare educational processes and attainment for the two groups.

Conclusions/Recommendations: The comparison of the two systems shows that although the French and U.S. educational systems differ in many ways, the outcomes are in fact quite similar. In both systems, the children of low-wage labor migrants are tracked into the low streams of the educational hierarchy and have lower attainment than their native-born peers. At the same time, in both countries, a small percentage of children of immigrants do manage to succeed. The authors conclude that despite apparent differences between the two systems, residential segregation and educational tracking produce these similar outcomes, which also reflect the determination of native-born middle-class parents to preserve their privileged status and thwart efforts to make the educational system more open.

Mexicans in the United States and North Africans in France represent in these two countries the largest immigrant populations whose incorporation can be viewed as problematic. The concern about successful incorporation applies not just to the immigrant generation but also to the second generation, now quite numerous, as well. For the children of these immigrants, there is a high degree of commonality in their starting positions and in their outcomes, at least as of the moment when they leave the school system. Their parents have very low levels of education, and they enter complex educational systems in economically advanced societies where labor market position is determined largely by educational credentials and experiences. This article attempts to identify the key aspects in the school systems that determine the educational trajectories of immigrant-origin and native youth and to ascertain the points of similarity and difference between the systems.


Mexicans and North Africans both originate in countries that have suffered from proximity to the societies that now receive them. In the case of Mexico, the conquest of the Southwest in the mid-19th century is but the best known instance of the country’s vulnerability to its neighbor from the north. In the case of North Africa, all the countries—Algeria, Morocco, and Tunisia—from which the immigrants have come were at one time either colonies of France or, in the case of Algeria, fully incorporated into it. Nevertheless, the degree to which these immigrations can be regarded as postcolonial is variable, with the Algerians marking the extreme case, given the vividness of the memories of the colonial period and war of independence for the immigrants and for many French (Galissot, 1987; Lucassen, 2005)

The immigrants who are the parents of the contemporary second generation have mostly arrived with very low levels of education by comparison with those of U.S. and French natives. For example, about half of the immigrant parents of Mexican American school-age children in the 2000 Census did not go beyond the eighth grade (Hernandez, Denton, & McCartney, 2006). In the case of the North Africans, the lowest levels of education are found among the Algerians, whereas Tunisians are much more highly educated (Tribalat, 1995).

The second generation of both immigrant populations has made major strides, on average, beyond the low educational levels of their parents but remains well behind the educational attainment of natives, as demonstrated in Table 1 (FQP 2003 survey, Institut national de la statistique et des études économiques; U.S. Census Bureau, 2000). In the U.S. case, the data were drawn from 2000 census data and could not be limited to the second generation because of the absence of a parental nativity question in the census; however, considerable research shows that in cross-sectional data such as these, there is not much difference between the educational attainment of the second, third, and later generations (Farley & Alba, 2002). Hence, the educational distribution of the U.S.-born is a suitable proxy for that of the second generation.

Table 1. Educational Disparities for Second-Generation Mexicans and North Africans Compared With the Native Majority in France and the United States



Born 1971–75, age 25–29 in 2000

Mexican Americans

Born 1971–75, age 25–29 in 2000

Native French

Born 1969–1978, age 25–34 in 2003


Born in France 1969–1978, age 25–34 in 2003



No secondary credential

In the U.S., no HS diploma; in France, no diploma other than BEPC





Basic secondary


U.S. high school diploma; in France, CAP-BEP or baccalauréat





Some postsecondary education















No credential






Basic credential






Some postsecondary education












The U.S.-born Mexican students suffer a considerable disadvantage by comparison with their White peers, although the gap is not as large as some have claimed (e.g., cf. Alba, 2006; Huntington, 2004). A fifth to a quarter of young Mexican Americans have left high school without a diploma, condemning them to the lowest levels of the labor market. This fraction is 2 1/2 to 3 times the rate among non-Hispanic Whites. A smaller disparity appears at the other end of the educational distribution, among those who gain some postsecondary education. It is noteworthy that almost half of Mexican American students now go beyond high school. They are therefore positioning themselves to qualify for jobs that are in the middle class, broadly construed.

Second-generation North Africans are also much more highly educated than their parents (Silberman & Fournier, 2006b). However, the proportion of the Maghrebin second generation that leaves school without a useful diploma remains high.1 Even though the French educational system has undergone a substantial democratization during several decades, second-generation Maghrebins who have left school recently—mainly young people who were born in France or entirely educated there—still show substantially higher percentages with no diploma or with limited educational attainment. Nevertheless, the ratio of disparity in relation to the native French is not as high as its equivalent in the United States: Among both Maghrebin men and women, the percentage without a useful diploma is not quite twice its value among the native French. But the absolute values are higher than for Mexicans in the United States, with one third of second-generation men having left school with no diploma to present to prospective employers.

Insofar as its members obtain school credentials, the Maghrebin second generation more often leaves school with a diploma from an intermediate level, such as the general baccalauréat, which produces weak results in the labor market. In terms of postsecondary education, the degree of disparity in relation to the native French is very similar to what is found in the United States: Among men, the native rate of university attendance for at least a year is about 50% higher than the second-generation rate, but the absolute levels are lower. Few of the Maghrebins earn a university degree, and, as a group, they have now been surpassed in this respect by the Portuguese second generation (Silberman & Fournier, 2006a), whose members have been said to prefer to take the short vocational tracks that lead to rapid entry to the labor market (Tribalat, 1995). As in the Mexican case, however, it is important to underscore that a large percentage of the Maghrebin youth do at least obtain an intermediate credential, and a smaller group finishes with a university degree.



The broad similarity of educational outcomes for second-generation Mexicans and North Africans is all the more intriguing insofar as the educational systems that these groups must negotiate appear, at least in their formal descriptions, to differ in some critical ways.2 (Diagrams of these systems may help some readers to follow the ensuing discussion; a diagram of the U.S. system can be found in the Crul & Holdaway, 2009, article in this special issue; we present the French system as Figure 1.) Most significantly, the U.S. system varies considerably from one location to another, whereas the French system is organized to be more uniform across the country. In theory, this difference should produce greater relative disadvantages for Mexican Americans than for North Africans. That is, the funding of American schools is heavily dependent on locally raised taxes, producing marked inequalities among schools in resources and in the qualifications of teachers (e.g., Kozol, 1991; Orfield, 2001). These inequalities impact negatively on minorities, both native and immigrant, because of residential segregation and the minorities’ concentration in places that are relatively impoverished. From the perspective of its organizing principles, the French system, by contrast, should treat schools more uniformly, reducing (but not eliminating) the opportunities for affluent areas to provide their schools with greater resources. Moreover, in 1981, the French government put in place a policy, the ZEP (for Zones of Educational Priority), to provide additional funding to schools in difficulty according to criteria that include the percentage of immigrants in the catchment area. The French system now also teaches a single curriculum up through the last class of the college, which corresponds to the U.S. middle school, so that the point of divergence into different tracks has been postponed to the lycée, or high school (Merle, 2002). Far more than is the case in the contemporary United States, then, France has attempted to redress inequalities through the school system.

