Friday, October 15, 2010

Deutsche Schule (German School)

Over the years people have asked me why I put my son in German school instead of the American school on base. The short answer is that he went to a local German kindergarten (preschool) for three years and that most of his friends were the German kids in his class. I felt that it was best for him to start first grade with familiar friends. The base school was always there as a fallback if he didn't do well in German school. But so far he's doing very well in German school.

Here's a little background about German schools for readers from other countries. Grundschule, or primary school, is from 1st to 4th grade. There are three levels of secondary school, which starts in 5th grade: Gymnasium, Realschule, and Hauptschule. A student's marks in 4th grade determine which type of secondary school he'll attend. Gymnasium (5th-12th grade) is for the students with the best marks, Realschule (5th-10th grade) is the middle level, and Hauptschule (5th-9th grade) is the lowest. A Gymnasium has a university prep curriculum, while Hauptschule students get a good basic education equivalent to a US high school diploma and learn vocational skills. Gymnasium graduates who pass their university entrance exams have the equivalent of an Associate's Degree. Grading is on a 1 to 6 scale, with 1 being the best mark. A 1 is very difficult to get; a student must be virtually perfect to earn a 1. A 2 is above average, 3 is average/meets all standards, 4 is passing with some deficiencies, 5 is the highest failing grade, and 6 is the worst failing grade. Religion is also part of the German school curriculum at all grades, even though Germany is a secular country. Students who don't take Catholic or Lutheran religion classes take Ethics.

Here are some of the things that I really like about German schools. They'll help explain why my son goes to one instead of to the base school.

There is no grade inflation like in US schools. In American schools it seems like students get a B just for showing up with a pulse. If they have a pulse and are breathing, they get an A. German students have to earn their grades. German teachers go at a prescribed speed in class, which is geared toward the class average. I have worked in American schools and noticed that teachers go at the pace of the slowest kids in the class. The higher achievers are bored waiting for the rest of the class to catch up. Because my son is one of the better kids in his class, he would be bored if he had to wait for the teacher to explain the lesson to the slower kids. The pacing of lessons in a German school is a better fit for him. German students who don't "clear the bar" must repeat the grade. There is no stigma for repeating a grade. Many kids in Gymnasium repeat a grade. In my son's class there is one boy who repeated 5th grade last year and another who is repeating 6th grade this year.

In the States a lot of "frivolous" courses have been cut out because of standardized test preparation. Many US schools have no art, music, sport, or recess. Because of No Child Left Behind, schools prep their students to take state tests in reading and math. There is a lot of teaching to the tests instead of creative teaching. The schools' funding and ratings depend on test results. In Germany kids must also take standardized tests in German and English. But school funding isn't contingent on the test results, so there is no pressure to teach to the tests. Even before my son started school, I wanted him to have an education that included the arts and sport along with academics. My son is in 6th grade in a Gymnasium and has a very well-rounded curriculum. He's taking: German, English, Latin, math, biology, history, introduction to computers, art, music, sport (PE), and ethics. His schedule varies every day. One would think that a school for high achievers would cut out the arts and sport in order to make room for the academic subjects. That's not the case in Germany. The arts and sport are also considered important.

Another thing that I like about German schools is tracking. Tracking was eliminated in the States because it supposedly made the slower kids feel bad about themselves. By having the three levels of schooling, students are with those of their ability level. The high achievers can go at a faster pace, while the slower kids can get the extra help that they need without making the rest of the class wait for them. I've noticed in my son's school that the kids are proud of having good grades and are in competition with each other to see who can get the best marks. They really push each other to do well.

Teachers are treated by parents and students as the professionals that they are. The teacher's word is law and discipline is strictly enforced. If a child forgets his homework more than three times, he must stay after class and catch up on his work. Students who consistently forget their homework, or who act up too much in class, must help the janitors clean the school. Cheating and talking during tests is strictly forbidden. If students are caught cheating or talking during a test, they are given a 6 and the parents are called in to talk with the teacher. My son recently had a biology test where two kids were caught talking and given an automatic 6.

There are a few things that I don't like about the German school system. One is that I feel that 5th grade is too early to start tracking the students. Performance in 4th grade may not necessarily reflect how a student will do in 8th. I personally feel that it would be better to have the kids go to primary school through 6th grade and then track them. That would catch some of the late bloomers. The other thing has to do with the nature of Gymnasium. Because universities in Germany are free, the government only wants to pay for the best and brightest to attend them. Kids who go to Gymnasium are the future university students. There is a high washout rate in Gymnasium. Students who have trouble in Gymnasium end up dropping down to Realschule. Sometimes I have the feeling that the Gymnasium teachers are deliberately trying to make the kids fail to weed them out early. There are also not very many tests or quizzes. When I was in school, I took a lot of tests and quizzes. If I had a poor mark on a test, it didn't affect my grade so much. But kids in German schools take very few tests compared to their US counterparts. A bad mark on a test has a big effect on the overall grade for that class.

Overall, I've been very happy with the German school system. I feel that my son is receiving the same well-rounded education that I had when I was a child.

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