A Tale of Two Countries: Improvement in Germany and Decline in Australia’s Educational Performance

This post by Dr. Stephen Dinham offers his observations and reflections on educational policy and performance in Germany and Australia. Dinham has over forty years of experience in Australian education as a teacher and academic, and has been visiting Germany since 2008 under the auspices of the Robert Bosch Stiftung [foundation]. A visit of three months in late 2014-early 2015 as a Richard von Weizsäcker Fellow of the Robert Bosch Academy enabled him to spend a longer period in Germany visiting schools, observing classrooms, teaching, presenting, interviewing in schools, universities and various government departments, and engaging with educators, relevant ministers, officials and others. The focus of his fellowship was on comparing the German educational landscape with that of Australia, including structural and regulatory arrangements, policy, and current trends and developments. This is the second post in the Leading Futures series, which is designed to share different views on the process and practice of changing education systems for the better. The first post in this series, by Alma Harris, Michelle Jones, Jan Heijmans and Job Christians, focused on the success of the educational system in The Netherlands.

When I first visited Germany in 2008 I was struck by several concerns many Germans had about their educational system.

The first concern grew from the ‘PISA shock’, still being felt from Germany’s results on the first Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) in 2000. Germany had believed its education system to be amongst the most effective in the world. PISA indicated otherwise.

The second, possibly related concern, focused on the educational attainment of growing numbers of migrant and refugee children. Many of these children had non-German speaking backgrounds, from nations such as Turkey, Russia, Poland and the Balkans, and some wondered whether they might have contributed at least in part for the unexpectedly unfavourable results.

My other major impression of German education was that of its tightly regulated nature, in contrast to Australia.

Today, in 2016, however, I am struck by the contrast between Germany’s steady improvement in international measures of educational performance and Australia’s general decline. Below, I explore these differences in performance and then describe some of the major similarities and differences in the two systems.

Comparing Educational Performance in Germany and Australia (2000-2016)

The “Pisa shock” in 2000 reflected the fact that German policy makers and the general public were of the opinion that Germany had one of the most effective and highest performing education systems in the world. Although there were warning signs that were largely ignored when Germany first took part in the Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study (TIMSS) in 1995 and the nation scored relatively poorly, the first PISA results made it clear that many German schools were under-performing compared with other participating countries. Germany reacted strongly to these adverse findings, however, and Germany’s PISA results have improved in every iteration since 2000.

The OECD summarised the major factors contributing to Germany’s strong recovery and improvement on PISA since 2000:

  • Changes made to the structure of secondary schooling to enable greater accessibility to the various qualifications including the Abitur and other measures aimed at overcoming the effects of socio-economic background on student achievement, which are greater than for any other OECD country.
  • The high quality of Germany’s teachers including the strong focus on initial selection, state-based examinations, training and certification.
  • The value of Germany’s dual system whereby workplace skills can be developed in children before they leave school.
  • The development of some common standards and curricula guidelines and the assessment and research capacity to monitor these.

Because of near universal public education in Germany, coupled with strong Land control, it may have been easier to introduce reforms across systems and schools than might be the case in a more diverse and less ‘controlled’ system such as Australia, which has a large (by world standards) and growing non-government school sector.

International tests are only one indicator of teaching and learning achievement but the following comparisons between Germany and Australia may be instructive.

While Germany’s PISA results have shown steady improvement since 2000, that is not the case for Australia, where PISA results have been in general decline and measures such as PIRLS (Progress in International Reading Literacy Study) and TIMSS have recorded primary school results that are inferior in comparative terms to Australia’s secondary TIMSS and PISA results.

In fact, on every aspect of TIMSS, PIRLS and PISA – with the exception of PISA Reading Literacy where Australia narrowly leads Germany and with the difference in performance not significant – German students now outperform their Australian counterparts, a startling turnaround from the beginning of this century.

