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Opinion: High PISA Score Masks Inequality in German Schools

German schools have improved their international ranking, according to the most recent PISA study. But DW's Ramon Garcia-Ziemsen puts PISA to the test and takes a closer look at the state of education in Germany.


Once upon a time, people thought of the town in Italy and of vacation when they heard the word "PISA." They thought of cappuccinos, of a building that adamantly refuses to fall over, of bella Italia.

Then the first PISA study's results came out in 2001 and nothing in German education was bella. Germany, the land of poets and philosophers, had regressed. Its students rated average to poor -- a disgrace for Old Europe that the US tested ahead of Germany.

But now everything seems to be fine again. The new PISA study shows -- at first glance -- that German students have caught up. Education policy-makers are patting each other on the back; such an accomplishment inevitably involves a lot of them.

And it's true: The first PISA study got things going and generated productive concern. The German Philology Association calls the most recent PISA study "proof of the innovative power and reformability" of German schools.

But is that really the case? Let's take a closer look: The newest PISA study can hardly be compared with its predecessors. In the 2001 results, testing focused on reading comprehension, but in 2003 it was heavy on math and now the emphasis is on the natural sciences. That doesn't allow for identifying a pattern of development.

Even if you turning a blind eye to the facts that the only statistics worth believing are the one you've doctored yourself and that educational studies can never deliver a decisive evaluation of school quality, things still don't fit together.

It remains a disaster that -- in a wealthy country like Germany -- parents' pocketbook still determines children's educational path.

Former German Chancellor Willy Brandt's motto "Education for all" from the 1970s was never fulfilled: The manager's son goes to the college-prep high school while the blue collar worker's child attends the vocational high school.

It's still often the case that children from so-called underprivileged families and children with migration backgrounds aren't fostered enough and their potential is not recognized. This only deepens the social divide that already exists.

Education means participation in social development. But when this participation is hindered, we not only have an education problem but a democracy problem as well.

The supposed PISA success shouldn't belie the fact that the three-pillared school system is a manifestation of an antiquated social structure. No other country begins the selection process so early. In Germany, a student's educational path is decided in the fourth grade. The trusted world of learning -- in which good, differentiated learning takes place -- is lost.

Nearly all German education researchers agree on the solution: learning together over a longer period of time in a positive environment without pressure to achieve. In the Netherlands, a country that also has high immigration, elementary school last for six years. The country has autonomous schools, comparative school research, and regular achievement tests for students and teachers.

The foundation of scholastic success is laid in the first few years. Nevertheless, funds are distributed inequitably. Most of the money goes to high schools and universities, while pre-schools and elementary schools are underfinanced.

The early years are especially crucial for children from migrant or underprivileged families. They fall through the cracks.

Germany should follow Sweden's example and make a new law that says students' academic paths aren't determined before ninth grade. And it should finally have the gall to say, like Finland, that "no child should be embarrassed."

The true success in the countries that scored well in the PISA study comes from taking lasting responsibility for each individual student.

"No child should be embarrassed" -- that would be a real revolution in German classrooms.

Ramon Garcia-Ziemsen is DW-RADIO's culture editor (kjb)

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