Introduction – Common Core
First of all, this is a practisioner’s view comparing the German Education System vs American Education System. It’s not meant to being a comprehensive study. Instead, it’s to orientate American parents who consider a gap year in Germany. It’s also good for teachers or educational institutions from the US that would like to get an idea of how Germany’s school system works.
To understand one of the major differences you need to start with the basics. That is, Germany has got a Common Core, a pre-scripted standard for the entire nation. In America, though that’s not exactly the case at least, not to the degree it’s executed in Germany. Quite some professionals, scholars, and executives within education would even say that America doesn’t have a Common Core, at all. However, single states do have agreed upon the importance of a Common Core and implement it as valid for this state, see (without SSL-encryption) here. The quoted organization rather is an initiative than an official site. Please, keep that in the back of your mind.
The institution to agree on the Common Core in Germany is the Kultusministerkonferenz (KMK). The most recent standard of the current Common Core was set in 1984. From there, the states of the German federation, which are called ‘Bundesländer’, make up their own binding curriculum for the state. However, some private schools can have their own curricula – depending on the kind of accreditation. More on curricula below, where some context on the history of the German education system is given, and in part II of this series. In part III, the focus is on secondary education certificates.
Types of Schools and Policies
Comparing both, the German Education System vs the American Education System, there’s no such thing as school districts. Therefore, no local policy efforts can be mixing up educational issues in Germany, at all. The same is true of union policy and infiltrating members into school district decision-making processes. Just because there’s no such thing than a school district. However, a union exists but it’s independent of content-related policy decisions.
Another phenomen in the US are the charter schools. A charter is a hybrid of private and state school, to make it simple, and doesn’t exist in Germany. Charter schools have risen to the occasion in New Orleans after the restoration of not only the city but the whole of education system in the region. You might remember the destruction left after hurricane Katrina in 2005. The superintendent in charge for charter schools in New Orleans and the entire state has used bad circumstances to turn education there from a formerly underserved into an exemplary region with high educational standards. Charters in the US are getting more and more popular due to the increasing level of educational achievements in their students.
Most of the German schools are public. An increasing percentage of schools are in private hands, though. The current official release by the Statistisches Bundesamt from August 2020 is downloadable as free PDF on their website. Go to their quick stats in English on the exact number of private schools. The actual percentage of students in private schools in Germany varies much by each state or ‘Bundesland’ – from 4,4% in Schleswig-Holstein up to 12,1% in Berlin and even 14,7% in Saxony, which makes it the leading ‘Bundesland’ with private education, see PDF, page 5. There you can also get information on fees, which vary a lot. In short – in can be less than $100 monthly to various hundreds of Dollars.
Graduation – CSE, GCSE and A-Levels
Although it has not always been such, for an estimated decade, Centralized Exams are a pre-requisite of graduation in Germany as fix part of the final degree. They are only for main subjects, like Math, German, 2nd Language and Natural Science in the written examination. The oral examinations are not centralized anyhow.
To give you an idea of the level of A-Levels examinations find links to downloadable files. In CSE- and GCSE-levels they make a 20% contribution to the final mark of a final grade, and another 20% are contributed by the non-centralized oral exams. The other 60% are contributed by the grading of the subject’s teacher in the annual certifications. By the way, CSE is equivalent to the German term ESA, Erster Allgemeiner Schulabschluss. GCSE is MSA, Mittlerer Schulabschluss. A-Levels is Abitur. Here you are with all information on the 2021 exams in the City and State of Hamburg.
Why is it important to discuss the role of centralized examinations in Germany? When comparing German Education System vs American Education System, classroom dynamics such as teacher-student bargains, which is heard of in the US, are not even imaginable on a larger scale in Germany if non-existent, at all. The teacher’s role is not completely free at all from that of a “judge”, see James Coleman in chapter 9 of Paul E. Peterson’s book “Saving Schools. Reforming the US Education System”. More on this here. Instead, it’s coming into play outside of centralized examinations, in the annual certification’s marks and also in the oral examinations.
The overall advantage of (half-)annual certification in combination with final Centralized Exams are supported not only by the PISA results. They reflect the student’s efforts throughout a longer period and are therefore a better meassurement for future employers to rely on.
