The German Public School System

I suppose some of you are probably wondering one thing when you read this blog: What are German schools like? I mean, come on, Heidi. You have been there nine months and we readers have no idea what you do all day. I have been putting it off, but I think the time has come. One reason I wanted to wait was to be sure that I had a decent grasp on the system so I could present it as clearly, fairly and honestly as possible. Another reason for waiting is that it is going to take a few entries to cover everything, and I wanted to have some idea of how I would divide it. To be perfectly honest, however, I have been sort of dreading this topic. Teachers already spend a lot of time thinking about the nature of teaching, learning and education in general. Being here has put that thought process into hyper-drive. I spend a large chunk of my day constantly observing and, whether I mean to or not, comparing. Still, isn’t that the whole point of my being here? (Yes, it is.)

I am going to start by explaining the system very generally. Because I am a visual learner, I also tend toward visual teaching methods.  Let me begin with a diagram of the American school system for comparison:

American School System I

Here’s another, which also includes the post-secondary options:

American School System II

Again, I said generally. Of course there are variations on this theme, but basically, this is it. For my non-American readers, let me explain a bit. All children within a geographically defined area belong to the same school district/system. The differences you see after elementary school are only different ways of dividing the different age-groups by building. There is essentially no difference between a junior high school and a middle school; the main question is do we have grades 6-8 in one building, or 7-9? This differs depending upon how many children and how many buildings a district has, and which system has traditionally been in place.

To recap: all American kids who live in an area attend the same school district/system, finish at the same time, and are divided by age into grades. Now that you’ve seen a visual for the American system, let’s have a look at the German system:

German School System I

And another:

German School System II

As with the diagrams of the American school system, the first diagram for the German system is a solid basic description.  Here is my explanation for the system:

  • Kindergarten: Most kids start with kindergarten
  • Grundschule: Elementary school, grades 1-4, all children.

After Grundschule, the teachers make a recommendation to each child’s parents about which school their child should attend.  Like in the US, the education system is not regulated by the federal government; control belongs to each state.  In some states, the parents have to follow the recommendation.  In others, like Niedersachsen, where I live, the parents can choose.  In most cases, there are three options:

  1. Gymnasium: The highest-achieving students attend Gymnasium.  The Gymnasium contains grades 5-12/13 (depending upon the state) and its curriculum is academically rigorous.  The purpose of the Gymnasium is to prepare its students (Gymnasiast and Gymnasiastin) for university study.  In grades 5-10, students take classes in a variety of subjects.  In grades 11-12/13, students focus on a track (social sciences, modern languages, etc.), which is like a major.  They take five, 2-year courses within their track, and fill the rest of their time with other subjects.  At the end of their time in Gymnasium, the students should be able to pass the Abitur exams in each of their 5 major areas.  The Abitur exams can be written or oral, and students can choose which type of exam for each course.  Only students who have passed the Abitur exams can attend a university.
  2. Realschule: The middle-achieving students spend grades 5-10 at the Realschule.  Realschule students take a wide variety of classes (including English!) that are less rigorous than those at the Gymnasium.  After the 10th grade, they finish school.  If they wish, they can go on to what one of the diagrams call “professional colleges,” or Fachhochschule.  For example, you can study musical performance at a Fachhochschule for music, or if you would like to be a Realschule teacher, you may attend a Fachhochschule for pedagogy.  These students will most likely have mid-level professional jobs.
  3. Hauptschule:  The Hauptschule is for the lowest-achieving students.  These students spend grades 5-9 taking an array of general education classes.  After completing their classes at the end of the 9th grade, they will go on to an apprenticeship in a skilled trade.
  4. There is another option, which has become the center of heated political debate: the Gesamtschule.  The Gesamtschule is like an American-style high school: anyone and everyone can go and you have some choice afterwards.
  5. If you are wondering about special education, look on the right side of the second diagram.  Students requiring accommodations attend the Sonderschule.

Whew.  That’s the most basic possible outline.  I should point out that I teach in a Gymnasium, so that is the system I know the most about.  Some of you may be chomping at the bit to share your own experiences and finer points of the German system, and I encourage you to do so in the comments section.  

As an American, I had a knee-jerk reaction to this system when I first learned about it.  Maybe you did too.  Below are some of my thoughts and opinions.  Again, I would love to hear your thoughts in the comments section.

