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East German School Outshines Competitors

John Kluempers, DW-WORLD.DEJuly 26, 2005

East Germany discarded the socialist rule that all of its citizens were equal when it came to select schools. Only one such school remains. Could Germany learn from it?

When class becomes too dull, a demanding school is neededImage: dpa zb

At the 27th Technology Students Association (TSA) annual conference in Chicago, Illinois, the 10th graders Martin and Steffen do not stick out much more than the 3,500 middle and high school students who made the journey from around the USA. The big difference between Martin, Steffen and six other schoolmates is their origin -- they have come from Leipzig, Germany to show off their scientific skills at America's largest science fair. And it isn't Martin's first time at the TSA.

TSA WOG Chicago
Steffen and Martin from Leipzig's Wilhelm-Ostwald-Gymnasium in Chicago

The school they attend, the Wilhelm Ostwald Gymnasium (WOG) in Leipzig in the state of Saxony, is not just any run-of-the-mill high school that any student goes to after finishing primary education. The selection criteria are daunting, the pupils only the best.

Unusual for German schools, where despite the three-tiered system with the gymnasium, or university prep school, at the top, educators place a lot of value on egalitarianism.

'Seediness' of success

WOG, founded in 1985, just four years before communist East Germany collapsed, may have a short tradition, but it was deeply-rooted in the GDR's system of promoting the best. Its niche was the advancement of math and natural sciences, and still possibly would be if Erich Honecker or Egon Krenz still ruled.

Brigitte Heink has been at the school either as a teacher or principal since 1986. After the fall of the Berlin Wall, the East German schools was transformed to mirror the West German system.

TSA WOG Chicago
Martin's car entry built with Lego blocks

She was convinced that the school should remain dedicated to the natural sciences and took over the helm as principal in 1992. Education for top kids at top speed is not the norm in Germany, something Heink cannot understand.

"Highlighting particularly good achievements by students, other than in sports, seems to have a 'seedy' reputation in Germany," said the principal. "I cannot comprehend that, since I was raised with a different attitude towards achievement."

Achievement counts

Once a pupil is admitted, there is nothing normal about it. On the school's Web site, a list of the winners and participants at various competitions is presented. Not only do math, chemistry and physics events turn up, but also chess and marathon. One course in the curriculum is boomerang, not just throwing one, but learning just what makes the Australian weapon fly.

Neue PISA Studie wird vorgestellt
PISA results have not only forced school students to pull out their hairImage: dpa

Chicago doesn't seem so exotic compared to Istanbul, Jakarta or Taiwan, all locations where the students have proved their skills over the past 12 months. Fifth-graders may be thrown into deep water when they enter WOG, but they almost all can swim.

But WOG is the exception. Of the 14 schools for "gifted" students that existed in the GDR in 1989, only the Leipzig school retained its concentrated program of math and science. That may have paid off in the last PISA 2003 results that test students from the world's industrialized countries in areas such as science, math and reading competence.

Saxony, in Germany's east, broke the stronghold of the southern states, finishing second only behind Bavaria and far above the international PISA averages in mathematical and science competence. Thuringia and Saxony-Anhalt also have left their western German cousins far behind.

"I am certain that the traditional attitudes and demands of the school play a not so insignificant role (in the PISA results)," Heink believes.

Gifted programs rare in Germany

Symbolbild: Jugend forscht
'Jugend forscht' ('Youth does research') allows German middle and high school students to show off their science and technical skillsImage: Jugend Forscht

The shock of the first PISA results in 2000 still sits deep in Germany. The home of some of history’s greatest scientists and mathematicians -- Alexander von Humboldt, Albert Einstein, Werner von Braun -- was wallowing in mediocrity. The university revolt of the 1960s which swept across West Germany resulted in watered-down, less-strict educational standards.

That revolt never hit the GDR. Now people wonder if something can be learned from it.

An expert for programs for bright students, Elke Kaiser from the Bavarian State Institute for School Quality and Educational Research, says more could be done to help the gifted. In Bavaria, only four schools in three cities have elite educational programs. If a parent’s extremely bright child doesn't live in or near Munich, Nuremberg or Würzburg, which in Germany's geographically largest state is quite possible, then the smart tike can visit only a "normal" gymnasium. Kaiser feels more must be done outside of the big cities.

A variety of factors are involved. Money is one of the ´most important -- but so is envy.

Kinderuniversität in Tübingen
Children in a university lecture hall in Tübingen: It's never too early to visit collegeImage: DW

"If a class of eight gifted students were split off from the rest of the school," she explained, "some parents get upset, wondering why their child isn’t amongst the smartest. And then you'll hear complaints that too much money is being spent on just a few pupils."

Brain drain

There is also fear that after investing great time and money in someone with great potential, they might go to another country to study -- like the US -- and then possibly stay.

It's something 18-year-old Florian Kraft from WOG would consider. He says German equivalents to the TSA, like "Jugend forscht" ("Youth does research"), aren't respected by universities and companies.

Albert Einstein mit Galeriebild
Albert Einstein, probably Germany's greatest physicistImage: AP

"What a high school student does at 'Jugend forscht' doesn’t get any recognition," Kraft said. "If I go to an American university and say 'I won this, this and this at TSA' the response from the university is 'Hello, when would you like to check in'?"

And this is one reason why Kraft doesn’t participate in "Jugend forscht." But he's been at TSA four times.

Back in Leipzig, Kraft feels at home at WOG. With only 500 students -- other Leipzig schools have easily over 1,000 -- the school is small and everyone knows just about everyone else, both students and teachers alike. To Kraft, it's family.

That family may have just been born at the right time and in the right place. The Berlin Wall fell, and the East Germans were reveling in the joys of freedom. The West Germans could provide money. But now the morose financial situation of the German government may make the creation of a WOG anywhere else an unachievable goal -- at least in the public school system.

And Martin, Steffen, Florian and their classmates can continue to travel to scholastic competitions around Europe and the world -- after receiving financial support from private and corporate sponsors.