Figure 1. The Current French Educational System from Preprimary to Tertiary Education

click to enlarge

In a similar vein, the systems differ in the way that their public and private sectors relate to one another. Both countries have well-developed private-school systems. In the United States, about 10% of students are attending private schools in any given year (and an additional 2% are educated at home); in France, the comparable figures are 14% at the primary level and 20% at the secondary level, and a recent estimate is that about a third of students spend at least a year in the private system by the time they have completed their secondary school years (Langouët & Léger, 1997). In both countries as well, the private system is frequently used as a refuge by students from middle-class and more affluent circumstances whose families want to avoid public schools with many minority and poor students. However, in the United States, the private system is truly separate, which means that at its elite levels, it can provide educational resources far better than those available in the public schools. In France, by contrast, the private system, which consists mainly of religious schools (with some nonreligious ones that are very well known and found typically in major cities), is much more integrated with the public system. As long as the private schools, mostly Catholic (Héran, 1995), agree to teach the national curriculum and accept the same constraints as the public schools (e.g., number of students in a class), they receive state funding for the teaching staff, who mostly have the same qualifications as public school teachers. So, from the parents’ perspective, the main difference with the public sector remains the avoidance, or at least low number, of socially inappropriate children (because the private schools have complete freedom to select and expel students). It must also be noted that the French private schools tend to be much less expensive than those in the United States, thereby allowing a few immigrant families to send their children to them.

The French system has also undergone a significant “democratization” in recent decades, with the aim of opening up pathways for working-class and immigrant students to the “baccalauréat,” the indispensable credential earned at the end of the high school years that leads to higher education. One sign of this democratization has been the successive postponement, since the 1950s, of the moment in their educational careers when students are separated between vocational and academic tracks (Prost, 1968); simultaneously, long-sequence vocational tracks have been established at the upper level. These developments have especially affected the short-sequence vocational curricula (Silberman & Fournier, 2006a), which were previously the fate of many immigrant students and ended in an early departure from school and entry into the labor market (see Tribalat, 1995). These separate curricula were formerly institutionalized in distinct middle schools (the colleges), which sealed the separation of the students on different tracks and also the destiny of those in vocational programs; now students attend comprehensive middle schools that house various programs. Another major element of democratization has been the creation of new types of baccalauréat, deemed “professional” or “technical.” They allow students who are not willing, or allowed, to commit themselves to the classical curriculum of the traditional baccalauréat to take an educational track that prepares them to continue into the university system (Merle, 2002). The explicit goal of the democratization was to bring 80% of French students into a terminal class preparing for one or another baccalauréat. Nevertheless, by 2003, only 70% of a cohort attained this level. Moreover, even though there has been an important increase over 30 years in the proportion of students obtaining this credential, from 20% to 62%, only 33% obtain the academic baccalauréat, and just 20% do so on time.

The U.S. system offers second chances to an unusual extent; access to postsecondary education is potentially open to the large majority of each cohort, because the only requirement is a high school diploma (which can even be earned through an equivalency test). Although the postsecondary system is highly stratified, with colleges and universities recognized as having varying quality and thus leading to different ultimate outcomes, affirmative action at the university level enhances the access of immigrant minorities, especially to the elite tier of the university system (Bowen & Bok, 1998; Massey, Charles, Lundy, & Fischer, 2002). The linkage between education and the labor market is unusually loose.

In France, a feature of the system that in principle should benefit the children of immigrants is the preparation for schooling through maternelles, which many children begin to attend at age 3 and which educate nearly all 4- and 5-year-olds in the country. The maternelles, by providing a common preparatory foundation to nearly all children and introducing children from immigrant homes into a French-language environment, are one way that the French system attempts to overcome the very different endowments that they receive from their families. One study of differences in the educational attainment of the children of Turkish immigrants in different European countries credits the maternelles with the somewhat more favorable outcomes achieved in France (Crul & Vermeulen, 2003); other studies, however, suggest that in general, improvement does not last beyond the end of the primary school (Oeuvrard, 2000).

The French system is more explicitly articulated than the U.S. system, and it contains more branches once the secondary level is reached. The French system also offers a much wider array of credentials, many of which are linked fairly explicitly to labor market outcomes, a characteristic that is a product of the social planning of the post-World War II period (Tanguy, 1991). Access to university education has been quite selective until the recent reform aiming to democratize the system; however, access remains more selective than in the United States.

One issue that each system has struggled to deal with is the presence of children who reside illegally in the country. The number of such children is very large in the United States; by one well-accepted estimate of the size of the undocumented population, nearly 2 million children fall into this category. Another 3 million children are U.S. born and therefore U.S. citizens but live in families in which at least one parent is undocumented (Passel, 2006). Their right to an education at the primary and secondary levels has been guaranteed by a decision of the U.S. Supreme Court; however, the right of undocumented individuals to a university education is less clear, especially because they cannot receive public monies. It is thought that many of these children drop out of school without any diploma because without legal status, their education is of little use in the U.S. labor market, but there are no systematic data about their educational attainment.

In France, the situation of such children is also difficult, in large part because of an absence of clear policy. The question of students “without papers,” as the French expression puts it, can be posed at all levels of the educational system. In the mid-1980s, Pierre Chevènement, the then Minister of Education, reaffirmed by specific instructions to the schools the principle of educating all children regardless of their legal status. Policy toward them hardened, however, as the undocumented immigrant population grew and when the right returned to power. Moreover, the practices at the local level (the mayor’s office generally registers children for primary school) are diverse. Nevertheless, it is apparent that a large number of children in irregular situations are being educated at all levels of the French system. Matters became quite tense at the end of the 2005–2006 school year, when many of these children were threatened by expulsion, and many French parents and teachers took their side. Nicolas Sarkozy, then the Minister of the Interior, was forced to retract his deadline and to put in place a procedure for reviewing requests for regularization.

Thus, despite the formally greater uniformity of the school system in France and its more systematic efforts to democratize schooling, the results achieved for the children of disfavored immigrants from North Africa are similar to those obtained by the children of Mexican immigrants, an equally disfavored group, in the United States, where the school system varies enormously from one locality to another and between its public and private sectors. The rest of this article is devoted to understanding how the educational differences between the children of immigrants and the children of the native born emerge through increasingly disparate trajectories.


