Educational system: Better to step in early than fix things later

As a country that prides itself on its education system, Germany was left reeling by the PISA study. To think that, in an international comparison of scholastic performance at the dawn of the 21st century, the nation of poets and philosophers failed to secure even an average grade! How has Germany responded to this challenge? Jürgen Baumert and Kai Maaz consider the problems facing educational policy and detect first glimmers of hope.

by Jürgen Baumert and Kai Maaz; in: MaxPlanckResearch 1/2009

Nerves were tense again at the end of last year: First came the results of the PIRLS/IGLU survey of reading comprehension among children about to finish elementary school, followed by the third comparative PISA study of learning skills among 15-year-olds. This time, Germany’s politicians, administrators and teachers breathed a sigh of relief: things seem to be improving.


Elementary schools are performing well. Achievement levels are rising. However, the high share of immigrant children leaving elementary school with inadequate language skills remains a problem. In secondary schools, too, there are signs of improvement, particularly in the sciences. It is gratifying to note both that greater numbers of young people are achieving the qualifications needed to enter vocational training, and that their achievements are less closely linked to their social origins. Like a weighty tanker on the sea of education, the system seems to be slowly responding to the change of course.

What has happened? The international comparative studies have shown just what is at stake: Knowledge and ability, commitment and a sense of responsibility are the most important resources available to our society. Education is a precious commodity that can be acquired only through sustained effort, and that is quickly squandered through neglect. A clear view of the outcomes of the education system is the first step toward rethinking its structure and processes. At a political and administrative level, this rethink is very much in evidence.

The Conference of Education Ministers seems to be acting as pacemaker in this overdue process of modernization – albeit with some difficulty and the occasional relapse. Piecemeal regulation is increasingly being replaced with strategic orientation. Educational reports, international comparisons, education standards and the introduction of pilot programs, inspections and early diagnosis and support are all markers of this development. However, there is still reason for caution: significant problems still exist.

The results of the PISA 2000 study provided the first broad-based evidence for the existence of serious social inequalities in education systems. Not one country that participated in the study has yet succeeded in breaking the link between the acquisition of reading, mathematics and science literacy and certain features of social background. On the other hand, the data does reveal differences in how effectively individual countries are tackling the problem. In Germany, the differences in the achievement levels of children from differing backgrounds remain substantial; they emerge at an early age and increase as the child grows older. It is also striking that Germany’s success rates in integrating – even second-generation – immigrants into the education system lag far behind those of other countries.

The situation in Germany is the product of 40 years of political reluctance to grasp the thorny problems associated with immigration. This national duty has been neglected due to party-political wrangling – with inevitable consequences. While the latest PISA results indicate a general trend toward improvement, the problems still remaining are considerable.

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