As societies become increasingly culturally diverse, reports of intolerant attitudes toward immigrants are viewed with concern—a concern that becomes all the more serious when it affects young people. Youth is considered a formative period in life for the development of social and political attitudes (Neundorf & Smets, 2017). Accordingly, besides becoming more aware of one’s own social identities, intergroup attitudes, which reflect relatively enduring and general evaluations of various social groups (APA, n.d.), stabilize (Crocetti et al., 2021). With an increasing political awareness, yet still searching for a sense of identity, young people are particularly susceptible to contextual influences (impressionable years hypothesis; e.g., Sears & Levy, 2003).
Of the many factors that shape young people’s intergroup attitudes, experiences in school deserve particular attention as young people spend much time in educational settings and schools share the common goal of educating students to become informed citizens (Neundorf & Smets, 2017) and to counteract prejudice (Hess, 2009). Moreover, socialization and social learning perspectives (e.g., Bandura, 1977) see schools as miniature societies that bring together young people with various backgrounds and therefore allow learning about social interaction and group processes (Dessel, 2010). Accordingly, studies have shown that school experiences are linked to youth’s intergroup attitudes (Barber et al., 2013). However, the school context offers a variety of influences. Apart from structural characteristics (e.g., cultural diversity), formal learning experiences (e.g., curricular initiatives in multicultural education) can be distinguished from informal learning experiences (e.g., prevailing school or classroom climate; Scheerens, 2011). Since these experiences can be furthermore located at different levels of the school context, ranging from an individual student in a particular classroom or proximate dynamics within class to more distal processes at the school level, an ecological view of school has been proposed (Eccles & Roeser, 2009). Yet, longitudinal studies accounting for the hierarchical nature of the school context are still rare, as are considerations of age-specific trends that would allow examining whether young people are particularly responsive to school influences at a certain age and thus at a certain stage of development. Drawing on longitudinal multilevel data, it was therefore the goal of the present study to examine the effects of formal-curricular and climatic school experiences on German youth’s negative attitudes toward immigrants, while also accounting for potential age-related patterns.
Curricular School Experiences and Youth’s Intergroup Attitudes
Curricular characteristics reflect an important formal aspect of the school context and one approach that has attracted particular research attention in this regard is multicultural education (Banks & Banks, 2004). The concept subsumes a variety of educational practices ranging from temporary school-based interventions to general approaches to teaching that can be implemented with or without intergroup contact (Aboud & Levy, 2000). More precisely, multicultural education “aims to provide students with knowledge and attitudes necessary to understand, respect, and interact harmoniously as equals with members of different ethnic groups” (Aboud & Levy, 2000, p. 277). It can promote norms of tolerance, thereby helping young people to look beyond group boundaries, to identify similarities between various groups, or to value cultural diversity (Thijs & Verkuyten, 2014) and should therefore be negatively related to prejudice.
Indeed, research showed that multicultural education is associated with more positive out-group evaluations among minority and majority youth (van Bommel et al., 2020). Previous findings further indicate that multicultural education is more frequently applied in culturally diverse schools compared to culturally homogeneous settings (Thijs & Verkuyten, 2014). Culturally diverse schools do not only increase the salience of intergroup relations but also offer more opportunities for positive intergroup contact (Allport, 1954). As such, they might also provide more options to directly implement norms of tolerance and respect than culturally homogeneous school contexts (Verkuyten & Thijs, 2013). However, despite its potential to reduce prejudice, emphasizing cultural differences may also increase the likelihood that young people will place individuals into rigid categories, thereby promoting stereotypes (Levy & Hughes, 2009). Although, the empirical evidence of multicultural education’s positive effects seems to outweigh potential negative consequences, scholars have called for more studies accounting for background characteristics, such as the level of cultural diversity at the national, regional, or school level to better understand its workings (Verkuyten & Thijs, 2013).