In both countries, the differences among population groups begin to be constructed at the elementary school level, though probably more importantly in the United States. To begin with, there is very substantial segregation of second-generation children from middle-class majority-group children. In both countries, this is largely a function of well-entrenched residential segregation, which results in concentrations of minority and majority families in different jurisdictions, as much as segregation by neighborhood within the same city; thus, in the United States, European American families with schoolage children tend to be found in heavily White suburbs, whereas similar minority families are more often located in large cities or inner suburbs. These residential patterns are nearly the reverse of those in France, where immigrant minorities are concentrated in specific suburbs (banlieues) around major cities. But the impact on school segregation is probably equivalent.

Recent analyses from the United States demonstrate that Latino children, along with Black children, are increasingly likely to be found in heavily minority elementary schools, partly because of the declining proportion of European American children among the schoolage population, and then among those attending public schools (Orfield, 2001). We have no comparable systematic data on school segregation from France, but because immigrants are frequently concentrated in separate municipalities in the suburbs (Guillon, 1990; Preteceille, 1995), a fairly high level of segregation is implied. Recent studies have shown that in the schools qualifying for the ZEP program, where immigrants’ children are particularly concentrated, social homogeneity has been increasing (Benabou, Kramarz  & Prost, 2004).

In both systems, school choice is limited. In the United States, the principle determining where a child is educated at public expense still reflects the concept of the “neighborhood school,” despite attempts, especially from more conservative parts of the political spectrum, to create opportunities for more parental choice. In France, the government has increasingly limited school choice in recent decades, imposing a mapping of addresses to schools (carte scolaire). This practice was in fact an attempt to restrict the ability of more affluent families to avoid local schools with many poor and/or immigrant students, but at the same time, it implies as a matter of policy that school composition will reflect the local resident population and thus that schools will be segregated in the same way as the neighborhoods. For those affluent parents who find that the carte scolaire will send their children to the socially “wrong” school, private schools are always an option, and in fact they are frequently used at the primary level.

In the American case, this school-based segregation of children corresponds with disturbing levels of inequality in school funding that create disadvantages for schools serving heavily minority populations. This is not simply traceable to the heavy reliance of American school systems on locally based sources of funding. The evidence shows that there are significant disparities among the individual schools within local systems; these disparities are probably explicable in terms of the political leadership of school systems because school boards are elected and often most responsive to more affluent, better educated parents (Condron & Roscigno, 2003; Kozol, 1991).

These inequalities are probably enhanced by features that provide a more enriched educational experience in schools to children from middle-class European American backgrounds.3 Although curricula are, to some degree, standardized across schools—at least in the sense that states define minimal standards that must be met for different subjects in each grade, and the testing movement has further strengthened the role of standards—schools that are more resource rich and serve middle-class populations are able to offer their students many educational supplements to the minimum standards, so that differences in learning grow over time (Kozol, 1991). Also playing a role in the development of inequalities is so-called ability grouping. Ability grouping is an informal tracking process that often occurs within classrooms, whereby teachers group students according to their knowledge of a given subject, such as reading, and their presumed facility to make progress (e.g., rapid vs. slow learners).

Inequalities in school funding are far more limited in France, though they exist and have increased in recent years. Since the end of the 1990s, the national government has decentralized an increasing share of the financing of, and decision making about, local schools (Henriot-Van Zanten, 1990; Louis, 1994). It has nevertheless retained the budget for teachers, the single most important factor determining the level of inequality. The financial support provided for the teaching staff in a school is, moreover, a function of the numbers of students and classes, and the Ministry of Education strictly controls the number of students per class. The ability of even school principals to exert an influence over the teaching budget remains limited.

Moreover, social inequalities may be partly counterbalanced through the increased funding for schools in areas with social problems. The so-called ZEP policy provides supplementary support for the teaching staff at such schools, with an aim of reducing the number of students per class. Eleven percent of the primary schools are under the ZEP, but little data exist to establish the extent of the reductions in class size due to the policy. In any event, the pressures to reduce class size are also powerful on the schools serving more affluent areas, because the parents there advertise it to school administrators as a major factor in deciding whether they will send their children to the public school. They can find justification, if they need it, in a recent study that seems to demonstrate that when classes at the primary level are reduced by two children, school achievement improves (Piketty, 2004).

Inequalities have clearly sharpened in domains where funding and direction have traditionally been under the control of local and regional authorities. Thus, the authorities have had charge of budgets for the purchase of schoolbooks, equipment, and other resources. They also have a new responsibility for the construction and maintenance of school buildings, which is leading to notable differences among areas in the condition and modernization of school structures (just as in the United States, it should be added).

Perhaps even more important for the development of inequalities based on residence is the role of local authorities in financing supplementary activities and functions (Dutercq, 2000). They are responsible for the supervision of children during school vacations (which are numerous in France), when their parents are unable to take care of them during the workday. These periods of supervision have taken on more and more of a pedagogical character (e.g., trips to the theater) and play an increasing part in the access of children from poor or immigrant families to cultural resources. Such families sometimes send their children to the vacation supervision even when a parent is at home because the cost is modest. Similarly, the primary schools offer after-school care, generally for 2 extra hours, for which parents have to pay a modest fee but which they can ask the local authorities to pay. Since the 1970s, some schools have tried to use these supplementary hours (les “etudes”) to help students with their homework, with the aim of reducing socially based inequalities.

The connection of the development of inequalities linked to social origin with supplementary school activities is better illustrated by the so-called nature classes (classes de nature). They include excursions with a pedagogical character and even exchanges with other countries, the latter often connected with instruction in foreign languages, which now begins in the maternelles. These classes are partly financed by local authorities and partly by parents, thus placing children from poor families at a disadvantage (although limited numbers of scholarships, bourses, are generally available). The schools in the more affluent areas organize such activities more frequently because of the pressures of parents to provide this form of cultural and educational enrichment and their willingness to pay the costs (Glasman, 2001).

U.S. schools have made more deliberate efforts than those in France to meet the educational needs of students coming from minority-language homes, though these efforts, especially when based on bilingual strategies, have been contested and uneven. That these students are entitled to equal educational opportunities has been established by court decision, specifically the Supreme Court’s Lau decision in 1974. However, what is required to create equal educational opportunity differs considerably across states and has changed over time. Indeed, the term bilingual education has become more a political code word—reflecting polarized opinions over the appropriate policies for immigrant-origin and minority students—than a reference to a specific set of school policies. Thus, the practices encompassed by the term are quite varied, ranging from educating students for most of the school day in the minority language to placing them for limited periods of time in classes that teach English as a second language. In recent years, these policies have been constrained by referenda in some states. This process began with a heavily financed campaign in California, led by the entrepreneur Ronald Unz, that successfully imposed new requirements on student participation in bilingual programs (schools now need an annual letter from parents requesting their child’s placement in a bilingual classroom, and these requests are honored only if the parents have visited the school). Although the practical effects of the California referendum are still not clear, there can be no doubt that it has placed a large question mark on the future of bilingual education.

