School & District Management Opinion

Germany Rapidly Improved Their Schools and We Didn’t—Why?

By Marc Tucker — October 04, 2017 4 min read
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The lead article in our current Center on International Education Benchmarking newsletter reports on an interview with Andreas Schleicher, the head of the OECD’s education program, on Germany’s rise in the PISA league tables.

Before the first PISA survey was administered in 2000, Germany simply assumed it had one of the best school systems in Europe. So did most other Europeans. But the results of the first survey were a shocker. Germany turned out to be mediocre, right down there with the United States. Those results came out in 2001. In the most recent survey in 2015, Germany came out among the top performers, but the United States’ position is a bit lower than it was in 2000. Why the difference?

The first big difference was in the public reaction to the data: what came to be called “PISA Shock” in Germany versus a big yawn in the United States. While only the cognoscenti paid much attention here, the German press, political elite and public regarded the news of Germany’s performance with a great deal of alarm. And that, Schleicher points out, led to a sustained focus on the performance of the public education system that laid the groundwork and provided broad-based support for sweeping reforms designed to raise standards, destroy their classic tracking system and provide strong support to students from birth all the way through the grades so they could achieve the new standards. The plan was coherent and powerful.

The United States quarreled about standards and tests, blamed its poorly paid teachers for the poor performance of the schools and placed a lot of faith in choice as a school improvement strategy. But what really set the German scene apart from the American scene was the sense of urgency we saw in Germany as opposed to the United States. Surveys in the United States continued to show, as they do today, that most Americans are happy with their schools. Indeed PISA shows that American students are happier with their (poor) performance than students in the top-performing countries are with their (superior) performance.

This is a picture of complacency in the face of the facts. What is so striking about this story is that Germany and the U.S. were actually performing at virtually the same level on the 2000 PISA survey. What was different was the national reaction to that performance. The Germans leaped into action. The United States continued to sleepwalk through history.

Technically, the federal government in Germany could do nothing about Germany’s schools. After the Second World War, the U.S. insisted that the new German constitution be written to give the federal government hardly any role at all in public education. And, in the immediate aftermath of the 2000 PISA results, the governments of the German states resisted the calls for change. But the chief education official of the German central government, despite her lack of power, used her bully pulpit amid the public uproar over German’s performance on PISA to create an environment in which the German states had no choice but to move.

The ministers of education of the German states worked together to create their own “common core” state standards for student performance, which Germany had never had before. They created a new set of examinations and vastly expanded their early childhood education system. Up until that time, all German students came home from school for lunch and did not go back to school. For most students, that quaint practice ended and the school day was extended to match general European practice. They abandoned the age-old German high school tracking system and, when they did that, they did not set their new standards at the average of the old separate standards, but at the top of the old standards, on par with many other European countries. Every one of these reforms and the others they undertook were dramatic departures from previous practice, much of it a century or more old. Less than 15 years later, there has been a no less dramatic change in student performance.

Over the same period, as I noted, there has been no change in the average academic performance of American high school students, as reported by the National Assessment of Educational Progress and at the same time there has been a decline in reported American performance in reading and mathematics on PISA.

Because there was no “PISA Shock” in the United States, as there was in Germany, there was no national conversation here about what it might take to have a world-class education system. One is as likely to hear people talk about the evils of interstate standards as the need for them. There are bitter controversies among supporters of charter schools who think they should be regulated for quality and those who don’t, but neither side seems to argue that charters would vault the United States into the ranks of the countries with the world’s best education systems. There are the usual math wars, but there seems to be virtually no interest whatsoever in learning how more than 30 countries are outperforming the United States in mathematics. There are a handful of academics in this country who seem genuinely alarmed at the fact that a large and growing number of countries are outperforming us on PISA but there seems to be at least as many well-known academics in the United States whose solution to our poor performance on PISA is to shoot the messenger by attacking PISA.

Germany did not decide that it needed to change a few policies and practices. It decided that it needed to change its system. It did that as a result of a national conversation in response to what it perceived as an emergency. The United States, looking at the same kind of data the Germans looked at, evidently continues to see no such emergency. So we are not having a national conversation about how to address that emergency. We shoot off in all directions, without a goal, without a strategy. We fiddle while Rome burns.

The opinions expressed in Top Performers are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.

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