School and Classroom Climate and Youth’s Intergroup Attitudes
Schools bring together young people from various social and cultural backgrounds and according to the contact hypothesis (Allport, 1954), intergroup contact should reduce prejudice. Therefore, the level of cultural diversity in schools or classrooms has been regarded as a very prominent predictor of intergroup attitudes and relations (van Geel & Vedder, 2011). Although findings on the direct effects of school or classroom diversity are not completely unambiguous, they point to beneficial outcomes (for a review, see Thijs & Verkuyten, 2014). The effects of diversity depend, however, also on the prevailing conditions within the classroom or school context. Following Allport’s contact hypothesis (Allport, 1954), a climate of support and cooperation among students (i.e., peer relationship climate) can challenge negative stereotypes, facilitate cross-ethnic friendship formation, and provide optimal conditions for positive intergroup contact, thereby amplifying its positive effects on intergroup attitudes (Tropp & Prenovost, 2008). Yet, even in culturally homogeneous classroom or school contexts, a good peer relationship climate can contribute to more positive intergroup evaluations. According to social learning perspectives (e.g., Bandura, 1977), schools are microlevel societies and experiencing supportive relationships with peers can serve as a template for interactions with other people in and outside of school (Dessel, 2010). Research on the effects of a supportive peer relationship climate in school on intergroup attitudes is scarce and offers mixed results. While positive effects of cooperative relationships in class on attitudes toward immigrants were reported in a longitudinal study among Swedish youth (Miklikowska et al., 2021), no significant associations were found among a sample of German adolescents (Gniewosz & Noack, 2008).
Apart from the peer relationship climate, another relevant - and related - characteristic of the school context is the prevailing democratic climate with student–teacher relations at its core. Attending a school where teachers encourage open discussion and provide opportunities to participate in decision making processes supports young people in becoming active and responsible citizens (Eckstein & Noack, 2014). Again, in line with socialization and social learning perspectives (e.g., Bandura, 1977), schools allow for students to learn about social and political processes on a small scale and therefore a democratic climate has the potential to stimulate youth’s own political awareness (Over & McCall, 2018). As part of a democratic climate, students may also experience that people, while differing in their opinions, beliefs, and lifestyles, can still treat each other with respect and openness. Tolerant attitudes toward diverse social groups can thus be another outcome of this process. The positive impact of a democratic classroom climate on adolescents’ civic knowledge and engagement has been repeatedly demonstrated (Torney-Purta et al., 2001). There is also empirical evidence that a democratic classroom climate is associated with positive intergroup attitudes (e.g., Solhaug & Osler, 2018). It should be noted, however, that democratic climate covers a broad spectrum of school experiences and, accordingly, has mostly been operationalized through various distinctive facets, such as open classroom climate for discussion (e.g., Carrasco & Torres Irribarra, 2018), fairness of teachers (e.g., Miklikowska et al., 2019), or opportunities for participation in decision making processes (e.g., Higdon, 2015).
Taken together, apart from its ethnic composition, the school context offers a variety of factors potentially relevant to the development of adolescents’ intergroup attitudes, such as school curriculum and school/classroom climate. While most research in this field is based on US and European samples, there are also large-scale assessments which allow for the consideration of school effects across various national contexts (e.g., International Civic and Citizenship Education Study, IEA ICCS; Schulz et al., 2018). Yet, studies employing longitudinal and multilevel designs are still rare.
Age-Related Trends in the Effects of School Experiences
Young people spend a very long period of time in school ranging from childhood to late adolescence. So far, however, the question of whether the effects of school experiences differ according to students’ age remains largely unanswered. While experiences in school reach young people at a period in life that is generally considered to be of high relevance for the development of political attitudes and behaviors (Blakemore & Mills, 2014), intergroup attitudes—particularly involving visible social categories such as cultural background or gender—were found to consolidate and stabilize early in life (see Barrett & Oppenheimer, 2011 for a theoretical overview). Accordingly, attitudes toward immigrants were also shown to be well established already in early years and to increasingly stabilize throughout adolescence (Crocetti et al., 2021). Since once consolidated attitudes are less responsive to contextual influences, it may therefore be assumed that the effects of school experiences are less pronounced in older than in younger students (i.e., attitude consolidation hypothesis).
