(De)leveling the system

by kstockbower

Imagine this: Your performance in elementary school will decide your educational experience for the next 10+ years of your life, as well as the career opportunitites that will be available to you later in life. Welcome to the German education system. 

Sounds pretty intense, right? Well, upon completion of fourth grade in Germany, students are placed into one of three educational paths based on teacher assessment and parental input. The three paths are: 1) Gymnasium, the university track; 2) Realschule, a track to prepare students for trade, technical or administrative professions; and 3) Hauptschule, the vocational track to prepare students for craft professions. Gymnasium students graduate after twelve years of school and completion of exit exams, while those in Hauptschule and Realschule will be finished with school after 9th or 10th grade, respectively, and will move on to apprenticeships or work. In theory, there is flexibility between the tracks, such that students who succeed in Realschule can continue on to the Oberstufe (grades 11 and 12), take the Abitur exit exams, and go to university. But in practice, this upward movement is not easy to accomplish.

Working as an English teaching assistant in Gymnasium, Realschule and Hauptschule classes in Germany for the past three months has gotten me thinking about the advantages and disadvantages of leveling students in this way. At the same time, it has made me think back to my own school days and compare the two educational models. In this post, I would like to address some of the thought-provoking questions that have been on my mind.

  • What are the advantages to this three-tiered leveling system?

Some would argue that the German leveling system challenges the smarter students, while allowing the poorer students to work at a pace more suitable to their learning style. It could also be argued that it is a more efficient system, in that it allows the Hauptschule und Realschule students to graduate earlier so they can move on to their apprenticeships sooner.

  • What are the disadvantages to this system?

Leveling the students in this way appears to heavily discourage the weaker students from working towards higher achievement. From what I can tell, it creates a catch-22 – the teachers expect less from their Hauptschule students, so they naturally produce less and are less-motivated to excel in the classroom. By separating students at such an early age, you also run the risk of stigmatizing students in a way that tends to haunt them for a long time. Not to mention that late-bloomers are at a severe disadvantage due to the early leveling, and that the hand-working trades and crafts once intended for Hauptschule students are a dying art in today’s technology-driven world.

Additionally, this system tends to segregate students who come from disadvantaged economic backgrounds (often the children of immigrants) or those who have parents with less education. Of course, there are children with immigrant backgrounds in Gymnasium and students with privileged economic backgrounds in Hauptschule, but statistics have shown that migrants of non-German nationality are overrepresented in Hauptschule and underrepresented in Gymnasium.

  • Is this three-tiered model of tracking really that different from the subject-specific tracking that occurs in the US?

Theoretically, the subject-specific tracking in US high schools (and some middle schools) should allow students to tailor their schedule to their specific interests, strengths and weaknesses. While a math genius could take AP Calculus II and Track 3 English in the US, students in Germany are confined to an all honors/middle/low course load. In general, tracking in the US begins much later in a student’s academic career than it does in Germany.. But if you look hard enough you can find some similarities between the two systems. At my high school, for instance, it was very common for the best students to take exclusively AP and honors classes, while the poorer students took all Track 3 classes. In the end, this makes me wonder whether the practice of subject-specific tracking is really that different from the leveling found in Germany.

In my opinion, the disadvantages to the German leveling system appear to outweigh the advantages, and the US model for subject-specific tracking at a later age makes more sense. However, after asking some teachers in Germany about their thoughts on the school system, I got mixed reviews. Some seem to think it’s okay the way it is, while others declared it old-fashioned and in need of serious change. Many states in Germany are starting to move away from the three-tiered system to Gymnasium and combined Hauptschule/Realschule, and integrated schools are becoming more prevalent. Even more dramatically, the Gymasium curriculum was just changed from a 13-year program to a 12-year program. It will be interesting to watch these changes unfold in the coming years. In the meantime, I will continue to encourage my students to learn their irregular verbs, no matter which level they are in!

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2 Comments to “(De)leveling the system”

  1. Do you ever hear students’ opinions about the leveling system?

  2. To be honest I haven’t asked, mainly because I don’t want to offend anyone…it would definitely be interesting to find out though!

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