French schools have provided less in the way of assistance to ease students who speak languages other than French into mainstream classrooms. In some schools, classes of “reception” (classes d’accueil [CLIN] in the primary school) exist to help newly arriving immigrant students make the transition into regular classrooms (Lorcerie, 1994). They were intended to provide only a few months of preparation, but several studies have shown that students have been relegated to these classes for long periods and that even some French students coming from areas outside the metropole (e.g., the Antilles) have been placed in them. There were also attempts, especially during the 1970s, to provide courses in the language and culture of the immigrant students’ countries of origin, taught by instructors named by these countries. The purpose was more to cultivate the students’ respect for their heritage countries than to provide a transition to mainstream classes. However, the success of the courses was disputed, in any event, and even some immigrant parents were against them. A report issued in 1985 (Berque, 1985) argued that the policy was failing because of stigmatization of the students who were participating and of weak control over the teachers and what they were teaching, among other factors. The children of immigrants are probably further disadvantaged by the relatively recent policy of introducing foreign language instruction at an early age; it now begins in the maternelles (in affluent areas) or in the primary schools. Because the first foreign language is usually English, the children from immigrant families are confronted with the need in the beginning school years to learn two unfamiliar languages—the other, of course, being French.

It is difficult to know how much the children of immigrants have benefited from the policies that have been tried during the last 20 years to help children who have difficulties in school. At various times, schools have been permitted to establish ability groupings within primary grades, allowing students to pursue coursework at different speeds and to different depths; officially, this policy has had the aim of helping students avoid repeating the year, but in practice, it also helps the better students. Consequently, the policy has been exploited by some school principals to retain students from middle-class families. Extremely contested, the policy has been allowed only sporadically. In any event, the practice of requiring students to repeat the school year, which is far more widespread in France than in the United States, plays a significant role in creating inequalities between the children of immigrants and native students. (In the United States, by contrast, the criticism has been that unprepared students are pushed ahead by so-called social promotion.) Retention in grade, which must be recommended by the teaching staff and can be appealed by parents, is concentrated at key transitional moments in the educational career, including the 1st and 3rd years of primary school, the 1st and 4th years of middle school, and the 1st year of high school. The children from immigrant families have been more likely than native French children to be required to repeat a school year. Although there have been attempts to limit grade repetitions, the practice continues to return and even to develop (Paul, 1996). According to data for 1995, the children of immigrants were much more likely than the others to be 1 or 2 years behind at the entry to middle school (Caille, 2005).


In both systems, the inequalities among students that have developed at the primary school level are enhanced at the secondary school level and are frequently expressed in formal ways through provision of different curricula or placement in different tracks. The college and lycée are the French equivalents to the American middle school and high school, respectively. In both systems, entry to the lower of these levels—middle school and college—occurs usually after 6 years of primary education. There is some variability in the United States in the grade range included in primary schools, because in some places, the same schools contain grades from kindergarten to eighth grade.

Some previously noted aspects of the primary school systems carry over into the secondary school level. Most significant is school segregation, even though secondary schools generally have larger catchment areas than do primary schools. School segregation is thus somewhat reduced through the larger areas covered by secondary schools, but it does not cease to be an important consideration. Likewise, in the United States, where there is school segregation, there is, correspondingly, inequality of resources largely due to the role of local funding bases.

However, starting at the lower secondary school level and developing further at the higher one, segregation of students within school buildings takes on a larger role in the creation of learning inequalities among students according to social origin. This is the phenomenon of tracking, for which an extensive literature exists in the United States (e.g., Oakes, 2005). Tracking can occur in the form of disparate curricula that determine students’ coursework once they are placed in a track; thus, students may take vocational courses that are intended to help them find jobs when they leave secondary school, or they may take academic courses, many of which overlap with university-level coursework and are intended to prepare them to enter universities. Tracking also frequently occurs on a subject-by-subject basis, so a student may be placed in an accelerated class in mathematics and a normally progressing one in English. However, research has established that there are correlations between student placement in different subjects; students placed in rapidly advancing classes in one subject tend to be placed in such classes in some other subjects as well (though not necessarily in all), whereas those placed in one slowly moving class tend to be found in others also. Research has further shown strong correlations between these placements, and class, racial, ethnic origins. Consequently, many schools that do not appear to be segregated from outside the building—the stream of students entering in the morning is quite diverse—are strongly segregated within them, so that middle-class White students have little contact with fellow minority students within classrooms, and vice versa.

One of the unclear aspects of American school systems is the correspondence of family and student aspirations with educational experience at this crucial level of the system. Surveys routinely show that minority students and their families typically cherish high educational aspirations, extending to professional and postgraduate degrees. Second-generation students in particular have been characterized as exhibiting optimism about their futures (Kao & Tienda, 1995), which may help them weather initially unfavorable educational experiences. However, the realities of student placement and achievement in secondary schools often are at odds with high aspirations.

For many minority students whose aspirations are thwarted in the school system, the risk is that they will become engaged in oppositional subcultures and their “failure” crystallized. The idea that oppositional cultures appeal to minority youth because of their experiences and fears of rejection is traceable to the work of John Ogbu and his collaborators (e.g., Fordham & Ogbu, 1987). Although their formulation has been disputed, it seems unassailable that groups of alienated students form in secondary schools and engage in risky behavior (e.g., deviant acts, such as petty crime and drug use) while disengaging from academic work; this disengagement can be manifested in irregular attendance, refusal to do assignments both in and out of the classroom, failure of courses, and eventual dropping out. Students on these trajectories are usually supported socially and psychologically by similarly inclined peers. Although some European American students become involved in such oppositional subcultures, minority students are at greater risk because of their uncertainties about acceptance by mainstream teachers and educational institutions, if not outright experiences with discrimination, and greater anxieties about their future. Entry into oppositional subcultures is implicated to some extent in the higher dropout rates of Hispanics and African Americans, especially boys.

The extent to which minority students can be protected from the risks associated with oppositional cultures by engagement with ethnic and immigrant cultures has been the subject of considerable research and debate. The “segmented assimilation” perspective formulated by Alejandro Portes and his collaborators (e.g., Portes & Zhou, 1993) asserts the positive and protective role that ethnic cultures can play, and the research of Zhou and Bankston (1998) has provided supportive evidence from a study of the Vietnamese of New Orleans. This line of argument suggests that maintenance of the immigrant language by the second generation is a key to avoiding the risks of “premature” acculturation and the emulation of oppositional models of behavior and thinking. However, the role attributed to language has created doubts about the general validity of this line of argument; the most successful second-generation groups are of Asian origin and tend not to be bilingual to any great extent in the second generation, whereas Mexicans and other Latinos, in which second-generation bilingualism is most concentrated, have far higher rates of school failure and dropout (Portes & Rumbaut, 2001). Because some research shows that bilingual students earn better grades, it is clear that the relationships among these factors need far more research and may be contingent on ways that have yet to be specified (Lutz, 2004).

