After the Shock: The German Education System in 2017

Strengths and Goals of Germany’s Education System

Robert Rothman
by Bob Rothman

German officials had high hopes for the first results of the Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) in December 2001. They had arranged to have the results released in Berlin, and expected that their country—the birthplace of Einstein and Goethe—would end up at the top of the international rankings.

It did not work out that way. German 15-year-olds performed well below the average of OECD countries, ranking 27th out of 30 countries in reading, 28th in mathematics, and 25th in science. Moreover, the results were highly inequitable; the gap between the highest performers and the lowest performers was higher than in any other industrialized country.

The “PISA shock,” as it was known, spurred policymakers into action. They adopted a sweeping series of reforms, including lengthening the school day from roughly 4 hours in most cases to the 6.5 hours that is common in most industrialized countries; vastly expanding early childhood education, including making early education and care an entitlement for all children age 1 and older; providing more autonomy to schools; reforming tracking at the secondary level; and creating national standards for student performance—a first in a country where education was the responsibility of the states.

The results were dramatic. In a few short years, Germany climbed to the top of the international rankings on PISA, and it has remained there, although performance has stalled in recent years.

To Andreas Schleicher, a German native who is the director for education and skills of the OECD and the coordinator of PISA, this improvement is the result of both “pull” and “push” factors—demand for higher quality in education and changes in policy to produce better results. The reforms have gotten a lot of attention, but “the public discourse in the wake of the PISA results was most important,” Schleicher pointed out in a recent conversation with CIEB. As one example of the heightened attention to education quality, he notes, there was a popular television quiz show called the “PISA Show.”

“Before, it was hard to imagine anything like this. But it happened,” Schleicher said.

The public pressure was significant because it provided latitude to the federal government to play a more active role in education. For example, the federal Ministry of Education and Research began to consider national standards for students, something that would have been inconceivable prior to the PISA shock, Schleicher said. The Ministry commissioned a study of how national standards were developed in a number of countries, which concluded that standards common to all states was feasible.

“At the beginning, the states had been quite opposed to doing anything, but that study put them under a lot of pressure, so they took over the agenda and they developed a set of commonly agreed state standards,” he said.

Similarly, the Minister at the time, Edelgard Bulmahn, also used a creative approach to respond to public pressure to expand the school day. “The demand was there, parents wanted it, but there was no money,” Schleicher said. So the Minister used funds from a telecommunications license auction to offer seed money to states to expand the school day. “That was an offer that was very hard, on political grounds, to resist,” he noted.

The reforms had an immediate impact on raising student performance, but the improvement was limited, Schleicher said. That is why improvement in PISA scores has stalled in recent years. Germany now faces challenges to build a stronger foundation of educational improvement.

One area that needs more attention is building a strong teaching profession, Schleicher said. Initial teacher education in Germany is fairly strong, despite the fact that teacher-training institutions are autonomous and there is limited system coherence. Teacher-candidates must pass a rigorous test to enter teacher education programs, and they spend a year working in schools with skilled mentors. All teachers in Germany have a master’s degree and specialize in a content area.  But ongoing professional learning is relatively weak, and there is no career ladder to encourage teachers to continually develop their skills.

“I would still characterize the teaching force as industrially organized,” Schleicher said. “It doesn’t have the level of professionalism you see in many high-performing systems. There is no real career structure, very little career differentiation. There is not much of a collaborative culture. So I think there is a lot to do on that front.”

Likewise, he said, Germany needs to do more to prepare school leaders to help guide instructional improvement. School leaders are trained in administrative leadership, not instructional leadership, he said, and many capable individuals are reluctant to go into leadership because the pay differential between teachers and principals is small.

“That’s a big weakness of the system,” Schleicher said. “In the past, you wouldn’t see it, because the system was so centralized, in the sense that the states would micro-manage schools. Now that schools have much more autonomy, the problem has become more visible. School autonomy was one of the themes in the reforms. There was more emphasis on that. But I don’t think they paid enough attention to the leadership aspects.”

Schleicher also said Germany needs to do more to open pathways to higher education for students pursuing vocational education and training. “On paper, the qualifications system is open. In practice, not too many people are using the pathway from vocational to higher education,” he said. “The possibilities are there. But the problem there is that tracking in Germany starts so early, once you are in the vocational track you don’t have a mindset for going into academic studies. Switzerland has universities that are particularly geared to vocational programs. In Germany, two states have them, but the rest don’t. More has to be done to create more flexible pathways throughout the entire system—school, university, and the vocational sector.”

Despite these challenges, Germany’s success in the past decade and a half offers lessons for other countries, Schleicher said. “One big lesson I learned from this is about the equity agenda,” he said. “It is often seen as out of scope for education—many people think poverty is destiny, there is nothing you can do, it’s all about society. But you can actually make a difference in a very short period in a very significant way. And that’s by changing mindsets within the schools, giving teachers incentives to invest in students with difficulties, rather than having them repeat a year.”

Another lesson is about the importance of building public demand for improvement, he said. “If you do not change the demand for good education, it is very difficult to do anything about the supply,” Schleicher pointed out.

A third lesson is about the timing of the reforms. Unlike some countries, which implemented tests soon after developing standards for student performance, Germany rolled out the implementation of standards in a careful, deliberate way, giving time for schools and teacher-education institutions to adjust to the new expectations before putting in place tests to measure whether students have met them.

“The temptation is always, you introduce your standards and then you introduce your accountability system, and you create all these gaps between intended, implemented, and achieved practices that disrupt the system,” he said. “Having the patience in that part of the reform, to do that in a carefully sequenced way, is a good lesson to take from Germany.”

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For more on Germany’s high-performing education system, see this month’s Statistic of the Month.