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German Students Perform Poorly on the OECD’s PISA Test (2002)

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Competency in mathematics and the natural sciences: in international comparison, the competency of German schoolchildren in mathematics and the natural sciences is below average. According to the PISA report, almost 25 percent of fifteen-year-olds fall into the at-risk group, meaning that their mathematical skills are not always sufficient for them to successfully complete vocational training. Reading competency was shown to be one foundation for mathematical competency.

Inadequate support: Germany also includes relatively large groups of high-achieving secondary-school students, also in those federal states that scored below average. The PISA consortium concludes from this that, unlike other countries, Germany does not do enough to either support weak students or challenge particularly gifted ones.

Unequal educational opportunities: the PISA-E study has shown that no German federal state has met the essential objectives of a democratic school system: namely, to give all adolescents good and equal educational opportunities and optimal individual support, and at the same time to compensate for social, ethnic, and cultural disparities in educational participation and educational success. Social background largely determines students’ educational success. Remedying this is a key challenge for education policy.

Tendency toward “homogenization”: German schools obviously have basic difficulties in adequately supporting and challenging heterogeneous groups of students. A large number of students repeat grades, defer entry into primary school, or – unique internationally – transfer from higher level secondary schools to other, less challenging ones. Some federal states need to develop far better solutions. Every school system tries to strike a balance between what children bring with them and what schools can accomplish. “But none is so compulsively fixed upon one pole as the German system: [and that pole is] what is referred to in this country as ‘aptitude’ and which supposedly can be determined very early on. When people want to improve the quality of schools in this country, they do not focus on improving the schools themselves; rather, they tighten the regulations for promoting students to the next grade, or they relax the regulations for demoting students to a lower school, so that finally only the ‘right’ children go to the ‘right’ school or are in the ‘right’ class. [ . . . ] In countries that we could learn from schools follow a different logic: first, they ask themselves what they could do better.”

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II. Conclusions for School and Education Policy

One central purpose of schooling is to serve as the bedrock of a culture that strives for and appreciates learning, and to ensure and advance quality instruction. The PISA study shows that international competition demands creativity, action-oriented approaches, and problem-solving skills – in short, the ability to put acquired knowledge into practice. Only self-motivated students can do that. Schools based on cramming are passé.

1. Guidelines for Education Reform

All federal states are faced with the challenge of making productive use of the national competition initiated by the PISA-E study to further develop their respective school systems. In my opinion, some existing approaches should be intensified, in particular:

The expansion of all-day schooling programs, which offer additional opportunities to encourage and challenge students more intensively. All-day schools are important, especially for children who need to make up for deficits at home. The all-day school program is organized in close cooperation with the school’s external partners. Within its local environment, the school becomes a venue for living and learning, one in which students and teachers can interact outside of the classroom and can learn from each other.

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