Demystifying the German educational system

I recently came across an article in The New Yorker entitled "Ten Ways to Get Serious About Rising Inequality." As I scanned through it, number 8 caught my eye (bold added for emphasis):

8. Copy the Germans and greatly expand technical education. In the United States, education in middle schools and high schools is geared towards preparing students for college. Experience shows that this approach doesn’t work for many students, particularly the less academically gifted. Germany takes a different approach, which has helped it to preserve a vibrant manufacturing base and a strong middle class. Some German teen-agers go to American-style high schools. But most of them attend vocational schools, where there is more emphasis on preparing for the job market. After leaving school, many Germans start an apprenticeship, during which they learn a trade and continue their education, while receiving a modest salary. Setting up such a system from scratch in the United States wouldn’t be easy. But if we are serious about providing workers with the skills they need to make decent wages, it’s worth considering.

This isn't the first time I've seen Americans fawn over the German education system. It crops up periodically in discussions of education reform and the overproduction of bachelors degrees. Obama even praised the German system in his state of the union speech last year.

The German system is very different from what we have in the U.S., and I think it has some genuine advantages over the American system. That said, I often feel like people have the wrong impression of just how education works in Germany, because many of the people who write about it and praise it in the United States don't fully understand it themselves (or at least, the way they write about it suggests they don't).

For example, the excerpt above says that some Germans go to "American-style high schools" but most end up going to "vocational schools." That's a simplification I see a lot in discussions of German education, and I think it tends to give people the wrong impression.

When Americans hear the term "vocational school," we often think of somewhere you would go to learn a trade, like being an electrician or a welder or a carpenter. Thus I think Americans sometimes get this idea that in Germany, only the smartest and best are sent to university to be academics, and everyone else is quickly assigned a jobskill to cultivate and pushed into the workforce as soon as possible.

 It sounds almost like a Brave New World scenario -- children are sorted according to their skills and set on whatever pre-determined path in life that The Powers That Be have decided will bring the most benefit to society, and everyone quietly accepts the role assigned to them.

Except, it's not quite so simple, nor is the German system as rigid and confining as it is made out to be.

An Overview of the German Educational System

Formal education in Germany starts around age 6 (so typically later than in the U.S.). The lower level school is called the Grundschule, which encompasses grades 1 through 4.

After the Grundschule, things get complicated. The German education system continues to develop and there are variations of this model, but generally speaking, at grade 5, students will be sorted into three different types of schools:

Hauptschule: A secondary school that covers grades 5-9. Upon achieving your Hauptschuleabschluss (Hauptschule degree/diploma), students will either start an apprenticeship or trainee program, or pursue addition education.

Realschule: A secondary school that covers grades 5-10. Upon achieving your             Realschuleabschluss (Realschule degree/diploma), students will either start an             apprenticeship or trainee program, or pursue additional education.

Gymnasium: A secondary school that covers grades 5-12 (13 in some states). Some Gymnasium students stop studying at grade 10 and leave with their Realschuleabschluss. Students who continue studying take more difficult and more focused classes in preparation for the Abitur, a comprehensive final exam that is the basis for university admission.

Everything clear? It might also help to consult the chart at the left.

Yes, this is indeed a much more complicated system than the U.S. While Hauptschulen and Realschulen tend to focus more on preparing students for entering the workforce rather than on studying at the university, to me it's still a mischaracterization to refer to them simply as "vocational schools," because the way most Americans understand that term is different from how those schools actually function.

 Right now, I work at a Realschule. The students there take a standard courseload -- math, science, history, German, English, etc. There are some elective courses are slightly more vocational based (for example, one teacher at my school teaches a cosmetics class where the students learn how to create different beauty products), but overall the coursework would be seen as typical for any American high school.

Additionally, students are encouraged to think about what kinds of careers they want and to start thinking about internships and trainee programs early. The ninth graders all have two weeks off in February to do a short practical internship as part of this focus. So there are vocational elements to the Realschule, but the classical, essential components of a high school are there as well.

In my opinion, a Realschule is functionally the same as an American high school, just without honors or AP classes -- the students who would take those classes go to Gymnasium.

