15 March, 2015

Beer in the Classroom: Comparing Public Schools in Germany and America

A few weekends ago, Maxim and I went to an open house at the school I tutor at, which also happens to be the school Maxim himself attended and which both his parents teach at. During the open house, various classes put on demonstrations, such as a chemistry show, a physics demonstration and plays in several foreign languages. The highlight for me, however, was the classroom where the students were learning how to brew beer. They had several vats of liquids at various stages in the beer-making process, and they were even giving samples of the three types of beer they'd learned how to brew. All I could think when I saw this was, "This would NEVER happen in an American school!"

This led me to think about the other things that would never happen in an American school, and the often drastic differences I've seen between the American and the German public school systems. These differences appear not just in how the school system is run but also in what subjects students learn and how much freedom students have during their school day. (I would like to note that my comparisons will mostly focus on secondary schools, AKA high school to Americans, since this is the area in which I have the most knowledge.) I'll start with the most big-picture difference: the concept of "tracks."

Educational Tracks

In America we have one "track" for students in public schools, meaning all students of the same age who live in the same area attend the same school. The only option for a different type of education is an expensive private school (or homeschooling, which is illegal in Germany). American public school typically begins with kindergarten at age 5 or 6. Children remain in kindergarten for one year and then begin first grade, usually at age 6. (Because there is so much variety in the systems from state to state, from this point I will describe the school system in Vermont, where I lived for my entire school-age life.) First grade is the first year of elementary school, which children attend until the end of 6th grade. From there they go to middle school, which is 7th and 8th grade, and after that they finish off their public schooling in high school, from 9th to 12th grade. In order to graduate from high school and earn a high school diploma, students have to pass at least the minimum required classes and earn the required number of credits. There is no school exit exam other than the final exams required for each class taken during the four years of high school.

In Germany, however, things look a bit different. Children start with kindergarten and progress to the Grundschule, or elementary school, in first grade much like American children. They attend Grundschule for four years, until the end of 4th grade, and following that there are three "tracks" to choose from: Hauptschule (the lowest level, or "main school"), Realschule (the middle level) or Gymnasium (the highest level). Teachers recommend which school is a good fit for the child at the end of 4th grade, but parents can ultimately decide which school their child attends. (This didn't used to be the case. Up until several years ago the teacher's decision was binding). Hauptschule and Realschule are suited for students who don't want to stay in school as long, until 9th or 10th grade, and/or who will later prepare for a career in a trade. Gymnasium, currently the most popular type of school in Germany, goes until the end of 12th grade and is for students who plan to attend a university later on, or at least for those who want the option of doing so. In order to earn the Abitur, the diploma awarded at the completion of Gymnasium education, students must pass exit exams in each subject at the end of 12th grade.

For those of you who are more visually oriented, here's a diagram of the different German tracks. It can get complicated, but this is the best and simplest visual representation I've found. The colorful vertical bars represent the type of school and the black horizontal bars are the type of diploma earned. Source: Wikipedia Commons.

A critique I've heard (mostly from Americans) about the German system centers on this concept of tracks. Many people think this system of placing children in levels is bad for students' self-esteem, is unfair or inherently unequal, and leaves some students with fewer academic options later. This may be true, but as a highly motivated student who went through the "equal" system of American public high school, I can say with certainty that the educational quality suffered as a result of the system. Teachers in a single-track system must teach to the lowest common denominator, and class time is wasted when teachers are forced to deal with difficult students who just want to disrupt the class. After putting up with my classmates' daily antics (which included yelling, climbing in and out of windows, talking over the teacher, making faces through the classroom window and lighting things on fire), I would have jumped at the opportunity to attend a school like a Gymnasium, with other smart, motivated students who cared as much as I did about learning. For this reason I'm highly skeptical of the new German Gesamtschulen, or mixed-level schools, which have gained popularity in the past few years.

