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.

Steadily rising expertations

In Germany, as elsewhere, parents’ expectations for their children’s school-leaving qualifications have been steadily rising. In the past ten years, the Realschule certificate and the Gymnasium certificate (which is a requirement for university entrance) have become equally prominent on parents’ wish lists. Nevertheless, the content of these wish lists differs widely depending on the parents’ own career and educational background: whereas only a quarter of parents who left school with a vocational-track Hauptschule certificate hope to see their children qualify for university entrance, among parents with the Gymnasium certificate, this proportion rises to almost three quarters. Class-specific expectations and cost-benefit considerations appear to underlie the parents’ decisions. The Transition study aims to identify the specific criteria on which parents base their decisions, and to determine how they weight these criteria. Results already show that there is more evidence of social justice in teachers’ recommendations than in parents’ decisions.

Once pupils have made the transition to a specific type of secondary school, their social background seems to have virtually no influence on their learning gains from grade 7 to grade 10. This finding, which emerged from a long-term study of educational processes and psychosocial development in children and young adults (BIJU), coincides with the results of US studies. It would seem that educational success or failure is predetermined by the crucial choice of secondary school type – irrespective of the pupil’s individual intellectual, cultural, social and economic resources.

Various studies have provided empirical evidence that different school types represent specific learning and developmental environments. The differential learning gains of students at different school types indirectly broaden the scale of social inequality. But why should the gap widen in this way?

There appear to be several potential explanations: differences in pupils’ individual aptitude and ability (individual effect), differences in the academic, social and cultural composition of the student body (composition effect), and institutional differences, such as differing syllabuses, teaching programs, educational cultures and teacher qualifications (institutional effects).

If it is not primarily the school that creates social inequality, what about the parents’ influence? Long-term studies in the US have shown that social inequality develops mainly during the long summer vacations. It is during this period that learning trajectories diverge, whereas during term time, they remain largely parallel. Therefore, it seems that it is not primarily the school, but rather family and neighborhood influences that create social inequality.

Summer camp compensates for disadvantages

A new study by the Max Planck Institute for Human Development suggests that the same applies in Germany, where even the relatively short summer vacation contributes to disparities in the reading skills of elementary school pupils. The achievement gap widens when school is out – children from the lower strata of society and from immigrant families fall behind their counterparts from more privileged homes or without an immigrant background.

That need not happen. A summer camp run in Bremen by the Berlin-based Max Planck Institute and financed by the Jacobs Foundation showed that recreation, theater-based language training and daily German lessons can be successfully combined. The rewards are evident in the bright eyes of the enthusiastic children and in the sustained improvement in their language skills. Vacation programs like this offer no opportunity for social disparities to increase. On the contrary, they compensate for social disadvantages. The Bremen model has found many imitators. However, the fact that summer camps have not yet become an integral part of the educational program of every sizeable local authority district shows that the road from recognition to politically and socially responsible action is a long one.

The findings of studies on the economics of education demonstrate that early intervention and support are not just good policy, but also make good economic sense. Drawing on long-term experimental studies that have been running for over 40 years now, economist and Nobel laureate Jim Heckman recently showed that early support for families and quality care and education opportunities can yield returns for both individuals and the economy that add up to a multiple of the investment cost. The marginal utility of such support measures diminishes as the recipient grows older. According to Heckman’s findings, the age of seven to eight represents a critical threshold. Later support programs can be effective, but their cost is then generally higher than the aggregate long-term returns. Even though no society can afford to dispense with late-in-the-day support for disadvantaged groups, the principle must be that it is better to step in early than to fix things later.

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