Class Warfare

School of Hard Knocks

Separated by education. Source: DPA
Separated by education.
  • Why it matters

    Why it matters

    Germany’s tiered education system has long been criticized for shunting children into non-university track schools and vocational training too early.

  • Facts


    • Many conservatives in Germany argue that students should be separated in secondary schools based on academic ability.
    • Reformers want all students to be taught together in one high school.
    • A recent study shows German students in poorer districts lagging considerably behind their wealthier counterparts.
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It should be something to celebrate. Since Hamburg’s three different types of high schools were bundled into so-called district schools more than four years ago, the number of students who leave without a diploma has decreased by more than 30 percent. And the percentage of students earning an Abitur, the high school diploma required to attend university, has risen by almost a third.

But at the district schools no one is in the mood for celebrating. The reputation of this new type of school is abysmal. Better-educated parents are not registering their children at the schools anymore, leaving only disadvantaged students.

Are the district schools really that bad? Those who visit them and take part in lessons in model schools are surprised at how different school is today than it was before, and how well everything seems to work. Perhaps German parents just fear what they don’t know.

The district schools’ guiding principle is integration. In a port city like Hamburg, where every second teenager has a foreign background, and there is a growing division between rich and poor, district schools are supposed to work like a social glue for the future. The theory goes that weaker students would no longer be pushed into schools setting them up to remain society’s outsiders.

Pupils with poor grades in richer city districts achieve almost as much as students with better qualifications in a disadvantaged area.

Meanwhile, even many progressive parents have become critical of the district schools, and there is supposed evidence for their failings as educational institutes. According to a comparative studycalled KESS 13, students earning an Abitur at district schools lag considerably behind those at a gymnasium, as Germany’s university-track high school is called. The 2014 results show that students at district schools were not only weaker in math than gymnasium students, but were given better grades prior to taking the exam. By extrapolation, their lower results on graduation must have been even worse.

That sounds alarming. But the numbers are less surprising considering that weaker students are landing in the district schools. Many students at district schools are considerably behind in their learning after elementary school and often have much less academic support at home.

Therefore, the performance of district schools must be evaluated differently: Only one in 15 fifth graders at district schools receives a recommendation to go on to a gymnasium, but many later do complete the high school graduation exam. One in four who passed that exam in 2014 was a student at a district school. That is an astounding educational achievement.

District schools were meant to bring conservatives and progressives together. Instead, progressives got a light-version of a “school for everyone;” conservatives got to keep their prized school too.

However, the new type of school didn’t solve the fundamental problem: Conservatives still think it is better to teach students in different groups based on their abilities. Progressives, on the other hand, think that it would be better for all students to be taught together.

Progressives think that it would be better for all students to be taught together.

The annoying thing about this infighting is that the two sides ignore the fact that most schools have progressed much further long ago. In some of the most successful district schools, children of different abilities are taught together. In others, also very good schools, the children are separated at some point in middle school. In others there is more emphasis on project work or laboratories, in which students of different ability levels learn according to their own aptitudes.

Researchers, school principals and teachers are united in thinking that what works depends on the students and teachers at a particular school. Some of Hamburg’s district schools are better than their neighboring schools which prepare puils for university. And at the same time there are truly terrible schools.

It depends on, among other things, what part of the city the school is in. Education researcher Ulrich Vieluf evaluated the KESS 13 data based on city district. The result was that students in the economically disadvantaged city districts lag one to two years behind those in the wealthier city districts, independent of whether they attend the academic high schools or more mixed district schools. Mr. Vieluf says that students at a gymnasium, or academic high school, in a problem area could perform as well as a student at a district school in a better neighborhood.

Pupils with poor grades in richer city districts achieve almost as much as students with better qualifications in a disadvantaged area. Some teachers fear the district schools in the poorest neighborhoods could turn into educational ghettoes. While students with learning disabilities and behavioral problems have to be accepted in these schools in the context of inclusion, there is a corresponding lack of gifted children, who could serve as examples or could serve as assistant teachers.

Now teachers are speaking to groups of well-educated parents in elementary schools, to convince them to send their children to district schools. But there is still some skepticism. Those who visit these schools can say that children there get to know a different Hamburg than the members of the elite do. And that kind of experience can be worth more than a couple of hours of physics class.


This story first appeared in Die Zeit. To contact the author:

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