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Germany To Introduce Federal School Standards

December 5, 2003

In the wake of a dismal showing in an international survey of students’ education, Germany moves to introduce standardized curriculums and testing in each of the country’s schools.

In the future, kids will march in step as they learn German, math and other subjects.Image: AP

Describe the theory of Pythagoras. Calculate the surface of a trapezoid. Say two related sentences about your favorite food in a foreign language. You could call it the 1+1=2 of learning, but the members of Germany’s top education regulator call it "education standards."

On Thursday, the Standing Conference of Ministers of Education and Cultural Affairs, the country’s top schools authority, approved the biggest and most crucial educational reform package in Germany since the country’s students flunked the recent PISA international school comparison.

For the first time, Germany plans to introduce nationwide curriculum that sets the standards for the knowledge and capabilities students are expected to possess at the end of each level of education. Education policy-makers say they want to improve the quality of schools and make them more accountable.

"Up to now, we always defined what, when and at which point in time children should be taught," said Karin Wolff, president of the Standing Conference. "But it’s gotten to the point where academic levels in the different German states can vary as much as two years. Now we want curriculum standards, in other words, we want to specify competencies that should be achieved by the end of certain phases of schooling. But they also give schools considerable leeway in how they achieve them."

Uniform learning

And that, the conference hopes, will pave the way for standardized knowledge in Germany, bringing greater order to the country’s federalist school system, which leaves most education-related decision-making at the state level. Germany, too, is the only country in the world that has three different types of high schools -- the Hauptschule for lower-achieving students, the middle-tier Realschule and the college-prep Gymnasium. Germany’s 16 states each have their own school infrastructures, and the only trait they universally share is the four-year Grundschule primary school.

Until now, the states have insisted on maintaining their autonomy in matters of education. Despite the uniformity the Standing Councils plans to impose in the next school year, states will still retain a great deal of control over classrooms.

"In principle, in two areas it creates even greater freedom than before," Wolff said. "One is that the states that commit to the standards will be able to decide on their own how to achieve the goals, using different methods based on differing traditions. Individual schools will also have a high degree of freedom and can take different pedagogical paths using different approaches to time and different methods of learning."

Germany’s powerful educators’ union, GEW, criticized the new policy, saying the rise or fall of educational standards is the responsibility of schools, teachers, pupils and their parents. To introduce standardized testing and school rankings would merely compound existing problems, the union maintained.

The Standing Committee has already agreed on standardized curriculums for German, mathematics and a student’s first foreign language, and they are slated to take effect with the start of the 2004-2005 school year. Standards for other subjects will follow soon.