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
By Isabelle de Pommereau | Special to The Christian Science Monitor, October
22, 2002 edition
FRANKFURT – 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.
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
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
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.
"If you track children after fourth or sixth grade, there's little time to bring
students of disadvantaged backgrounds up to par with students growing up in more
privileged situations," says Ms. Stanat. "It's particularly important to use the
time before children are separated very effectively."
But optional kindergarten and short school days, combined with the expectation
that mothers should be home in the afternoon to take care of the rest of
children's education, place low-income and foreign children at a disadvantage.
Immigrants on the lower tracks
In Frankfurt, immigrants represent 180 cultures and 200 languages. About 35
percent of Frankfurt's pupils are foreign, according to city statistics, but
they make up 53.5 percent of Hauptschule attendees and only 21.4 percent of
Sercan's school sits in Frankfurt's inner city, where many immigrants settle. At
the FriedrichStoltzeHauptschule, only 47 out of 235 pupils are Germans. Like
Sercan and Emilia, 80 percent don't hold German citizenship, although they may
have been born here. To the children and grandchildren of "guest workers" are
added the refugees from trouble spots such as Iraq, Yugoslavia, and Afghanistan.
Little wonder then that school principal Felix Weilbaecher considers himself a
youth worker as well as a teacher and school administrator. "I have a lot of
work to do before I say, 'I teach math,' " Mr. Weilbaecher says. "We try to do
integration work. Where else will integration take place if not in our school?"
Children of refugees land here from around the world, often in the middle of the
year. They sometimes come on their own, or their family structure may be
unstable. Often, they never properly learn to read and write. The school also
takes on students "dumped" from the Realschule because of poor performance.
To Ursula Neumann, a researcher at the University of Hamburg, the fact that
Germany has more problems in educating immigrants than other countries is a
consequence of its slowness in recognizing itself as a country of immigration.
Germany's first encounter with immigrants after World War II came in the 1950s,
with a massive swell of "guest workers" from Turkey, Portugal, Italy, and
Greece. For decades, Germans considered the men who built their bridges and
factories "one-time migrants" who would go back to their home countries.
It wasn't until recently, when the country eased its citizenship rules and
passed its first immigration bill, that Germany started talking about measures
to facilitate the integration of immigrants.
"The real problem is that the German school system never adapted to the
evolution of society," says Neumann. "That's something we've known for a long
Germany's extremely short school days have posed particular problems for
immigrant children. For Gymnasium students like Sasha Konjkav, soccer clubs and
music schools supplement classtime learning. But Hauptschule pupils like Sercan,
whose mothers work or don't speak German, are often stranded after school ends
at 1 p.m.
Germany's lowest-track schools, in many cases, are also no longer adapted to the
economy, experts say. In the 1980s, blue-collar jobs that had traditionally gone
to immigrants dwindled as the service sector grew. And the Hauptschulen were
failing to keep pace with new complex skills in many traditional jobs.
Industry demands more knowledge
The Frankfurt airport, Germany's biggest employer, for example, always provided
myriad apprenticeships for Hauptschule graduates. This year, though, only five
out of about 100 apprenticeships will go to Hauptschule students. More and more,
these spots go to students having passed the Abitur. "The economy needs students
who are more knowledgeable," says Alexander Pavicevic, who teaches advanced
classes at the Friedrich Stoltze. "And that, the school can't offer."
"Today the industry looks at Hauptschule with skepticism," says Elke
Waldeeir-Odenthal, a teacher at Frankfurt's Helmholtz Gymnasium. "It demands a
certain [amount] of basic knowledge, and more and more they hire trainees from
Money is another issue. With 5.5 percent of its GNP devoted to education,
Germany ranks near the bottom in education funding, below the US, Sweden,
France, and Portugal, according to the Organization of Economic Cooperation and
Development. Juergen Kluge, head of the international consulting firm McKinsey &
Co. in Germany, estimates it would cost $4.8 billion to put German schools back
Still, the Friedrich Stoltze Hauptschule is trying to address the challenges of
a multicultural society, says Eva Maria Blum of
Frankfurt's Office for Multicultural Affairs, the only such office in any city
in Germany. The school hires teachers with foreign backgrounds, works with city
youth centers, and offers classes for immigrants.
Reaching out to immigrant parents
Mr. Pavicevic, who is from Serbia, is one of three teachers of foreign origin at
the school, and he works hard to get immigrant parents involved. "I know how
rough it is to live abroad and how important it is to speak with parents,"
Pavicevic says. "I don't let parents find their way to me. I find a way to
He has invitations to meetings translated into parents' languages. When he knows
the parents don't speak German, he'll find the sister or friend who does. In a
pilot program designed with the Office for Multicultural Affairs, Pavicevic uses
meetings to inform parents about children's progress as well as the school
system and apprenticeship opportunities.
Such efforts, as well as more-formal model programs, are lauded. But widespread
change won't be easy. For one thing, education is a state responsibility. In
addition, there are wide academic disparities among regions, with southern
states like Bavaria performing far better than northern states like Berlin.
German Chancellor Gerhard Schröder, a Social Democrat, has pledged $4 billion
toward school improvement by 2007. But the conservative Christian Democratic
that children need free afternoons to study.
Still, the country's education ministers have started improving kindergarten and
elementary programs so they better prepare all children for middle school. And
they are establishing national standards for each of the three school systems.
As of next year, the state of Hessen, where Frankfurt sits, will require foreign
children to take a language test before entering primary school. If they fail,
they'll have to take special language classes.
Some observers say it is a good that the survey brought out these issues. "The
nice thing about PISA is that it comes again," says Stanat. The next
survey will be in 2003. "You just can't sit back and hope the problem is going
to go away."