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Germany

Germany's schools improve their grades modestly in global league tables

Germany is back into the 'first division' when it comes to education around the world, but still needs to raise its game to secure qualification for the Champions' League. So say the organizers of the PISA studies.

A boy reading a book

Reading and writing skills still represent Germany's Achilles' heel

An international study into the abilities of 15 year-old schoolchildren has shown that German children have been making steady progress in recent years. However, Germany's results in the fourth Program for International Student Assessment (PISA) study, released on Tuesday, were hardly stellar either.

Like the inaugural study in 2000, in which Germany scored disastrously for a developed country, this 2009 investigation focused on literacy skills among students. The German grade improved by 13 points to 497, representing an average score for industrialized countries. Nevertheless, German 15 year-olds are roughly one school year behind their counterparts in table-topping countries like Finland (536 points) or South Korea (539).

"Germany has been promoted from the second division to the top flight," the Berlin head of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), Heino von Meyer, said at a press conference on Tuesday. "But Germany's still a long way away from qualifying for the Champions' League."

The OECD conducts the PISA study in 65 countries, testing almost half a million teenagers in the process. Roughly 5,000 randomly-selected German children from 230 schools took part in the study.

Germany also made progress in the smaller mathematics and science sections of the study, and can now boast above-average performance against comparable countries.

A teacher surveys a class taking the PISA tests

Students are as good as their teachers, the study concludes

"Germany has improved its status from 'horrendous' to 'average,' we are at least satisfied with that upward trend," the chairwoman of the German government's education committee, Ulla Burchardt said. "But I don't think this is cause for celebration, rather continued reflection. We're still struggling when it comes to literacy skills; and these are the most important qualifications for young school leavers seeking a job and a place in society."

Shortly before the publication of the PISA results, Education Minister Annette Schavan pledged to implement a new program encouraging youngsters to read in their free time.

Top teachers = top marks

The PISA study highlighted the importance of placing quality teachers in the classroom.

"It's crucial that schools try to secure the brightest available brains," the coordinator of the PISA study, Andreas Schleicher, said in an interview with the Sueddeutsche Zeitung. "Countries like Finland are doing a great job of this."

Schleicher also criticized the syllabus-driven schooling system prevalent in the Western world, likening the modern day teacher to an assembly line worker.

"Somebody publishes a lesson plan, and then the teacher is expected to sit down in the classroom and follow it."

In the first PISA study in 2000, 22.6 percent of German 15 year-olds were at least two years behind the average level for literacy and numeracy, and that figure has only dropped to 18.5 percent in the interim.

A boy holds his head in frustration, staring at a chalkboard with the word PISA written on it

In Germany, the word PISA has become a headache for students, teachers, and politicians alike

"It is imperative that we reduce the size of this group of 15 year-olds whose reading, writing and arithmetic skills are still at an elementary school level," education researcher at the University of Muenster, Professor Ewald Terhart said.

"This is only possible by changing the teaching methods in the relevant subjects, and to do that, we need to give additional training to our teachers. It will cost time and money, but it's the only way to meaningfully change the quality of teaching."

Social status still decisive factor

The vast majority of the lowest scoring German students hail either from less wealthy families or from families with immigrant backgrounds, or both. The gap in performance between children from these groups and the average German student remains greater than in most PISA participants. However, the study also noted that the discrepancy had shrunk considerably in the past decade.

Traditionally, German high schools have been split up into three tiers, and OECD officials praised initiatives in some German states to merge the bottom two tiers, saying this would help prevent children from falling adrift in the future.

PISA officials also recommended that Germany consider restructuring class sizes in its school system. Currently, average class sizes tend to get progressively smaller as children get older. However, the study notes that young children benefit more from small classes, while teenagers cope with larger groups more effectively.

The 2003 PISA study focused on mathematics, and in 2006, science was the principal subject assessed.

Author: Mark Hallam (apn, dpa)
Editor: Rob Turner

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