Germany, along with Mexico and Turkey, are the only countries to have improved in both PISA mathematics and equity since 2003, with these improvements largely the result of better performance amongst low-achieving and disadvantaged students, and with Germany’s performance in mathematics, reading and science now above OECD averages. Possibly the one negative amongst this pattern of significant improvement is that PISA data show Germany also has one of the highest rates of grade repetition among OECD countries (in 2012, one in five German students had repeated a grade at least once). However, some might argue the improvements in performance are partly attributable to this repetition.

 

Similarities and Differences in Educational Policy and Organisation

Germany and Australia are similar in that constitutionally education is a state responsibility. In Germany there are 16 Bundesländer/Länder educational ‘systems’ rather than one, with each state determining its own educational policies, regulations and mechanisms for standards, innovations and quality assurance. Similarly in Australia there are eight states and territories with primary responsibility for school education, although since 2007 there has been more of a nationally consistent approach in the areas of national testing, national curriculum, professional teaching standards, teacher development, teacher appraisal and certification, and the accreditation of teacher education courses.

Thus, while some aspects of education and schooling in Australia have become ‘looser’, for example government funded independent schools, greater school autonomy, moving teacher education to schools, and a greater emphasis on ‘choice’ and the free market, some aspects have become more uniform, regulated and ‘tighter’ as a result of national agreements and developments.

In comparison, Germany does not have the same level of federal involvement in education as Australia, although there has been greater federal and Länder ‘soft’ cooperation since 2001 in areas such as aggregated national reporting on education, along with reporting on special issues such as diversity and inclusion, commissioning of international and national studies into certain priority areas and the collaborative formulation of national standards for students at three levels, although the adoption and utilisation of many of these initiatives has been optional and thus take-up has been varied across Länder.

While federal authorities in Germany provide funding to universities for initial teacher education, there is little federal involvement in continuing professional development for teachers, which is commonly regarded as the responsibility of Länder and schools.

A key difference between the countries is in the proportion of students attending government schools. In 2012, around 65 per cent of school age students in Australia attended government schools, a small proportion by world standards and one that is falling. In Germany, the proportion of students attending non-government schools is increasing slightly, but fewer than eight per cent of students in Germany attend such schools.

Another point of difference is that local government in Germany plays a more active role in school education than in Australia, with local government taking substantial responsibility for the provision and operation of schools, apart from teachers’ salaries. This involvement of local government extends beyond financing, however, with local elected officials and communities demonstrating a high degree of engagement with and ‘ownership’ of local schools.

In both Germany and Australia there is thus a lack of direct federal government influence and control over education, with a commensurate need to gain consensus among the states/Länder in order to implement uniform national policies, structures, programs, standards and change agendas.

A Critical Difference: ‘Tracking’ versus ‘Comprehensive’ schooling

The most significant difference between German and Australian schooling lies in the organisation of primary and particularly secondary schooling.

In Germany primary schooling (Grundschule) begins at age six and ends at the age of 10 (grade 4) after four years (except for Berlin and Brandenburg where students leave primary school at 12), whereas in Australia there are seven years of primary schooling – Western Australia and Queensland have adopted this structure in recent years – from the ages of five to 12, ending in grade 6.

Whilst comprehensive secondary education was progressively introduced in Australia from the mid-1950s, it is still rare in Germany. While comprehensive secondary school is an option in some places, it is not universal, meaning such schools are not truly comprehensive in the usual sense of the term.

Traditionally in Germany, entry to the secondary ‘tracks’ was determined by primary school staff after students’ completion of grade 4. More recently, parents in some cases now have a choice in (or try to influence) the type of school their child will attend. Some educators I have spoken with see this as a retrograde step, in that the decision has been taken out of teachers’ hands, with greater pressure now being exerted by ‘pushy’ and/or ‘middle class’ parents. In some communities, entry to the highest status and more sought after Gymnasium schools is through ballot.

