Private Schools Could Rescue Ailing German System, Expert Says | Germany| News and in-depth reporting from Berlin and beyond | DW | 22.10.2008
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Private Schools Could Rescue Ailing German System, Expert Says

A German expert on education and economics said he has little hope that Wednesday's summit between Chancellor Angela Merkel and state education ministers will bring about change -- even though it is sorely needed.

A student fill out a table on a chalkboard

Merkel's plans for an "education republic" is still far off, one expert said

Merkel has called a meeting in Dresden with education ministers from Germany's 16 states, on Wednesday, Oct. 22. She said she wants the summit to lift the country out of its learning rut.

Prize-winning economist and education researcher Ludger Woessmann, of the Ifo institute in Munich, argued that a radical change toward increased competition is the best way to offer a broader array of students a more even shot at education. He added that fairness dictates that university students help pay their own way.

DW-WORLD: Is this education summit a serious effort toward policy change, or more of a political gambit on the part of Angela Merkel?

Ludger Woessmann: Initially, Chancellor Merkel raised a lot of expectations, and I think she honestly wanted to achieve something at the summit. But it is becoming more obvious that there won't be any huge results that come out of it. It's a big disappointment.

Why do you say that?

At first she said that education is the key precondition to equality in our social market economy, and that she would make education her priority. The fact is that in Germany, more than in almost any other Western country, education is tied to social background. So fixing education is the key to allowing everyone to accept and participate in the social market economy.

Now it seems the heads of the (individual German states) have called her back to reality. According to the constitution, the federal government has basically no say at all in education topics. It is the business of the states. And they are just playing political games to make sure the federal government doesn't get any influence.

What kind of influence should the federal government have?

Lecture hall at the Karlsruhe University

German education is free --and classes are full

I think it would be important to have a federal school evaluation system, as a first step to see how each state has performed. It would make them accountable for what they do, and would create huge incentives to do better, to try harder. It would put politicians under pressure to perform.

Basically there are two problems that need to be dealt with: One is that we do a pretty mediocre job on international comparative tests like PISA (an international, triennial study that compares the high-school students' abilities -- eds). The other problem is that education results are so strongly tied to family background.

So how should the government -- federal or state -- deal with these problems?

I think more autonomy for individual schools is needed. At the moment public schools have no autonomy in choosing their own staff. Teachers are largely assigned by central bureaucracies. And there is clear evidence that that holds back the quality of education.

More generally, I think something that would lead the way forward would be to create more choice and competition between schools by setting private schools on the same funding level as public schools.

You mean switching to a system that the US would call charter schools?

Not really. Charter schools in the US are just public schools that have more autonomy. I am talking here about, maybe, church-run schools. You have to remember that we don't have the separation of church and state that the US has in terms of accepting funding.

What we have seen empirically is that school systems perform best when schools are financed by the states, using little private funding, but operated largely by private initiatives.

The model is a system like the Netherlands, where three-quarters of students go to schools that are not operated by the state, but mostly by churches and other charities. These schools benefit the low income children the most. It gives them the opportunity to attend privately operated schools regardless of how much money the parents have.

They are rare, but there are a few private schools in Germany.

Right -- and that is the problem. Because what we see in international comparisons is that systematically, students perform better in countries that build more on private school operations. Not private funding, but operations.

Portrait of Woessmann

Woessmann eyes education's economic impact

In the Netherlands ... the schools are all funded in the same way, and they get exactly the same amount of money per student as the public school gets. That creates choice for parents. It makes schools start to compete with each other in a way that helps students.

And what do you see as a remedy for the problem of socio-economic bias?

One thing is clear that the early tracking of students into different types of schools at such an early age -- right now they are tracked at age 10, in the fourth grade -- decreases the quality of performance in Germany. We can systematically see that this tracking does nothing to improve performance. It just makes outcomes more strongly dependent on family background.

We should delay the tracking, and reduce the tracking into just two levels, if at all. But this is such a politically charged topic in Germany that they won't even dare to discuss it at the summit.

The subject of educational tracking is a real political hot potato and has been for years. What are the chances it is changed?

It has been debated since the 70s. And it divides people along party lines. It is one of those things where the federalist structure of Germany makes any big, sweeping change impossible.

Is there anything you think will, in fact, be dealt with at the summit?

Well, the final thing that research tells us would actually increase opportunity and performance in general is to put more focus on early childhood education. It is something Germany has slowly moved into, and will probably be discussed at the summit. But I don’t expect there will be any big news.

Scene from a German-Turkish school in Berlin; two boys sit together at a desk

Low-income kids often get a worse start in Germany

Right now, Germany focuses on providing child care instead of early education per se -- there is hardly any educational content in the preschool programs. But more and more people are becoming aware of how important it is to introduce learning and educational goals at an early age. It would help people who don't have an educational environment at home.

A recent OECD study shows low rates of university attendance in Germany compared with elsewhere in Europe. What is behind that?

Part of it is definitely due to this problem of early tracking. It makes sure that a lot of very bright children from low socioeconomic backgrounds do not go into the "Gymnasium," the one track that leads straight to university.

Another is that we have a very strong vocational education system. Historically, more than half the students in each grade would go into the apprenticeship track.

But a lot of people have not realized that the world has changed. The vocational system isn't as safe and lucrative as it once was, because of globalization. A lot of the medium-skilled jobs are outsourced into eastern Europe or Asia.

German universities used to be free of charge, but recently some states introduced tuition fees. Some people are arguing that this makes it hard for low-income students to study. What do you think?

I think that in general it makes a lot of sense to have students pay at least some fees for the university. At the moment we make parents pay more for their child's preschool than for a university degree. This is kind of ridiculous -- it is both inefficient and unfair.

It is inefficient in the sense that the earlier you invest public money, the higher the returns will be. So you can actually change the whole track of children's if you make sure that early on they get a better education.

It is unfair because in the current system, you make the state pay for a university education, which at the moment is much more open to children from rich families than from low-income families. So in a sense, by funding the system with taxes, you are making low-income people pay for the university education of children of rich families.

I think what is strongly needed, and what has really been missing, is to accompany these tuition fees -- and we are talking about 500 euros per semester, or 1,000 euros per year ($650 or $1,300), which is nothing compared to the US or the UK -- by easy, income-contingent loans at the same time. So people could pay back the loans later on, if and when they are successful in the labor market.

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