(From the WSJ)
Germany, the birthplace of kindergarten and the modern university, has long been admired for its commitment to education and for good reason: For generations its specialized schools produced more than their share of Nobel Prize winners, as well as the highest skilled tradesmen—high-octane fuel for Europe's economic powerhouse.
oday, however, Germany is coming to grips with a much different report card—that of an academic underachiever. Almost one-fifth of Germany's 15-year-olds can't read proficiently, and just 29.8% of young adults have a higher-education degree, below the European Union average of 33.6%. Many students who attend the country's lower-tier high schools don't leave with the skills they need to get additional training in a trade, according to the government's 2010 education report.
For a country whose primary asset is brain power, Germany can hardly afford to lag behind in education. Fearing that large swaths of the future work force may soon be too uneducated to maintain Germany's export-driven economy, much less support its fast-aging population, policy makers have wrestled with a range of reforms in recent years despite deep support within society for the current educational system.
"Being just OK is not good enough for a country with high living standards, wages and technology," says Jörg Dräger, board member responsible for education programs at the Bertelsmann Foundation, a German think tank.
Many policy makers believe Germany's early-selection school system—one of the few in Europe that splits children up at around age 10—is at the heart of the problem. After four years of primary school in most German regions, the smartest go on to Gymnasien, top-level high schools for university-bound students, while average students are directed to Realschulen, a path usually to white-collar or technical trades. Those with the lowest grades go to Hauptschulen, schools traditionally meant to prepare students for mid-to lower-level vocational training but that over time have become reservoirs for immigrant children and others who have fallen through the cracks.
More than in most other developed countries, however, the biggest determinant of a German child's educational track appears to be his or her family's socioeconomic status. Even with similar grades, children with college-educated parents are at least three times more likely to go on to Gymnasien than those from working-class families, according to data from the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development.
That's of particular concern as Germany's poorly assimilated immigrant population swells—some 20% of Germany's school children come from Turkish or other immigrant families. While the rest of the system scores average or better in many education standards, "the 20% or so that gets lost is a catastrophe," says Mr. Dräger.
Nevertheless, the three-track system continues to have deep support within society, partly because of Germany's past education and economic success. Most prized—and staunchly defended—are Germany's academically rigorous Gymnasien.
"The idea is that homogenous learning groups are better at helping children perform," says Katharina Spiess, education and family research director at the German Institute for Economic Research, of the early-selection system.
But Germany received a rude shock nearly a decade ago, when its teens unexpectedly scored in the bottom third of a widely watched OECD study, well behind many European peers.
German states, which control the education system, have made modest changes, and academic improvement, since then. In some regions, Hauptschulen arebeing combined with Realschulen, and in most cases, students at the combined secondary schools still have the option of pursuing a course toward a diploma that would allow them to attend a university.
But the collapse of a plan to reform schools in the port city-state of Hamburg last year underscores the difficulty of pushing through bolder reform. There, the city's conservative-Green ruling coalition pitched a plan to extend primary school by two years, waiting until after the sixth grade to divide children into different schools. The idea was to give children more time to determine the best education path, and let poorer and slower learners benefit from mixing longer with faster ones.
The result was a fierce backlash, especially among university-educated parents who feared their children's education would suffer by shortening the Gymnasium phase of it. Voters decisively rejected the plan in a referendum last July, leading to the resignation of Hamburg's mayor.
The defeat has discouraged political leaders in other German states from broaching more radical school reform. North-Rhine Westphalia sought to sidestep a similar battle by allowing individual municipalities to decide whether to form schools that kept children together until up to the 10th grade as part of a pilot project.
That didn't stop protests among some parents and teachers. In April, a judge blocked one of the first moves to form a so-called community school, putting the effort in legal limbo.
Still, many Germans argue its education system needs to become less rigid to adapt to an ever more global economy and give its people more opportunities to broaden their skills.
Sabine Lochner-Zerbe, a 51-year-old mother of two in Berlin, learned firsthand the difficulties of changing education course when as a youth she was sent to Realschule.
"I had the grades, but my father didn't think it was so necessary for girls to go to Gymnasium," she says. After training to become a florist, she realized she wanted to go to college. To do so, however, she had to go back for three years of high school to get the necessary diploma. At age 25, she began her university studies, eventually receiving a physics degree in Scotland.
But her tenacious efforts to pursue a higher degree haven't always been looked upon favorably. "People just view it as indecision," she says.
In Berlin, children already wait until after the sixth grade to take a specific school path. Ms. Lochner-Zerbe's 10-year-old daughter will learn next year whether her primary school recommends her for Gymnasium—"a lot of stress," she adds. "But I think it's better that they have more time than I did."