German secondary education varies from Land to Land and regionally within Länder but typically there are now five major forms. The first three types are the traditional pathways or forms of secondary schooling in Germany. Although it is possible to change tracks, this is usually ‘downwards’ and not to a ‘higher’ track):

  1. Gymnasium (or grammar schools) – the most ‘academic’ schools, operate until grades 12 or 13 and enable those who meet the general standard for entry to university (Hochschulreife) and passing of the Arbitur examination to qualify for university entrance. (The Arbitur – a combined written and oral examination – guarantees admission to a university but not to a particular field of study.)
  2. Realschule – grades 5-10 with the Mittlere Reife exit exam and Realschulabschluss
  3. Hauptschule (Main School) – the least ‘academic’ stream usually ending in grade 9 (with the qualification of Hauptschulabschluss and in some cases Realschulabschluss after grade 10, and in the case of Mittelschule [grades 5-10] combining Hauptschule and Realschule in some Länder).
  4. Fachoberschule – vocational/technical school, [sometimes leading to a Berufsschule that offers academic study combined with an apprenticeship] with admission after grade 10 until grade 12 (or 13 in some cases), with the Arbitur available/obtained subject to certain conditions.
  5. Gesamtschule – grades 5-12 or 5-13 comprehensive/community school effectively combining the three main types of secondary school. The Arbitur is available/obtained subject to certain conditions.

An overall impression is that Germany has and continues to place great emphasis upon formal education and training. There is compulsory school attendance (Schulpflicht) from age 6 until 15 and home schooling is illegal. There is strong belief in the contribution effective public education makes to personal, social and national prosperity.

There are pathways to obtaining certificates, diplomas, degrees and other qualifications that are long established and well-known, including the highly regarded ‘dual system’ with industry. (As OECD explains it, “Germany’s dual education system … combines apprenticeships in a company and vocational education at a vocational school … In the company, the apprentice receives practical training which is supplemented by theoretical instruction in the vocational school. Around 60% of all young people learn a trade within the dual system of vocational education and training in Germany.”) Training for any occupation is usually lengthy with the payoffs being tenure, security, salary and status.

While Germany is prepared to invest in education and training, In Australia governments are moving away from supporting technical education through cutting funding to traditional technical and further education (‘TAFE’) colleges, encouraging alternative vocational education and training (VET) providers and importing skilled labour rather than training local people.

Two Different Approaches: The Roles of Regulation and Deregulation

While it could be argued that strong traditions and tight government regulations in education might hinder innovation and change in Germany, these can also act as a form of protection from international trends and forces and ensure that standards are not compromised. Whilst Australia is moving down the road of greater deregulation, there is strong resistance to this in Germany. As noted, federal agencies in Germany are relatively less influential in education than is the case in Australia and this might also act to protect the country as a whole from some of the fads and fashions that are becoming endemic in other countries such as the USA and England.

There is no context free recipe or model for educational success, however defined and measured. Australia is not Germany, nor Finland, Singapore or Shanghai for that matter. However Germany has been successful in lifting its performance at a time when Australia’s is in decline, and so there may well be lessons to be learned.

Conclusion

Whilst challenges remain for education in Germany and educators and officials express dissatisfaction with the current performance of schooling, there are impressive features that contrast with the current state of education in Australia.

Overall, the education sector in Germany is highly valued, well-supported financially, tightly regulated and stable, yet it has shown itself to be responsive, serious about and capable of reform.

Finally, the strong emphasis within German education on regulation, standards, evidence, reform and improvement appears preferable to the current situation in Australia where there seems to be a headlong rush to deregulate, dismantle and open (public but also private) education to market forces, without, or at times despite, available evidence, whilst overall performance and equity are declining.

2 responses to “A Tale of Two Countries: Improvement in Germany and Decline in Australia’s Educational Performance

  1. Pingback: Learning From and Beyond PISA: Toward Achievement with Integrity | International Education News

  2. Pingback: Learning From and Beyond PISA: Toward Achievement with Integrity - Dennis Shirley : Dennis Shirley

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