Dialogue Series, Race & Society

Parental Discrimination over Diverse Schools: Evidence from a Randomized Online Survey in Denmark


The education achievement gap between ethnic minorities and majority populations is persistent and even widening in the United States and Europe, according to Mongoljin Batsaikhan, Assistant Professor in Economics at Georgetown University in Qatar. At a Center for International and Regional Studies talk on November 12, 2017, Batsaikhan explained that the leading explanations for the gap include segregation, discrimination, peer dynamics, and identity, which are factors that often play out early in children’s lives.

In 2015, Batsaikhan and his colleagues conducted a research study into how the ethnic composition of daycare institutions affects parental preferences in Copenhagen, Denmark. The team wanted to understand why people discriminate, and why segregation and discrimination are very persistent over generations. Many economic studies have documented the existence of discrimination, and segregating school children is known to have detrimental effects on ethnic-minority children, he said. Additionally, the environment in which kids grow up is important in forming their attitudes around diversity.

This study looked at parents’ preferences in choosing schools because parents tend to put a great deal of thought into school choice. The research team wanted to see how parents made their choices and whether they could find discrimination in the selection process. They were motivated by these questions: Does the diversity of the environment affect the children’s preference and racial tolerance? And, looking at parental preferences in daycares, how are they shaped by the ethnic composition of the daycare institution?

“It seems we have quite a lot of evidence that the environment kids grow up in is very important in forming a preference toward diversity.”

The motivation for the project was simple, Batsaikhan said. He referenced the Civil Rights Movement in the United States and its efforts to end racial segregation and discrimination beginning around the 1950s. The landmark US Supreme Court case “Brown v. Board of Education” banned the segregation of black and white children in public schools in 1954. Yet, African Americans in the US continue to face discrimination nearly sixty years later. “A lot of areas and schools have some sort of an ethnic clustering and segregation even now,” Batsaikhan said. Pointing to the Black Lives Matter movement today, he said, “People don’t just go out to the street and randomly protest. They feel discriminated against. The existence of discrimination is real.”  Due to historical reasons we have this sorting and segregation problem, he said, and it persists today. The black/white achievement gap widened in the US in the 1990s, he said. “You would expect it would shrink when you remove the segregation, but it persisted and the gap persisted,” he said. The same thing has also been happening in Europe and in Denmark. When comparing ethnic Danes with minority children, often times the gap is greater, he said.

Parents’ school choice is a form of sorting, as are issues like neighborhoods with high tax rates and expensive housing that make it prohibitive for lower-income residents to enroll children in preferred schools, Batsaikhan said. Inside the school, the composition of the student population also has an effect on kids’ performance. “It’s not just the educational performance,” he said, “It is also exposure to a diverse community that will affect their future attitudes toward diversity.” Segregation creates a very strong sense of identity and people start labeling themselves and others (e.g. white, black, Asian), Batsaikhan said. Segregation affects children’s preferences and this was the motivation for this research, he said, “because parents’ preferences toward diversity become intergenerational.”

Economics literature has found that social interaction networks play a role in the formation of discriminatory beliefs toward other people, Batsaikhan said. A key question in the study was: If you have a bit of a diverse environment, will that affect children’s preference and racial tolerance? “It seems we have quite a lot of evidence that the environment kids grow up in is very important in forming a preference toward diversity,” he said.

Batsaikhan shared a 2004 study that found discrimination in employment hiring when an African American-sounding name was used in job applications. When the name of the applicant was changed to a white-sounding name, and everything else remained the same on an identical CVs, those with white-sounding names were more likely to be called for an interview. Economists then try to answer: What kind of discrimination it is: taste-based or statistical? Batsaikhan’s team attempted to answer this question using a randomized trial, a type of method to identify causality. They also used a Muslim-sounding name for the purpose of manipulating preferences and then to change parents’ perception by introducing additional information.

The Copenhagen Daycare Survey was carried out as part of a large project on daycare assignment mechanisms. The web-based survey was distributed to parents with a child aged 7-19 months. A sample of 5,000 was drawn randomly from city administrative registers and the response rate was about 50 percent. When the surveys were returned, they were merged with  data held by Statistics Denmark, which holds extensive background information on citizens, such as a parent’s education and income. 

In the survey, participants were initially asked to choose between two institutions that were based on sample testimonials from parents with children enrolled in daycare. Institution A was a highly-structured daycare, which is a preferred style of daycare in many cultures. Institution B values freedom in instruction and children play outdoors for much of the day. Northern countries tend to value this free-play institution more than structured daycare.

Seven different surveys were sent randomly, and each survey had six testimonials from parents sharing examples of what that liked about their school. Testimonials included a) the names of the parent and child behind the quote; b) the names plus the profession of the parent; c) no name or profession. Treatment choices included: a) only Danish-sounding names; b) a Muslim-sounding name; c) and the names with the parent’s profession included. A control group had no names associated with the testimonial.

The researchers first examined the role of the Muslim-sounding name in the survey to determine if there was a difference in the reactions to a minority name in the free-play institution versus the structured institution. The survey revealed that 75 percent of parents preferred free-play to structured daycare. The structured daycare was preferred by ethnic-minority parents, parents with lower education, low-income parents, families where the father earned more, and when the child being placed in daycare was a boy.

Interpretation was as follows:

Estimation 1.  Comparing the responses of having an ethnic name in a free-play vs. structured institution; the latter had a negative and significant effect on the probability of preferring the structured institution.

Estimation 2.  Changing the information about the ethnic background of the mother (a Muslim-sounding name) in the free-play institution had no significant effect on the probability of preferring the structured institution.

Regarding the type of discrimination, the researchers raised the question: Is there any effect on the preferences of information about the profession of the person behind the quote? The results showed that additional information about parent’s profession did not change the attitude toward the daycares with ethnic-minority names. This indicates that the discrimination is not statistical, at least the missing information is not associated with the profession or skill of the ethnic minority parents.

Finally, the researchers explored who preferred the structured daycare because that is where the discrimination exists. The initial exploration indicates that low educated mothers and ethnic minorities and low income families tend to choose the structured daycares. The team is planning to further explore this and identify who tend to discriminate more against the diverse daycares.

Mongoljin Batsaikhan is Assistant Professor of Economics at Georgetown University in Qatar. His research field is Applied Microeconomics, with a focus on social norms, discrimination, entrepreneurship, and small and medium enterprises in developing countries. His work has been published in Management ScienceEconomic Inquiry and Journal of Public Economics. He is a CIRS Faculty Fellow for 2017-2018.

Article by Jackie Starbird, Publications and Projects Assistant at CIRS.