  • Educational research tells me to strongly dislike the practice of splitting children by level of achievement.  Research shows that when two people of vastly different ability levels are engaged in a common task, both will achieve at a higher level than either could alone.  Pedagogy students in the US are taught to purposely group students based upon mixing ability levels.  We are, after all, social beings.
  • Despite what research has proven over and over, educational practice has shown me that having a a room of students with more similar ability levels makes it much easier to tailor lessons to best fit the needs of the students.  This is easier for the teacher and less frustrating for the students.
  • Although any students has the chance to go to any of the schools above, there are statistically significant class differences.  As you might imagine, a higher percentage of students in Gymnasiums come from high-income backgrounds than from low-income backgrounds.
  • In the United States, it has become increasingly difficult to make a living and support a family if you do not have a college degree.  You can point out to me all of the exceptional cases and friends of friends that you know who have made it, but the fact is, they are exceptional because they represent the exception, not the rule.  In the German system, almost everyone ends up with a profession that he or she can do very well and from which he or she earns enough to support his or her family.
  • Another point to keep in mind is that university study in Germany is essentially free.  Some colleges charge 500-750 Euros per semester, which from the American perspective is still free.  (I could have put my entire B.A. on my first credit card.)  The point is, if the government is going to pay for college, everyone cannot go.  Limiting the number of people allowed to go to college by dividing the school types makes economic sense.
  • If a system is to divide students based upon achievement level, I think that the 5th grade is far too young to decide.
  • I know I am going to take a lot of flack for this next point.  I also do not necessarily agree with the parent being able to ignore the school’s recommendation.  It is true that I am not a parent, but I am a teacher.  I have seen far too many students, both here and in the US, suffering needlessly because they have incredibly demanding parents.  I’m not talking about making sure that your typically lazy 15 year-old sits down and does his homework; if your child has an ulcer or doesn’t have time to see his or her friends a few times a week, you might be pushing too much.  Your child might be much happier and more successful in a Realschule than in the Gymnasium.  Teachers want happy and successful students.  We want to maximize your child’s potential.  None of us became teachers to ruin your child’s life.
  • In a system that divides students in such a way as Germany, I don’t like the lack of contact with other kinds of people.
  • You might be thinking that in American schools, we have equal opportunity. Everyone can take any course, and do whatever they want after!  If you think about it, that’s not entirely true.  For example, I knew that I wanted to go to college, so the guidance counselor sat down with me in 8th grade and made me a college preparatory schedule.  If I hadn’t taken Algebra I in 8th grade, I couldn’t have taken AP Calculus in 12th grade; I wouldn’t have completed the prerequisites in time.  Furthermore, if I had not done well in 7th grade math, the teacher never would have recommended me for 8th grade Algebra I.  Finally, who did I have classes with all throughout high school?  All of the other kids who wanted to go to college.  We all had the same classes!  Officially, we don’t track students, but in practice we do.

There you have it, the basic outline of the German school system and my impressions as an American.  In future posts, I will show you some typical Gymnasium student schedules, what life is life for a teacher in Germany, and some alternative post-secondary options that do not show up on the diagrams.  I would love to hear your comments and questions thus far.

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About heidihefeweizen

I am a 29 year-old American woman who has received a Fulbright scholarship to work as an English teaching assistant in a German high school.
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8 Responses to The German Public School System

  1. kathleen says:

    This promises to be a fascinating series of posts. I’m excited to learn more about how things go over there! Thanks for breaking it down 🙂

  2. This is why I hate translating transcripts!! Very good explanation of a very complicated subject. One thing that is hard for German students that come here to the US also is that in many of the upper level courses, especially once they get into a college or university, the coursework is integrated–meaning that math might be included in the engineering classes, for example. So on their transcripts it might look like they didn’t take math or theory, but it was included in the engineering. So hard to explain to the administrators here in the US. Also, by the time a German student finished Abitur, that can be the equivalent of a two-year college degree here in the US, but if you go with a strict translation, it would only be a high school diploma. Very complicated.

    • Ah, the Bologna Process! I will save that for the post-secondary post. In any case, you’re absolutely right. I get asked about the finer points of the American system all the time. On the Abitur equivalence, I wonder if that’s still true, for example, in the case of Niedersachsen, who now has the Abitur after 12 years.

  3. Sascha says:

    Could not agree more with your first criticism, especially combined with the point on class differences. One should add that if there’s a left-of-center state government, sometimes experiments take place: separation at a later date, or (but that has never actually happened, so far as I know) no separation until Oberstufe begins (11th grade). But conservative governments usually thwart these attempts when the political tide changes again.
    Also, fully agree with your observation on over-achieving parents. Every year, Bavaria (the most rigid state when it comes to separating Gymnasium, Realschule, and Hauptschule) experiences dramatic scenes in teacer’s offices when parents threaten to sue them (!) over their recommendation, and then decide otherwise anyway.

    Ah, and thanks for the chart on the American system 🙂

  4. Steve says:

    As always, you’ve a great grasp of things. A questions to purhaps include in future posts: What is Sonderschule? Saw it on the chart but didn’t want to make any assumptions.

    • I did some asking around and can finally address this question. Sonderschule (lit. special school) was for children who are visually-, hearing-, physically-, and/or developmentally-impaired. From what my colleagues explained, there is not just one Sonderschule in an area, but rather many. Each would address a specific need. Apparently they also underwent a name change to Förderschule (lit. support school). In 2009 it was decided that having separate schools didn’t jive with the goals of the UN Convention for Persons with Disabilities, and now schools are to practice inclusion. This is probably the most marked difference (for me) between schools in the US and schools in Germany.

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