It should be noted that although majority students may also participate in oppositional school cultures, they are less likely than immigrant-origin and minority students to suffer the full consequences of their participation. Undoubtedly, this fact is attributable to the many second chances afforded by the U.S. system and the greater resources of their families. For instance, the greater economic resources of their families mean that many majority students are better able to weather periods of idleness and to take advantage of opportunities to recover academically, such as private tutoring or academies for troubled students. As an indication of the significance of these differences over the long term, the New York Second Generation Project has found that the rates of arrest for criminal behavior are quite similar between native Whites and immigrant youth but that the consequences are quite different, with the children of immigrants and those of native minorities suffering more severely (Kasinitz, Mollenkopf, Waters, & Holdaway, 2008).

In France, the ability of parents to select the middle school of their children has become increasingly limited in recent decades. However, in the same period, the college has become the most problematic stage of the school system partly because of the democratization of the French educational system, which has unified once separate curricula (academic and vocational). In the suburbs, with their high concentrations of immigrant and poor families, the college is the site of considerable violence beginning with the second year. Dropping out, which often takes the form of chronic absenteeism, is a common phenomenon during the 3rd and 4th years. Moreover, since the 1980s, there has been a growing decentralization of authority at this level of the system (Legrand, 2000; Louis, 1994) that has widened differences among middle schools. Thus, local and regional authorities have increasing financial responsibility for the maintenance of school buildings and for the acquisition of educational materials, such as books—matters that were previously in their domain only with respect to primary schools. Even more recently, they have acquired the responsibility for hiring auxiliary personnel, such as guards and social workers, who play an important role in the functioning of schools in the most disadvantaged areas. However, often these areas—for example, the immigrant suburbs—depend on municipal and regional governments that are themselves strapped for resources. Hence, the inequalities among the schools widen (Thomas, 2005; Trancart, 1998).

Parents who wish to prevent their children’s attendance at a school that they view as problematic often resort to the private school system after the 6th and final year of primary school. Some of these children then reenter the public system at the high school level. Another strategy pursued by some parents pivots on the so-called hidden curricula (curricula cachés). These curricula involve the provision of instruction in difficult modern or ancient languages (e.g., Japanese, Russian, Ancient Greek), or unusual courses developed by principals to raise the prestige of their schools, such as the classes européennes, in which some of the instruction is in a foreign language such as English or German (Duru-Bellat & Van Zanten, 1999). This sort of differentiation begins with the 3rd year of middle school, when students start to study a second foreign language. The hidden curricula produce social segregation across schools—for example, not all middle schools can offer unusual languages such as Japanese—and also within school buildings, creating differences between classes similar to the effects of tracking in the United States (Duru-Bellat & Mingat, 1997).

The democratization of the school system has undoubtedly benefited some children of immigrants by postponing the point at which children begin a purely vocational curriculum, thus giving them a longer period of exposure to the same general curriculum that middle-class native French children receive. However, some native French families have successfully thwarted the intent of the democratization policy by resorting to strategies such as the hidden curricula (which can enable them to avoid the school assignments of the carte scolaire). The schools themselves, insofar as they serve children from such families, are pressed to create offerings targeted to them to prevent their flight to the private schools. Another divergence in the school careers of the immigrant working class and the native middle class occurs when children have problems in schools. Middle-class native French families make use of tutoring or the placement of their children in special courses given after school hours. These courses are taught by regular teachers who are paid extra by the parents to instruct small groups of students, often in mathematics. Such additional instruction, which generally takes place off the school grounds, has become a common supplement at all levels of the school system. It appears that immigrant parents, even when they hold very high educational aspirations for their children, do not take the same measures as natives to support their children who have difficulty in school (Brinbaum, 2002). This difference then adds to the cumulative inequalities that the children coming from immigrant families suffer throughout their time in school.

Further, the beneficial counterbalancing effects of the ZEP policy, which has concentrated more on colleges than on the primary schools, are far from clear. The policy attempts to attract experienced teachers with bonuses and to avoid having schools in disadvantaged neighborhoods become mere transit stations for teachers who are attempting to gain experience at the beginning of their careers. However, its success has been disputed (Brizard, 1995; Meuret, 1994): Because the bonuses for teachers are very small, schools in ZEP areas continue to be staffed by a disproportionate number of less experienced teachers. One recent study (Benabou et al., 2004) found that the impact of the ZEP policy on the educational success of students has been very small.

The middle school stage is fateful for many students. By that time, a large number of the children from immigrant families are already having academic problems at school. Qualitative studies have shown that the oppositional culture in evidence among the academically weaker children of minority origins, especially North African, emerges during the first years of middle school (Van Zanten, 2001). The academic future of the great majority of these children is already determined.

The measures that many middle-class families are prepared to take to avoid sending their children to a problematic middle school are justified in their eyes by the impact of the reputation of the middle school on the quality of the high school the children can enter. The lycée attended has a pronounced impact on the rest of a young person’s educational career and is especially determinative of the chance to enter the most elite track, the so-called classes préparatoires, which prepare for the competitive examinations to the grandes écoles, the Ivy League of French higher education. The differences in quality among high schools are recognized to such a degree that the media have published their national rankings, forcing the Minister of Education to publish his own ranking (which went beyond those in the media by taking into account not just the results on the baccalauréat examinations but also estimates of the “value added” by each school). Because of the critical role presumed to be played by the high school, and hence the resistance of middle-class families, the state has had to weaken the rules of assignment of students to schools based on where they live. However, at this level, the game becomes complex for many families because their children are allowed to express preferences among three schools located at varying distances from their residence. This system has helped some children of immigrants in the suburbs who can opt to attend a school outside their area. But the admissions are in the hands of the schools themselves. Thus, the system puts a premium on informed choices by students and their families, and this factor operates in favor of native families and to the disadvantage of less knowledgeable immigrant families (Broncholini & Van Zanten, 1997; Gilotte & Girard, 2005). In any event, geographic proximity continues to be the dominant factor determining where children attend high school.

