Education Reform

16 States, 16 Systems

Hochschulausbildung schützt vor Arbeitslosigkeit
Not what you would call a standard test. Source: DPA

“We don’t want to end up in the museum of technology. We want to lead the way,” Angela Merkel said in the last German parliamentary session before this month’s elections. All political parties agree that education is crucial in maintaining the country’s top rank in engineering and research.

But science and tech courses in Germany are hindered by a highly decentralized education system. For years, Jürgen Petzoldt, professor of electrical engineering at Ilmenau’s technical university, has measured the practical skills of incoming science students against their grades in the Abitur, the certificate earned by the top one-third of Germany’s secondary students.

The results show a startling lack of consistency. Not only do many top students know very little science, said Mr. Petzoldt, there are also major regional discrepancies. “In states where the emphasis is on science, the results are better,” he said. To boost science education, the professor wants to tilt the Abitur toward a more “unified educational culture.”

Responsibility for Germany’s education system is split mainly between its 16 Länder (states) and local governments. The federal government has precious little influence, thanks to a postwar law designed to prevent the rise of a totalitarian, Nazi-style school system. A constitutional amendment in 2006 reinforced that federalist principle. This means Germany effectively has 16 different school systems, one for each state.

Ahead of this month’s national election, all parties other than Ms. Merkel’s center-right Christian Democrats (CDU) proposed changes to the law, arguing that modern education requires some degree of centralization. But try getting that past the states’ education ministers. “It doesn’t make sense to hand over responsibilities to the federal government,” says Susanne Eisenmann, education minister of Baden-Württemberg. So far, the states are prepared to give way only on one count, by allowing Berlin to pay for badly needed school repairs, especially in poorer regions. State development bank KfW estimates no less than €34 billion ($41 billion) is needed to upgrade schools across the country.

School results show a startling lack of consistency.

For the Abitur, decentralization adds up to serious discrepancies among students’ grades. Average grades in the state of Thuringia are considerably higher than in neighboring Lower Saxony, for example. Because nearly half of all university admissions depend on grades, the state where students take their Abitur can influence their prospects, sometimes dramatically.

Families that move between states also feel the effects, as pupils often find things don’t match up. For example, some states have a nine-year Abitur program, but others require just eight years. Or a child may have attended a type of school which simply doesn’t exist in another state. “We see how difficult it is to integrate children coming from other states,” says Heinz-Peter Meidinger, president of the German Teachers’ Association. Given the constitutional restrictions, he thinks a new agreement among states is the only way to improve integration.

Ms. Eisenmann in Baden-Württemberg agrees, but adds that kids’ school experience should still reflect key regional differences. According to Ludger Wößmann, head of Munich’s ifo Center for the Economics of Education Center, that’s not good enough. Excessive state autonomy is “absolutely senseless” when it creates problems for children, he said, adding that the basic school curriculum in Germany should be similar, regardless of where a child lives.

Mr. Wößmann’s testing shows that children from the worst-performing states can lag almost a year behind their peers elsewhere. “Giving every child the same chances is a national task, to some degree,” he said. Ms. Eisenmann laments the quality discrepancies and is calling for more cooperation among the states’ educational bodies.

Cooperation among Germany's state educators tends not to work.

Cooperation, unfortunately, tends not to work. Years ago, state educators agreed to set common achievement benchmarks for children of various ages. There were also measures to align different versions of the Abitur. An “assignment pool” was drawn up so teachers in different states could more easily find educational materials for math and languages. But the scheme is voluntary, with states able to use as much material as they want – or none. With no central grading system, inequalities are bound to creep in. “The assignment pool is not transparent, and few people have used it so far,” says Mr. Wößmann.

A few years ago Mr. Wößmann put forward proposals for a “core Abitur” with common written exams across the country in German, math and English, allowing for direct comparisons. The Abitur wouldn’t be identical across state lines, since exams form only part of students’ grades. But the written exam results are meant to be published separately, in the hope of putting political pressure on states with poor results.

Why is a standardized approach so tough to sell? “Maybe because there are states which don’t want to see a drop-off of their own quality,” says Ms. Eisenmann. “Standardization often leads to a leveling down for high-performing schools and pupils.”

For Mr. Wößmann, that’s a sobering thought. As long as results aren’t comparable, a federalized education system can never really benefit from competition to implement the best ideas.


Stefani Hergert reports on education for Handelsblatt. Jeremy Gray adapted this story for Handelsblatt Global. To contact the author:

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