Alternatively, following the assumptions of motivational theories (e.g., Deci & Ryan, 1985), adolescents’ personal needs change over time. According to the stage-environment fit theory (Eccles & Midgley, 1989), the needs for autonomy, competence, and social relatedness increase throughout the adolescent years. In order to reach young people, schools should therefore account for these altering needs. Experiencing a school context that allows to engage in participatory-democratic principles (i.e., need for autonomy), to build strong relationships with peers (i.e., need for social relatedness), and to learn about cultural diversity (i.e., need for competence), might therefore be of higher relevance to older students than to younger students. As a consequence, it may also be assumed that older students are more susceptible to stimulating school experiences than younger students as they meet their altering needs (i.e., environment fit hypothesis). In addition, being exposed to characteristics of the school context for a longer period of time might also result in stronger effects of these factors in older students than in younger students. School experiences might then intensify over time. Applied to the area of cross-cultural friendships, for example, it could be shown that time spent together is substantially associated with positive intergroup attitudes (Davies et al., 2011).
Individual and Collective Perceptions of School Experiences
Due to its multilevel nature, there are different perspectives on the school context. Although they might be biased, individual perceptions have been considered to be one crucial indicator. People react to their environment depending on how they perceive it, and therefore the significance of individual perceptions has been stressed in early sociological (Thomas & Thomas, 1928) and later social cognition research (Bodenhausen & Morales, 2012). However, individual perceptions may also vary systematically between students from different classrooms or schools. Students from the same school environment are exposed to the same routines, processes, and characteristics, which may contribute to certain dynamics and facilitate shared interpretations at the contextual level (Konishi et al., 2017). Disentangling individual level from classroom or school level effects can thus provide a more comprehensive understanding of schools’ workings, as processes may operate differently at different levels (Marsh et al., 2012). This is also important from a methodological and practical point of view. Methodologically, one and the same construct might have specific psychometric properties and meanings depending on the level of analysis (Lüdtke et al., 2009). Finally, accounting for individual and contextual processes has practical significance, as with tight schedules and a high diversity of students’ individual characteristics, it is difficult for teachers and educational staff to reach every single student in class. Thus, in order to provide guidelines for scalable interventions, it is important to gain a better understanding of processes operating not only at the individual but also at the classroom or school level.
Background Information on the National and Regional Context
In line with contextual models of human development (e.g., Bronfenbrenner, 1979), the development of intergroup attitudes cannot be completely understood independently from macrocontextual characteristics. While school or classroom diversity has been considered a prominent predictor of intergroup attitudes at the school or classroom level (Thijs & Verkuyten, 2014), it also reflects processes at the broader societal level. Each country is characterized by a unique history of immigration. In Germany, this history varies considerably between regions and especially between the federal states in the Western and Eastern part (i.e., former German Democratic Republic, GDR) of the country. The present research is based on data that were collected in the federal state of Thuringia, historically a culturally rather homogenous region located in the Eastern part of Germany. Despite a steep increase of the immigrant population (i.e., people who immigrated to Germany themselves or have at least one parent who migrated to Germany) during the last decade (2010–2020), only around 7% of the total population of Thuringia is of immigrant descent (compared to 27% at the national level; Thüringer Ministerium für Migration, Justiz und Verbraucherschutz, TMMJV, 2019). The largest share of people of immigrant descent in Thuringia comes from Eastern European countries (e.g., Poland, Ukraine) and the former Soviet Union. Since 2015, refugees from crisis regions (e.g., Syria) represent an increasingly significant group (TMMJV, 2019). Although the proportion of people without an educational degree is higher among people of immigrant descent compared with people without immigrant background, educational inequalities between people with and without immigrant background were nonetheless found to be less pronounced in Thuringia than in other federal states of Germany (TMMJV, 2019).
Despite the low degree of cultural diversity within this region, national surveys repeatedly revealed substantial amounts of prejudice and intolerance toward immigrants (Reiser et al., 2018). This has, among others, been explained in terms of fewer opportunities for direct contact with people of varying cultural backgrounds (Pfister, 2018). Correspondingly, respondents from the Eastern part of Germany were found to have fewer cross-cultural friendships than respondents from the Western part (Zick et al., 2019). In the absence of cultural diversity, yet prevalent negative sentiments toward immigrants, the school context may play a particularly important role for youth’s attitudes as it can help students to reflect on privileges of the cultural majority and challenge prejudice (Swalwell, 2012).