Strong Performers and Successful Reformers in Education

A video series profiling policies and practices of education systems that demonstrate high or improving performance in the PISA tests

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Expanding educational opportunity to improve outcomes for every student

When the first PISA tests in 2000 placed German students well below the average in OECD countries for reading and literacy, the nation was shocked. The revelation sparked a nationwide debate about Germany's school system and what was needed to improve it.

Published in 2001, the PISA 2000 results revealed that the German system was not providing equal opportunities for all. Students from disadvantaged backgrounds were particularly at risk. Rather than basing the choice of secondary school solely on student achievement in elementary school, the system was actually denying opportunity to disadvantaged students.

In discussing reform options, educators had to take account of Germany's highly decentralized education system. While the federal education ministry has an oversight role, the nation's 16 federal states have primary responsibility for schooling. Policies covering almost everything from teacher training to curricula are decided at state level. The states coordinate their policies in the framework of a standing conference of education ministers, the Kultusministerkonferenz, or KMK.

Though details vary from one state to another, as a general rule German school students have traditionally been tracked after four years of primary school into one of three different education pathways:

  • The Gymnasium, providing a demanding academic program culminating in a university entrance qualification;
  • The Realschule, with a less-demanding academic program, leading to a lower secondary diploma signifying solid academic skills; and
  • The Hauptschule, offering a program designed for those deemed to have limited academic ability or interests and culminating in a school-leaving certificate.

PISA 2000 showed that this system was far from producing optimal results. Even when students in primary school were equally matched in terms of actual achievement, those whose parents had attended Gymnasium were three times more likely to be sent to a Gymnasium than those whose parents had gone to a Hauptschule.

The three most important predictors of low performance in the PISA 2000 tests were shown to be: a student's socio-economic background; lack of fluency in German; and coming from an immigrant family. After extensive debate, education experts concluded that the tripartite school system was one of the main reasons for Germany's weak overall performance.

Reflecting the fragmented nature of Germany's education system, PISA revealed wide variations in standards and curricula across the country. Although the federal ministry's room for action was limited, it responded by working with state ministries to develop common curriculum frameworks, performance standards and tests, and to enhance the use of benchmarking.

The federal government also introduced new legislation to expand the availability of pre-school for children under three and give all children from three onwards the right to a place in kindergarten until they begin elementary school. State authorities worked together to strengthen the educational content of pre-school programs.

Another feature of Germany's school system that came to be perceived as a potential cause of weakness was the relatively short school day. Students started school early but left at lunchtime. This was not a problem in families where only one parent worked, but it created difficulties for single-parent families or those where both parents worked.

Individual states responded to the need for reforms in different ways and at different paces. In many states, moves were made to lengthen the school day and introduce extra-curricular activities, focusing particularly on the needs of children from disadvantaged backgrounds. Extended school days are not compulsory, however, and schools that do take this option are required to remain open in the afternoon for only three days a week.

Moves were also made to improve the quality of Germany's teaching force. Although teachers in Germany had high educational standards, many were approaching retirement. Reforms negotiated with teacher unions built on the existing high standards to raise skills in key areas. New teachers are now trained to diagnose and address specific problems faced by struggling students, as well as to undergo extended supervision and mentoring by master teachers before taking up full-time teaching.

Thanks to the combination of reforms and a nationwide effort to raise performance, Germany's education outcomes are improving. In the PISA 2009 tests, Germany's lowest-achieving students did better than in 2000, while its highest-achieving students maintained 2000 levels and the negative impact of students' socio-economic background diminished. From 21st place in 2000, Germany rose to equal 15th place alongside Sweden, just ahead of Ireland and France but behind the U.S.