Center on International Education Benchmarking

Germany Overview

When the first results from the international PISA test were published in 2000, Germany awoke to a startling reality about their education system — not only were German students performing significantly below the OECD average in reading and literacy, as a whole, but the country received the unwelcome distinction of showing the most unequal education performance.

Since then, Germany introduced national assessments and academic standards, delayed choice of vocational pathways and added crosswalks between academic and vocational pathways, expanded early childhood programming, and added supports for high-need students including immigrant students.  These reforms have resulted in the country rising through the international ranks to the top tier of performance on the 2015 round of PISA, in large part due to the improved performance of the lowest performing students.

Germany’s education system is decentralized, with the 16 German states primarily responsible for their education systems.  While the national government has put in place national standards and assessment for the primary and secondary schools over the last decade, the states are still responsible for structuring the school system.  It is at the state level that changes in the structure of the vocational training system have been put in place.  Traditionally, students chose an academic or vocational pathway at age 10.  This choice was among three options: the academic gymnasium which prepares students for university, the realschule which offers a combination of an academic curriculum with practical skills and offer students an option of vocational training or technical college, and the hauptschule, which is the comprehensive school that prepares students for vocational training and work.  The states changed their structures in different ways, but all aim to provide more flexibility for students in choosing their education pathways.  Some states delayed the age of choosing among options from 10 to 12, other states combined the realschule and the hauptshule and allowed students to move among programs in the newly combined school; and other states created a comprehensive secondary school that included all three types of programs. Germany also expanded kindergartens, which serve children ages 3-6, across the country, expanding most to serve these children full-day. Germany has also expanded supports for immigrant students, including more German as a second language programming and academic support. Immigrant families have also been encouraged to send their children to kindergarten, to give them an early introduction to school.

While Germany’s relative performance on PISA has improved overall, including among its lowest performing students, Germany still faces challenges in ensuring an equitable education for all of its students.  Variation in student performance attributed to social economic status is, at 16 percent, still higher than the OECD average.

For more about the structure of Germany’s education system and the recent policy initiatives that have enabled it to attain such high performance, please look forward to CIEB’s forthcoming profile, coming soon.



Ethnic Makeup

German 91.5%, Turkish 2.4%, other 6.1%


$3.98 trillion; $48,100 per Capita

Major Industries

Services: 69.1%; Industry: 30.3%; Agriculture: 0.6%


Unemployment: 4.3%; Youth Unemployment: 6.5%

Educational Attainment

Upper Secondary Graduation rate: 82%

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