Back to School

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No matter who governs Germany after Sept. 22, one of the most pressing and emotionally loaded problems the leadership will face is the state of German schools. Education has been gnawing at the German soul since last December, when an O.E.C.D-sponsored survey of reading, math and science skills among 15-year-olds, the Program for International Student Assessment (PISA), revealed serious shortcomings. (A national follow-up published in June, PISA-e, confirmed the bad news.) Proud of their heritage of Dichter und Denker, poets and thinkers, Germans were shocked to learn that their students finished 25th out of 32 countries for literacy.

The most disturbing result of PISA, believes Jürgen Baumert, director of Berlin's Max Planck Institute for Human Development and chief German adviser for the survey, is the "close link between academic achievement and a pupil's social background." Children from migrant families and areas of high unemployment have literacy rates far behind those of students from nonimmigrant homes and prosperous regions.

Teachers at the School Center Waller Ring in the northern German city-state of Bremen, which has the highest share of social-security recipients nationwide and finished last in PISA-e, know all about the problem. Many of the school's 900 students are from migrant families — about 41% of all Bremen 15-year-olds have at least one parent who wasn't born in Germany. "Reading doesn't have a tradition here," says principal Peter Kappel. Extra coaching for these pupils is minimal, and teachers receive no special training in handling low-performance students.

Germany's three-tier school system may be partly to blame. After four years of primary school, which usually starts at age six, students attend either a junior secondary or an intermediate school preparing them for blue-collar and low-level clerical jobs, or they head for a pre-university high school called a gymnasium. "Early division shortens the period of time in which differences in educational background can be compensated," argues Baumert. Raising the age at which kids are "streamed" or starting primary school earlier could help.

Unlike their peers in most O.E.C.D countries, German students usually finish class by lunchtime. "The introduction of all-day schools would be extremely important for us," says Kappel. "Classes could be stretched into the afternoon, pupils would have a place to do their homework and teachers would become more accessible for both the kids and their parents." Bending to such pleas, the federal government has announced it would spend €4 billion for an additional 10,000 all-day schools.

At the bilingual Königin-Olga-Stift in Stuttgart (pop. 590,000), a German-English gymnasium for 550 students, some of these lessons have already been learned. Young people with academic or social problems receive special counseling, there are afternoon classes and parents are active in school affairs. Students can hand in radio, video, debating and other cross-disciplinary projects in lieu of one written test each term. "Why not reward such achievements as well?" asks principal Karl Waidelich. "It pays off."

These and other changes needed to put German schools back on track will cost €4 billion, although part of that sum could be raised by "restructuring" current expenditures — Germany's school budget, around €4,200 per pupil a year, equals the O.E.C.D average. Baumert says it won't be enough. Some experts believe structural and educational innovations won't be enough either. "For too long, we have allowed the impression to arise that school is an immoral attack on the happiness of children," says Annette Schavan, education minister of Baden-Württemberg. "We need a social climate that is positively oriented on education and performance." Better schools will make everybody happy — especially parents, who, after all, are the voters.