The lycées comprise schools that provide a general academic and technological curriculum on the one hand, and those deemed “professional,” which offer vocational training, on the other. This mix is a product of a unification in the 1980s; previously, there was a total separation between the general or academic lycées and those offering other curricula. The partial unification is linked to the democratization initiative and was accompanied by the creation of the technical baccalauréat alongside the academic one. At that point, a portion of the students who previously would have attended the vocational lycées began to attend the general schools, choosing their curriculum at the end of the second year. A response to the unification has been increasing differentiation by prestige among the academic curricula themselves: Students specialize in scientific, literary, or economic and social tracks, each of which has its own baccalauréat, but there is now a more strongly marked hierarchy among the different academic baccalauréats, with the highest status attached to the scientific credential. The technical baccalauréat is, moreover, lower in general status than the academic credentials, though it still provides those who earn it with access to higher education. It should be noted, however, that the most prestigious lycées, such as the famous Henri IV in the 5th arrondissement of Paris, offer few, if any, technical tracks. This evolution in the French lycée system appears to demonstrate that each attempt at unification for the purpose of greater equality of chances is counterbalanced by a further differentiation that preserves the privileges of the upper reaches of the system (Duru-Bellat & Kieffer, 2000).

Paralleling the academic and technical lycées are now the professional lycées. At the end of middle school, a portion of the students definitively leave the academic track and enter into the professional high schools, where they can earn vocational diplomas such as the CAP and BEP (the certificate d’aptitiude professionnelle and the brevet d’études professionnelles, respectively) in 2 or 3 years, or the baccalauréat professionnel, which provides access to professional tracks in postsecondary education. These vocationally oriented lycées are a major pathway for the separation of students with academic and other difficulties from their cohorts, and they are the sites of massive problems in the suburbs because of high rates of absenteeism and violence. At the end of the college, about 40% of students enter a lycée professionnel, according to a 1995 educational panel study. A further differentiation among the vocational tracks is linked to the options they lead to. The French vocational diplomas are very specialized and connected to a supposed future position on the labor market. Here also some degree of hierarchy is apparent (for instance, diplomas in electronics are ranked very high), depending on the return on the labor market. One problem is that despite constant advertising to encourage students to choose vocational tracks, there are not enough places to accommodate students’ preferences. This is a major source of frustration for immigrants’ children, especially for the Maghrebins, as demonstrated by different surveys (Brinbaum & Kieffer, 2005; Silberman & Fournier, 1999). In some cases, a desired option is available only in a very distant lycée, a source of further discouragement for girls because their parents are reluctant to let them travel so far.

An important difference between France and the United States lies in the credentials that are earned at the end of secondary school. In the United States, the credential that matters is the high school diploma, which is the pathway to further education, almost regardless of the curriculum and the school and where it is earned. Indeed, the system even provides for the possibility of earning its equivalent outside of school, the so-called General Education Development (GED), which is acquired by passing a test. The GED can also be acquired through educational experiences provided by the U.S. armed forces in preparation for enlistment. (The military services require a high school diploma or its equivalent for enlistment. However, the Army has an Education Plus Program that aims to attract minority youth who have dropped out of school; it pays for special training to enable a potential enlistee who meets certain criteria to pass the GED examination.)

The French system offers a more complicated menu of diplomas and credentials that can be earned at the secondary level. An important characteristic of the system is in fact that it offers relatively easy access to various tracks but more rigorous selectivity when it comes to diplomas, which are unmistakably ranked. Thus, the short-sequence vocational diplomas, such as the CAP and BEP, do not provide access to the university system. The new baccalauréats, the technological and professional (earned by 18% and 12%, respectively, of the class of 2003), created as part of the democratization initiative, do provide such access. However, they are ranked below the academic baccalauréat, which has itself separated according to subjects of specialization that are in turn ranked. Nevertheless, the new baccalauréats have opened roads to the tertiary level, especially to vocational tracks in the lower tertiary level. But it must also be noted that the proportion of a cohort attaining the upper tertiary level remains lower than is the case in the United States.

Confronted by the crises of the immigrant suburbs, where many youths abandon school with no meaningful credential, the French government has recently attempted to reinstitute the pathway of apprenticeship (where work and classroom education are linked). It has lowered to 14 the age at which an apprenticeship may be pursued. However, a disadvantage of this pathway for Maghrebin youngsters is that it requires an employment contract. Because the schools take no responsibility for securing these contracts, the requirement forces the North Africans to encounter the difficulties they will later face as prospective workers: the unwillingness of many employers to take them on. Research has shown that the employment contracts required by apprenticeship programs are often procured by students’ relatives. In this respect, the family networks of the Maghrebins are less effective than those of other groups, such as the Portuguese, whose families can find places in the ethnic niches that the group controls in, for example, construction (Silberman & Fournier, 1999).


A high proportion of U.S. high school graduates enter postsecondary education, where they encounter far more differentiation and hierarchy than exists at the secondary level. These variations include great differences in levels of selectivity and major inequalities in the benefits of the credentials that students ultimately obtain. This differentiation begins with the distinction between 2- and 4-year colleges. The 2-year college track encompasses a mixture of curricula, with some curricula providing vocational credentials intended to be the endpoint of the scholastic career and to link students directly with jobs; other curricula offer general academic preparation that allows students to transfer to a 4-year college (Brint & Karabel, 1989). Four-year colleges offer the more esteemed degrees, which can be earned through a general liberal arts education or preprofessional training (e.g., premedical concentrations). A substantial number of 4-year college graduates will, either immediately or after a few years in the labor market, enter postgraduate programs that yield advanced academic degrees, ultimately the PhD, or professional credentials.

All research demonstrates that social origins correspond quite strongly with students’ enrollment in a 2- or 4-year college. This is a consequence undoubtedly of differences in academic careers prior to this branching point: On average, middle-class European American students can present stronger academic records and test scores, qualifying them more easily for admission to a 4-year college. In addition to having weaker high school records, the children of working-class immigrants may feel less confident about their ability to complete a 4-year academic program, if only because of economic pressures, and they may also be uncertain about the wisdom of the choice between vocational and academic training given their circumstances. The correlation between social origins and college entered, along with the frequently slow progress of 2-year college students and the high rate of failure at this level, has led some scholars to characterize the 2-year colleges as a false promise of social advancement (Brint & Karabel, 1989).

In addition, there is a powerful hierarchy evident among 4-year colleges and universities. This is well known to all students applying for admission and to their families, and rating the schools by such criteria as the academic selectivity of their admissions is a game pursued by various services that publish guidebooks. It is also played by the colleges and universities themselves, which attempt to influence key statistics used in the rankings calculations (e.g., the rate of acceptance by admitted students). The hierarchy among the colleges and universities correlates with the social origins of their students and also with their postcollege trajectories. The most selective schools can usually boast of the highest proportions of graduates who go on to receive further educational training.

Yet, there are forces counteracting the social selection operating at the point of entry to the U.S. system of higher education. Most important are the policies of affirmative action instituted by many schools, though they are, to be sure, contested by conservatives and have been overturned in some public universities, notably in California, Michigan, and Texas, by lawsuits or referendum. It is also hard to be sure how many students they affect. Research suggests, however, that affirmative action can have a powerful positive effect on the long-term opportunities of minority students (Bowen & Bok, 1998; Massey et al., 2002).