Required School Subjects

In the US, high school students are required to take science, math, social studies and English for three or fours years each (these are known as "core classes"), and at my school extra classes such as Health, Diversity Education and Physical Education were also required the first year. After that everything else is an "elective," or non-required subject, and students can choose as many or as few of these as they want. Students can also take extra semesters of any of the four "core" subjects instead of electives. Electives at my school included several languages (Spanish, French, German, Latin and Chinese were offered during my years there), art, dance, theater and various trade-oriented classes including auto repair and computer classes. For the sake of reference, my school had a much wider variety of electives than most American high schools do.

At German Gymnasien (plural of Gymnasium), there is no such thing as an elective. Students are all required to take German, history, geography, physics, biology, math, chemistry and English, and most schools require French and/or Latin. Students do not have a choice in their classes until they get to 11th grade, when they can usually choose to drop one science and one language. Because there are so many different required subjects, each subject is only taught a few times a week and students have a different schedule each weekday.

School Culture

The most intriguing difference for me is simply how the students are treated. In the US (or at least at my high school, and many are even worse), high school students are treated almost like criminals. It is almost universally assumed that they are seeking to escape or otherwise do something wrong, and they are treated with suspicion until it's proven to a decent degree of certainty that they aren't up to something. Students are not allowed to leave the school grounds between the start of the school day and the end, unless they have permission from a parent, have applied for and been granted permission to leave the school grounds during a free period, have an off-campus class (like my dance class), or are over 18 and can legally sign themselves out. Security guards and police officers patrol the hallways looking for students who are out of the classroom unattended, and students are required to carry a permission slip signed by a teacher whenever they leave the classroom, even if they just have to use the bathroom. Students found in the hallways without a permission slip during a class period are stopped by the security guards and questioned. During my four years of high school my school became more and more like a prison, with security cameras installed for the first time and doors locked and alarmed during school hours, and I shudder to think what it's like now.

What I've seen in German schools is much different. Students are allowed to leave the school grounds when they don't have classes, and many students go home in the middle of the school day to eat lunch. (When I was an au pair, the two girls I au paired for came home almost every day to eat lunch and then returned to school when their classes started again in the afternoon.) I've never seen a security guard in the school I tutor at, and I routinely see students in the school eating food or candy that they clearly bought from a store in town and brought back to eat in the cafeteria. In comparison to the US, classes are shorter, breaks between classes are longer, and students have much more freedom to come and go during their free time. German Gymnasium students, even the 5th graders, are treated with much more respect and trust than high schoolers in America.

School Choice

This point brings me back to the open house I mentioned at the beginning. The school holds open houses not only to convince students to attend Gymnasium, as opposed to Realschule or Hauptschule, but to entice parents to send their children specifically to this Gymnasium. Children in Germany are not automatically assigned to a school but can attend any school within a realistic commuting distance, a fact which surprised me when I first heard it. For example, one of the boys I tutor goes to the Gymnasium in Ochsenhausen, a few towns away, but his sister has decided to attend the Gymnasium where I tutor.

This couldn't happen in the US, where school attendance is determined almost entirely by town of residence. Even within towns and cities with multiple elementary, middle and high schools, school attendance is assigned by geography and students are required to attend the school in their neighborhood. Sometimes families who live in a rural town without a school can choose which of the surrounding schools to send their kids to, but this is the exception rather than the rule. My high school was also an exception to this rule, because it accepted a handful of students from other school districts through a lottery system. If a student wanted to attend my school and was from another district that had a crappy school, they could enter the lottery and have the chance to be switched to my school. A friend of mine won the lottery and attended my school for four years, but then when her sister entered the lottery and lost, her family moved so she could attend the better school.

Even besides the beer brewing, which I'm sure is also the exception rather than the rule, the German school system seems to have a lot going in its favor, at least compared to my high school experience. I'm curious if other American high school students from other schools or other states experienced the same lack of trust from the school administration that I did, and how different the required and elective classes were. Since the United States is so big and each state has such different laws and policies, it's hard for me to write a fully objective post about the school system in America as a whole. If any Americans reading this want to jump in a fill in things I've left out, please feel free to leave a comment below. I really am curious about this!

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