For this last article about the trip to Germany, I am shifting back to an educational topic, and am posing the question as to whether American schools are becoming more like German schools, or is it the opposite. Are German schools moving toward what we have for public schools in our country? Actually, I think a better question is “should” either one of them make a shift. The reality, at least from my experience, is that there are shifts in both countries, and whether those are right or wrong will not be resolved for some time.
In the United States, most of the high schools (at least the public ones) are considered to be comprehensiveschools. In essence, the schools provide educational programs for all students, whether they plan to go on to college or chose a path that is more technical in nature. All students are educated under the same roof, regardless of their ability, background, socioeconomic status, proficiency, or vocation. Public schools in the United States are set up to educate all of the youth in the community.
In Germany, and many other countries in Europe, they have a tiered system or a dual system of education for high school age students. At the elementary level, children go to the same schools, but then around the age of 10 or 11, they take a series of exams that will determine what school they go on to the next five to ten years of their life. For those who perform at a high level, they will be allowed to attend a professional Gymnasium or a general-education Gymnasium, depending on their career aspirations. In essence, they are the top students academically who are planning to attend a college or university. Students who do not score as well, are able to go to a Hauptschule or Gesamtschule, which teach many of the same subjects as at a Gymnasium, but at a slower pace. And, the students who attend these schools at some point will most likely move on to a full-time vocational school, enter into an apprenticeship, or start work in the public service at 15 to 17 years of age.
Most of us, particularly due to the presence of the exchange in our school community, have at least a bit of knowledge about this system. For example, we know that the students who come from Uberlingen Gymnasium are those who are very bright, scored well on their exams, and intend to pursue a professional career by first attending college. And, after getting to know a number of these students over the years, yes, they are very intelligent young people that seem to have a solid grasp of what they want to do with their life. We also know that if a young person has a desire to work with their hands or pursue a job that involves more technical skills, they are going to attend a different school. Perhaps many of us were not aware that they actually finish formal school at a younger age than our students, and most of them complete some kind of an apprenticeship. What we do know is that by common American definition, students in Germany (and many other European countries) are “tracked" and attend secondary schools that have a much more specific focus.
Tracking has been somewhat of a four-letter word in American education because it implies that there is inequity. The common belief is that every child should have access to the same educational opportunities. There are multiple reasons for this, among them the American value of equality and that just because a student learns a little different from others they should not be denied a chance to pursue their dreams. Kids are told they can be whatever they want to be, and people do not want to close doors to their future.
Exam scores are not used by public schools in our country to determine where students go to school. It is only at the college level where exam scores are used to sort students out. However, even in Iowa, we are starting to see a bit of a shift away from the traditional comprehensive model. In recent years there has been a strong effort by the Department of Education, political leaders, as well as business and industry to move students toward an education that prepares them for highly skilled trades. Do not mix that up with what what at one time was called vocational programs. Today, it involves much more technical skills, though there is a huge need for people to be electricians, plumbers, and the like. There is pressure being placed on school districts to “regionalize” their efforts and work closely with area employers to create programs to meet the future demand. There are efforts to start with students in middle school to more clearly identify what career they are interested in, so that their high school educational program can be tailored to that path. In some areas, new “high tech” high schools with a focus on career preparation are being created.
In Germany, the change that is moving fairly quick is parents being able to choose the school their child attends, with those rigid exam scores being a guide, rather than a way definitive way to assign students to particular schools. This is basically a federal requirement, and like many top down decisions, the cart has been put in front of the horse. As I spoke to teachers at Uberlingen Gymnasium, a common concern was that they now were getting students who were in no way able to perform at the high standards in place, some with disabilities. More important, those teachers were never trained to provide supports like tiered interventions or academic supports. A student with a disability did not attend these schools, and some of the teachers feel totally unequipped to teach them. For decades, teachers in American public schools have been given a full toolbox of strategies to work with students of all ability levels because since the inception of public education in our country, our doors have been open to all.
For education geeks, debates over the purpose and structures of school could go deep into the night. There are certainly pros and cons to both systems, and from my perspective, it will be interesting what public schools in the United States look like in twenty years. My personal opinion is that they will look similar to what we have today unless there is some major economic shakeup in our country that forces change. Our schools have changed quite a bit over the years, but the fundamental structure and purpose of school has not. I believe a high percentage of high schools will still be comprehensive, providing programs for all. In metropolitan areas we will see some high tech schools, but unless there is a huge infusion of money in rural areas and consolidation of small districts, twenty years from now I would predict things will be quite similar to what they are now.