Because most professional training is not provided through 4-year college programs, the final stage of the system for many students comprises postgraduate academic or professional programs. In this respect, the U.S. system is different from European universities, where specialization begins at entry to the university; in the United States, it is common for the first 2 years of college to be regarded as an academic foundation, and for specialization, insofar as it occurs, to be concentrated in the final 2 years. Some specialization, such as in liberal arts subjects, is frequently regarded by students and their parents as a more intensive form of general intellectual training, to be followed by professional training in postgraduate programs. These programs can demand as many as 4 (or more) years of further education. Especially for students coming from weaker economic backgrounds, enrollment must be balanced against considerations of expense and indebtedness and against forgone earnings. Consequently, by the postgraduate stage, rigorous prior selectivity has removed all but a tiny number of the offspring of working-class immigrants.

In France in recent decades, higher education has experienced a very powerful democratization, linked to greater access to the baccalauréat, which, as noted, is the credential sine qua non for entry to the higher education (and the reason that juries of the baccalauréat examination are always presided over by a university faculty member). About a third of a cohort now attains some level of higher education. Even with the democratization, however, France still lags behind other economically advanced societies in this respect.

Moreover, higher education is very stratified, with the most prominent feature the division between the grandes écoles and universities. The grandes écoles were founded in the Napoleonic era to educate civil servants and engineers (training the universities did not provide); to them were added several grandes écoles that train business elites. The grandes écoles are the most selective branch of higher education and, entry is strongly correlated with social origin (a large proportion of entrants have parents who are university professors). Some recent studies reveal that the social homogeneity of their students has increased in recent decades; entering classes have fewer and fewer children coming from the working class and other less privileged strata (Albouy & Wanecq, 2003). Preparation for entry, which is achieved through competitive examination for the strictly limited number of places, begins with the choice of a lycée. It continues after completion of the lycée years with “classes préparatoires,” which are given in some of the best lycées of Paris and other large cities. Even these preparatory classes are highly selective: Entrance is based on the student’s record and takes into account grades received during the last 2 years of the lycée, along with the school’s reputation. The classes préparatoires provide a broad cultural education along with high-quality training, and they are themselves stratified because several of the Parisian lycées produce the main group of students who will succeed in the entrance examinations for the grandes écoles. Success in the examinations therefore requires a risky multiyear strategy based on a sound grasp of the educational system and is consequently unthinkable for virtually all children from immigrant families. The top Parisian lycée, Henri IV, has recently proposed to institute a “preliminary” classe préparatoire to permit good students from the suburbs to attain this level. In fact, just a tiny number of these students currently succeed at the entrance examinations and can take advantage of the free education that it provides (some students in the grandes écoles are even treated as provisional civil servants and paid salaries during their training). A growing number of less distinguished private universities that charge tuition and provide engineering and business education have been added to the grandes écoles during the last two decades; they provide another outlet for children from middle-class families.

Access to the universities is automatic as long as the student possesses an academic or technological baccalauréat. The length of studies follows the European model, with credentials acquired after 3, 5, and 8 years (the European Union has recently undertaken a unification at the tertiary level leading to some important changes in French university credentials, for example, the creation of a master’s degree). However, the rates of failure and of abandonment of studies during the 1st and 2nd years are very high. A university education is largely free except for registration fees, which have tended to increase in recent years but remain well below the costs of an American university. However, the scholarships that can be granted to students with limited financial resources are few in number and minimal in monetary amounts. In fact, a large proportion of students coming from working-class and poor families must work while they attend the university, and doing so contributes to the high rate of their failure. Increasingly, some universities (e.g., the University of Paris at Orsay) are implementing methods of admitting students based on their lycée records even though such selectivity is supposedly forbidden. To be sure, access to certain subjects, such as medicine, is openly selective: Medical training is linked to the hospital system, and admission is based on a competitive examination. In addition, the Institut d’études politiques in Paris (also known as Science Po) has a special status that allows it to be selective because it prepares students for the competitive examination for entry to the Ecole Nationale d’Administration, one of the grandes écoles and the training ground for the national political elite.

The attraction of the grandes écoles deprives the universities of a large portion of the best students; at the same time, they are not adequately financed to educate the students they have. The French universities are widely considered to be experiencing a grave crisis, and the separation between them and the grandes écoles is regularly challenged, but without much hope of achieving true reform. Students from working-class and poor families, among them the great majority of the second generation, thus enter into a university system that is not well structured, and they can quickly find themselves disoriented and heading for failure (Beaud, 2000).

This is all the more true considering that new postsecondary tracks of technological and professional training have been created alongside the traditional university curricula. They have met with great success, removing another group of the better students from the main university sector. This is especially true for the university institutes of technology (IUT) that were created during the 1970s. It is also increasingly the case for the curricula leading to the vocational certificate, Brevet de technicien supérieur (BTS), which are generally pursued at lycées after the baccalauréat has been earned. These technological/professional tracks, which are selective in their admissions and lead to diplomas that are advantageous in the labor market, are all the more in demand now that bridges have been created to allow students to have subsequent access to the universities, where they can earn university diplomas, the licence, and master’s degrees. However, the universities are also developing more advanced tracks of this kind, leading to new credentials (DESS). These developments have benefited many children of immigrants, who, numerous in the vocational tracks in the lycées, are able enter the postsecondary professional tracks thanks to the technical and professional baccalauréats. This is notably the case for many second-generation Portuguese but is much less so for the Maghrebins, who continue to prefer the academic curricula of the universities. Finally, there is a third way into the postsecondary sector: training for professions that have  a middling status in France (e.g., social workers and physician’s assistants). Such tracks are particularly in demand among young women from modest backgrounds, including many who come from immigrant families.

In contrast with the United States, France has not developed policies of affirmative action and is, in principle, quite opposed to them. However, the first initiative in this direction has been taken in the domain of higher education. Science Po has created an avenue of access specifically for the better students coming from the lycées of the immigrant suburbs. The 2005 riots throughout France will presumably stimulate more initiatives like this one, though at the moment, such efforts remain extremely limited and are very contested by the adherents of the so-called Republican model. It is necessary to recognize in this context the rigidity of the French educational system: Second chances are difficult to find, even though various reforms have attempted to change the system. The direction of evolution has been more toward the validation by the university of vocational training than toward a veritable opening to allow students who left to return to complete advanced diplomas.