I have very little experience with Hauptschulen, but my understanding  would be that they emphasize practical skills more than a Realschule would. So, it may be fair to classify that type of school as more of a vocational school, but students there will still learn history, math, German, English, etc.

The education received at a Gymnasium is actually far above what you would see at most U.S. high schools, especially at the upper levels. The classes are more rigorous and more demanding. Getting your Abitur is not the equivalent of a high school degree. It's actually most similar to getting your Associate's degree.

So when the above article writes that "Some German teen-agers go to American-style high schools. But most of them attend vocational schools...," I consider this to be a mischaracterization of both Reaulschulen and Gymnasien. These "vocational schools" are in fact more American-style schools, and these "American-style high schools" are actually far more rigorous than the typical high school in the U.S.

Mobility within the System

To Americans, the German system often seems unfair because students are basically sorted according to their perceived aptitude at a fairly young age -- how can you know whether a 12-year-old is cut out for college? We don't like the idea of someone telling us what are and aren't able to accomplish, because we think this should be determined by hard you work, not by whether someone else has deemed you capable of achieving it.

The German system does garner a fair amount of criticism for sorting children at such a young age, especially since studies and articles repeatedly highlight that the children of immigrants and lower-income families are overwhelmingly sent to Hauptschulen and Realschulen, while the children of native-born Germans and upper-income families are overwhelmingly sent to Gymnasien. It's not a perfect system by any stretch of the imagination.

That said, it's not as confining as it appears. Notice how, when writing the descriptions of the three main types of secondary schools, I mentioned that students from Hauptschulen and Realschulen can pursue additional education. Just because you are sent to one of these two schools does not mean you're not allowed to dream of going to university.

There are a variety of schools in Germany geared specifically toward giving students with a Hauptschuleabschluss or a Realschuleabschluss the additional education and preparation they need to take the Abitur and, if they so desire, go on to university.

I work at a Realschule, but if you asked the 10th graders at my school what they want to do after they graduate, I would guess that at least 50 percent will tell you they want to go to university. Right now, many of my students are visiting Gymnasiums and Fachoberschule and other kinds of schools that are specifically geared toward students in this position. Many 10th grade students are also taking extra classes in the afternoons to prepare for transitioning to a Gymnasium.

It's not necessarily easy for students in this position to work their way to the university, but it's absolutely possible for those willing to put in the extra work.

The Necessity of a College Degree

Another facet of the German education system that I think is important to consider is that a college degree is considered much less essential here in Germany to have a good, comfortable job. The relative exclusivity of being able to go to university in Germany does not at all mean society is divided between those with academic degrees who are able to achieve successful careers and those without an academic degree who are confined to the manufacturing sector.

For one, on-the-job trainee and apprenticeship programs are much, much more common here than in the U.S. Business administration, banking, the hospitality industry, transportation and logistics, retail-related positions -- just a handful of fields that commonly offer young people the chance to learn a profession on the job. And these are not just entry-level positions; these are genuine career paths with advancement opportunities.

These fields don't necessarily require a college degree in the U.S. either, but I think we tend to see more and more college-educated people working in these positions simply due to an overproduction of college degrees and not enough jobs to match these degrees. In Germany, this is far less of an issue.

Further, Germany has a much better system of vocational and trade schools (and by that I mean schools that actually fit our American conception of what these schools are) that offer students training for careers that many people in the U.S. would ordinarily go to college for.

Two professions that immediately spring to mind for me are nursing and kindergarten teachers. Whereas in the U.S. people get degrees in nursing and early childhood education, in Germany, people interested in those paths do not go to a college or university. They go to a school specifically focused on training those individuals, and the education they receive is just often as good as what they would get at any university in the U.S.

Closing Thoughts

It's important to note that I am still an outsider looking in at the German education system. Many Germans are quick to criticize their system as being too socially divisive and unfriendly lower socioeconomic classes. Additionally, it's possible that I'm not characterizing aspects of their education system entirely correctly, or that I've glossed over other important areas.

But rather than trying to provide an authoritative guide to understanding German education, I just wanted to try and address what I see as a persistent mischaracterization within U.S. media and politics of how this system actually works. It's still a system worth praising, in my opinion, but I think people would do better to properly understand why this system is worth praising and why it seems to bring such better results than what we have in the U.S.