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School Daze

Last week was mid-term vacation for our school, and as a 3rd grader Christopher got his first report card with real grades. His grades were pretty good, we thought. One of the quirks of German family life seems to be that kids are to share their grades or show their report cards to anyone who asks. I remember that my report cards were a private matter between me, my parents and the school.

But even though it seems like he just started school yesterday, it's time to start thinking seriously about what comes next. Elementary school ends after grade 4; at grade 5 the three-tiered German school system kicks in, with the kids divided into higher, middle and lower levels.

We have a number of misgivings about the school system, and while Christopher is doing fine right now, we're not sure he will be well-served by the school system as it now stands. Here are some of my feelings.

  • I have no experience with the 3-tiered system and don't understand the reasons for it. A big part of American schools is learning social competence, to be able to get along with all of your fellow citizens, and that seems to be missing when the kids are divided up so early. I've heard reports that social background (as opposed to talent or intelligence) plays a bigger role in students' success in Germany than elsewhere, so maybe the division has as much to do with class as with competence.
  • There is no local control of schools as in the US. Schools are a matter for the individual states (Bundesländer), and any decision regarding schools has to go through the hierarchical bureaucracy, for us from county (Winsen) to the district (Lüneburg) and to the state (Hannover).

  • This means that education is a state political issue. The CDU tends to prefer the traditional 3-tiered system, the SPD and Greens tend to prefer reforms. School policy, and the school system, will change when new parties take over. Any aspect of the present system may disappear when a new party takes over.

  • Politicians don't know anything about education, and will make policy changes to achieve their own goals rather than to improve education. For example, in Hamburg the CDU was for the traditional 3-tiered system while the Greens were for a comprehensive system. In their coalition, they compromised to start the 3 tiers at grade 7 instead of grade 5. Most states have now shortened the upper Gymnasium track from 9 to 8 years for cost reasons, but without any plan for adjusting the curriculum so that the same material is being taught in less time.

  • Education seems to be chronically underfunded. Facilities seem to be run down, and (at least in our state) parents are required to pay for books and materials for the classrooms.

  • Our community does not have a secondary school of its own. So no matter what level we choose for Christopher, he will have to be bussed to another town. There is an active citizens' group to establish a school here, and while they're at it then a comprehensive school for all levels. They even have a Wordpress-based website at Jesteburger BildungsBlog. They of course have to deal with 3 levels of bureacracy, and it's a slow process. We hope they are successful, but we doubt that anything can be achieved before our decision for Christopher is due.

  • We live in a rural community, so we don't have a lot of alternatives. There is a church-based school in Buchholz, and a Waldorf school about 15 km away. Going to Hamburg is out of the question.

  • We are very happy with our elementary school, but we don't hear any good things about the local Gymnasium. They seem to be inflexible educational factories... you'll do fine if you go along and fit the mold, if not you'll fall by the wayside.

  • I recently heard a report how elementary schools here are somewhat biased against boys, with the lack of male teachers as role models and the emphasis of creative language skills over math skills. I can't say whether that's true, but it seemed to fit Christopher's experience thus far.

What does all this mean for Christopher's education? We don't know yet, but we're looking at alternatives.

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