In both systems, the disparities between the native group and the children of immigrants are sizable, despite gains by the latter over time. In France, democratization has allowed the children of North African immigrants to increase their educational attainment; more now earn the baccalauréat and attend a university, though they complete university credentials less often than do their native French counterparts. In any event, democratization has also benefited the native French group, thereby thwarting any large reduction in the overall gap between groups. A similar story is found in the United States, where improvements in Mexican American educational attainment over time have been more than matched by improvements in the attainment of native-born Whites. As in France, the disparity in the attainment of university degrees is quite large at the upper end of educational distribution.

There are, nevertheless, differences in labor market outcomes. The United States has a substantially lower unemployment rate; according to OECD data, the unemployment rate in France has been nearly twice as high in recent years as that in the United States. And there is little difference in employment between second-generation Mexican Americans and native Whites, although there are differences in France between second-generation North Africans and the native group (Silberman & Fournier, 2006b).

The most intriguing part of the comparison is perhaps that such superficially different educational systems produce such similar results. From the point of view of governance, the French and American systems would have to be seen as opposites. The French system is mostly determined by policies and funding that originate from the national state and seem to promote egalitarianism, resulting in more equal resources for schools serving socially disparate populations. By contrast, the U.S. system is very much driven by local and regional forces, with policies largely determined by states and financing coming predominantly from localities and states. The consequence is substantial inequalities among schools that correspond with the social compositions of their student populations. Moreover, the French system has initiated policies to overcome socially structured inequalities in educational opportunity: the ZEP policy that provides additional financing to schools serving disadvantaged populations, and the attempt to democratize access to the baccalauréat and hence to postsecondary education, including the universities. Although the United States recently has attempted one major educational reform, the No Child Left Behind legislation, its effects are uncertain, and its programs are widely viewed as inadequately funded. It is unlikely to make much of a dent in the systemically rooted inequalities of educational opportunity that are so evident when one looks across the national landscape.

Of course, when one peers beneath the surface, there are some undeniable similarities: Most important is the way that social segregation, especially by race (in the United States) and social class and ethnic origin (in both France and the United States), shapes educational opportunity. In the United States, this shaping is very apparent and has been the subject of a substantial literature; in France, such shaping occurs, too, both because local authorities and parents retain an important influence on the resources of schools and on what happens within them, and because schools that concentrate poor and immigrant-origin students are problematic in ways that schools that serve middle-class native students are not. Another similarity lies in the stratification within schools that buttresses, and is buttressed by, the developing educational differences among students of different social origins. In France, this stratification is highly formalized in the hierarchy of diplomas and certificates that can be earned at both the secondary and higher educational levels. It also has less formal manifestations, as in the so-called hidden curricula developed by some schools to attract more qualified students and students from more privileged families. In the United States, tracking is less formal, but it is nevertheless a highly developed feature of school systems. It is implemented in the early years through ability groupings in classrooms and later through subject matter classes that proceed at different paces and to different depths. The consequence of tracking is that the mere possession of a high school diploma, the universal terminal secondary certificate, tells very little about the academic preparation of an individual.

That two such different systems produce such similar results is, however, more likely to be a consequence of the attempts of advantaged native families, from the middle class or more affluent circumstances, to retain privileges for their children in the face of the prospective competition from the children of recent immigrants—especially those from the most disfavored groups, such as the Mexicans in the United States and the Maghrebins in France. What the French case in particular demonstrates is a kind of Newtonian Third Law of Social Inequality: For every initiative to reduce inequality, there is an opposing reaction to preserve it. Hence, in reaction to the initiatives of the state to promote greater equality of educational opportunity (e.g., the ZEP policy), parents and, to some degree, local authorities have reacted by creating new mechanisms that give latitude for social inequalities to assert themselves in and through educational institutions. Examples are the hidden curricula and the supplementary educational activities in schools for which families must bear the cost.

For either system to greatly reduce educational inequality would require a step that contravenes one of its fundamental principles. In the United States, the principle of local control of schools is paramount but is the foundation of educational inequality because the funding of schools is largely in the hands of local authorities and is effected mostly through the property tax. Given the cherished nature of this financing principle, it would be difficult to overturn, and attempts to provide a more level base of funding would undoubtedly be greeted with reactive devices to restore inequality, such as voluntary funding of supplementary resources and activities by parents (already a feature of some schools). In France, the virtual absence of affirmative action makes it very difficult to overcome systemically based ethnic inequalities and to give chances to the children of immigrants from the more impoverished suburbs. But the principle of equality of individuals before the state, which is interpreted to imply no special treatment in favor of, or against, individuals based on their ethnic origin, is deeply enshrined in the French understanding of its revolutionary heritage. Here, too, a contravention on a large scale, with the aim of promoting greater educational opportunity, is difficult to imagine.


1. The great majority of French students obtain the BEPC, Brevet d’études du premier cycle, which is awarded based on an examination at the end of the college, or middle school. However, unlike a U.S. high school diploma, this diploma is neither a qualification for a university education nor a credential with value in the labor market.

2. We have obviously not compared the degrees of inequality between natives and the second-generation students with controls for family background, as is customary in social science literature. One reason for this omission is that we are interested here in the other side of inequality, in the institutions that “process” students, rather than in the families that “produce” them. In this sense, the comparison serves mainly as motivation. However, there is another reason: We are not certain what the results mean when controls for parental characteristics are applied. When the parents are immigrants, there is a lack of commensurability with the characteristics of natives. It is most evident with education because of the differences in the educational systems from which the two sets of parents have emerged: The immigrants from Mexico and North Africa have generally an obtained education that is average or above average for their societies of origin, but they are being compared with natives who fall at the absolute bottom of the educational distribution of their own societies and who are likely to suffer from a variety of personal and social problems that the immigrant parents do not have. A similar point can be made about occupation.

3. One must not forget the importance of the educational experiences provided outside of schools by families, which generally favor children from more affluent homes. Research has regularly shown, for instance, that children from poorer and minority backgrounds fall behind their peers during the summer, when schools are not in session (Entwisle & Alexander, 1992; Heyns, 1978).


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Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record Volume 111 Number 6, 2009, p. 1444-1475
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 15340, Date Accessed: 5/25/2022 11:18:38 AM

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About the Author
  • Richard Alba
    City University of New York
    E-mail Author
    RICHARD ALBA is Distinguished Professor of Sociology at the Graduate and University Center of the City University of New York. His most recent book is the award-winning Remaking the American Mainstream (2003), which he co-authored with Victor Nee.
  • Roxane Silberman
    Paris School of Economics
    E-mail Author
    ROXANE SILBERMAN is a researcher at the Maurice Halbwachs Center at the Center at National Center for Scientific Research (CNRS) and is also the Secretary General of the Interministerial Committee for Data in the Social Sciences. Among her recent publications are articles in Ethnic and Racial Studies and in the Revue franšaise de sociologie that examine the case of North Africans in France in the light of segmented-assimilation theory.
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