Germany: Schools that divide
Early on, students are steered toward university or less-skilled jobs. But Germany's low ranking in an international comparison suggests this tradition may be outdated.
It's a balmy fall day at the Helmholtz Gymnasium, and ninth-graders Mara Milbredt and Sasha Konjkav are discussing race relations in California, using Gloria Miklowitz's "The War Between the Classes" as a text. They and their classmates are engaged, the room is neat, the teacher calm.Skip to next paragraph
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Just a few blocks away, in a portable school building at the Friedrich Stoltze Hauptschule, students Sercan Icöz and Emilia Popovic are trying to make sense of history class amid the noise of laughter and rowdy behavior.
The differences between these two groups of students, who are about the same age, play out all over Germany. Sasha's parents, engineers who fled the shah's Iran, expect their son to go to university, and his school will enable him to do so. Sercan is the son of Turkish "guest workers," and Emilia's family fled Yugoslavia five years ago. Both families hold low-level jobs. Theirs is a vocational school, and doors to the university are closed, their future plans vague. "Perhaps I'll go to my uncle, who's a hairdresser," says Sercan. The boy learned German by sitting next to a Turkish acquaintance in class.
Germany has for decades taken pride in its education system. And indeed, tracking children as university-bound, middle-school-bound, or trade-bound worked for a time. The system produced the world's Einsteins and Goethes on the one hand, and the most reliable trade people and artisans on the other.
But a new international survey has plunged Germany into intense debate about whether its schools are really addressing the needs of the country's changing population.
In the first study of its kind comparing basic skills of students around the world in reading comprehension, math, and science, Germany placed 25th out of 32 countries. The study, conducted by the Program for International Student Assessment (PISA), a project of the Organization of Economic Cooperation and Development, determined that in no other country does social and ethnic background influence student achievement as much as here. It concluded that Germany's early separation of children by skill level contributes to the problem.
Germans were stunned to learn that 20 percent of their teenagers were almost illiterate, and only in Mexico and the Czech Republic did fewer students go on to higher education. Just 9 percent of German pupils were able to understand complex texts, putting them far behind Britain, with 16 percent, and the United States, with 12 percent.
"We knew before PISA that there is a relationship between social background and performance in all countries," says Petra Stanat, an education researcher at the Max Planck Institute for Human Development in Berlin and coordinator of the international part of the PISA study. "But that that this relationship is strongest in Germany was astonishing."
By age 11 or 12, top students in Germany are headed for high school, or Gymnasium, where they take the Abitur, the high school exit exam that enables them to go on to university. Others go to a less-challenging Realschule, which trains them for white-collar jobs. Less intellectually gifted students are routed toward the Hauptschule to learn trades.
This early division, experts says, may not give children the chance to acquire basic skills before they are separated into the better or weaker school systems.
"That the decision about a child's future comes so early is a real problem for all the children who come to school with language and social deficits," says Gaby Strassburger, a migration researcher at the University of Essen.