It strikes a German as odd regarding the American education that a student leaves (high) school with a degree that does not reflect a comparable meassurement with regard to fellows from other schools, school districts, and states. This is much more likely with Centralized Exams prevalent.
The Context of the German Education System
The context of the German education system is a strong political will to ensure a long-lasting democracy. After the experience of ideological seduction of a whole nation into the 2nd World War for superiority of one race over all others, Germany was obligated by the allied forces to prevent the new democracy from a backslash. It needed and needs to be avoided that a “parallel” ideology and subculture increases, may it be motivated by – political, religious, or criminal viewpoints. To do so, a nation’s educational plan (Common Core) was implemented top-down by the ‘Kultusministerkonferenz’ (KMK), the current issue released in 1984, as already said.
As a rather compact federation, on the ‘state’ level you have Germany’s ‘Bundesländer’ that are much less independent in policy-issues decision making than those of the U.S. Each ‘Bundesland’ provides a curriculum in accordance with the federal educational plan or Common Core. Compulsory education for all students in either a public school or an accepted (“genehmigte”) or fully acknowledged (“anerkannte”) private school is obligatory, therefore. There’s no third way. Boarding schools or German schools abroad all operate on the same paradigm.
Consequently, alternative education (homeschooling) is explicitely prohibited by law. The idea of individual learning in Germany seems to have been abolished right after WWI, as based on an official release by the German government quoted in this post on homeschooling. The general arguing against homeschooling is that the transmition of democratic values is to be ensured and the rise of “parallel societies” avoided.
Unfortunately for those system-conform parents who would just like to have the choice of homeschooling for more flexibility they’re usually not prone to the rare exceptions that are out there: Medically approved severe disability is accepted to opt out of learning in a classroom-setting. The second one is for few families living on so few very small, lonely islands called the “Halligen”. And the third one I came across is the case of circus kids at school age. However, most of them jump into existing classrooms of the locality where they happen to stop instead of homeschooling, as I’ve personally heard of a circus mom.
In sum, German politics make sure that all future generations start formal education at latest with obligary school age of 6 or 7 years. Children shall be thoroughly educated for a mind-set of agreement with democratic values, even though on the cost of restraint free choice in education matters.
Practical Consequences of Ensuring Standardized Education in Germany
First of all, practizing schools in Germany need to be acknowledged or accepted if private. The vast majority is public, though – just as with universities, by the way. Amongst the private schools there also fall the international schools like those for military families all over Germany. They usually operate on their own curriculum – however, never since prior acceptance procedures by governmental agencies.
How do you then ensure that all families practically agree participating in Germany’s education? By collecting and analyzing data on an automatized level. You need to know that all citizens of and in Germany are obliged to subscribe into the local citizen registration office as soon as their stay exceeds 3 months. That means, all born into or migrated children are registered there, too.
Consequently, identified data of children by districts’ locality data source will automatically be passed to a nearby school when school age comes. This school is set in charge to secure the application process is happening, visits at the doctor’s to enter formal schooling are followed and reports from pre-school or pre-k institutions are transmitted, if applicable. When kids reach pre-school age, at about 4 1/2 years, parents will be informed to take a somewhat immediate action within few weeks for showing up. Then, that school is in close communication with the state’s school agency to not loose track of any child growing into obligatory education age.
In later school life, in a case of prolonged school avoidence, the school(agency) if it recognizes a student having been absent for three days in a row (only), without they being able catch up with the responsible parent(s), the executive force (police) will be contacted to bring the student to school the same day.
Obviously it is rightly assumed, that those students are actually present at home, as experience confirms. In sum, that’s all undertaken to make sure that all students all over Germany receive formal education. In America such data transmission is hardly imaginable. As far as for homeschool freedom, it’s there but the level depends on the state. For more on US homeschool resources please, rely on that related post.
In the next posts of this series you’ll
- learn more on curriculum set-up in the context of Germany’s teachers education to secure the transmission of democratic values, and
- get a closer look at the execution and differences of grading at the final classes and the examination forms that exist: centralized exams and external exams.
- Related post outside series on secondary education degrees in Germany and what to do with them