Old or New Education Style: What Really Prepares German Children for the University

Petra Landfester, Undergraduate student at the University of Northern Colorado

     Our children's education is a sensitive issue which is discussed frequently, especially in a country like Germany where education is viewed as one of the highest priorities of society.  Different models were tried in Germany in an effort to achieve the best possible preparation of students for their future careers.  Sometimes I ask myself who developed those wonderful models and who influenced their creation.  The importance of easing the transition of students from school into the workforce was surely a criterion.
    The three basic types of high schools were "Hauptschule," which is like trade school in the United States; "Realschule," which allows students to get a good start into administrative positions; and last, "Gymnasium," which is supposed to prepare students for the university.  Nevertheless, due to increased pressure in the market because of an unemployment rate of ten percent, this school type has taken on the function of educating all the students who want to succeed.  The legal reforms that accompanied this process or became necessary to follow the job market's demands have led to an incredibly low standard of general education.  There ought to be changes made to replace the standards that were lost with the implementation of these reforms.
     The educational requirements at the "Gymnasium" prior to the 1970s were intended to ensure a broad general education.  Students had to learn two foreign languages and were required to take German, mathematics, biology, physics, chemistry, history, sports, and social sciences to graduate.  They were tested in all of the aforementioned subjects in a comprehensive test in their final year.  This system ensured that most students met good general education standards, but it was criticized for not providing adequate education to students with talents in more specific and selective areas--such as only the natural sciences--a chance to get into the university.  Furthermore, due to the high standards, the overall number of graduates was relatively low.  Moreover, criticism also came from a strong youth movement in which young people demanded more individualized education opportunities.  Since the universities could not produce enough students schooled in the natural sciences, the job market influenced the decision to change the high school requirements as well.
     The two forces of market demands and the youth movement led to an education system where students were allowed to choose electives for the first time.  For the comprehensive finals and the two years that preceded them, students had to choose four subjects from different groups.  The first choice had to be a language or a social science subject; the second had to be natural science or mathematics.  The third subject could be chosen from either of the first two categories, and the last subject was a free choice.  The result was that people started to graduate with such wild combinations as art, biology, theology, and sports.
    Since the country had an abundance of students due to the baby boomer years, this fairly easy exam for some people did not influence the market situation in a negative way.  There were still enough students who preferred the so-called "hard sciences" and had good language skills and sufficient knowledge in history and politics to meet all the needs of the job market.
     In my mind, the situation in Germany has worsened since then.  Even though supporters of this reform system claim that it is fairer to the individual, I am concerned about the negative outcome for society at large because of the number of choices left up to the student.  My concern was confirmed when the baby boomer years ended, and more students were driven into the "Gymnasium" to increase their chances of obtaining a good job after school, and the standards for the entry tests were lowered to allow more students to enter this type of high school.  Overall, the percentage of students attending "Gymnasium" has increased in comparison to the other school types.  Did our children suddenly get that much smarter?  I doubt it.
     Now we are confronted with students who do not have the appropriate mathematical and scientific skills when they enter the universities.  The colleges now have to offer special classes to bring the youngsters up to par in programs like engineering.  In classroom in "Gymnasium" schools, teachers complain that they cannot teach at the old levels because the students are unable to follow them.  Larger class sizes also do their part to lessen the ability of the teachers to meet the individual student needs.  There is also no decent backup system for individual counseling to help students achieve academic success.  The advisors oversee too many students and cannot strongly suggest subjects beyond the requirements, nor can they push for higher standards in the classes students do take.
     Another negative effect of this liberal education system is that we have too many students educated only in the liberal arts, which does not fulfill the necessities of the economy.  Therefore, Germany has been forced to loosen immigration laws to allow green-card politics similar to that in the United States to attract computer professionals.  It is unbelievable that we have a high general unemployment rate and an even higher percentage of professionals out of work, yet we have to look abroad to find trained professionals to fill our needs.
    In my opinion, German teenagers should have to deal with the entire range of general education again and start their specialization process once they get to the university level.  I do agree they should be given an opportunity for some electives, but that should not mean that they can skip subjects like German, mathematics or history.  If students are not introduced to subjects early on and forced to develop the self-discipline of dealing with them, we will continue to get a workforce that is too individualistic, has high expectations, but is unable to fulfill their work requirements.