BERLIN—It’s a “deeply rooted” German pedagogical philosophy, says Dr. Klaus Hurrelmann of the Hertie School of Governance in Berlin, that a student, based on prior achievements, can be routed into a specialized educational tract beginning as early as 10 years old.
Traditionally, there are three such tracts in the German educational system: the Gymnasium, the most academically rigorous path which prepares students for the Abitur, the standardized test mandatory for admission into a German university; the Realschule, a middle route for those deemed more suited for specialized labor; or the Hauptschule, the route reserved for the lowest-performing students. University-level studies can only be achieved by first passing through the last two years of Gymnasium, and then taking the Abitur, a difficult process for those cast into the lower two schools.
This philosophy was hardly questioned, said Hurrelmann. “Everyone in Germany up until 20 years ago was thinking ‘Well, there’s no argument against it.’” A teacher is normally required to give a student an “academic prognosis” for further study after primary school. If a student doesn’t receive a recommendation, said Hurrelmann, “You just go on to Hauptschule.”
At the turn of the millennium, however, a pattern began to emerge: those students receiving no “academic prognosis” were twice as likely to have come from immigrant households, and three times as likely to have been of low-socioeconomic status, suggesting that social and ethnic segregation played a role in the determination of their academic route.
The nation’s Turkish population—who make up an estimated half of all students with foreign heritage here in Germany—particularly struggled within the system: Statistics from 2011 estimated that some 30 percent of students with Turkish heritage failed out of school, compared to only 1.6 percent of Germans.
Are parents, the system, or instructors at fault?
Acknowledging these educational disparities led to many questions: most importantly, who was at fault?
Siegfried Arnz, a former principal at a Berlin Hauptschule and the current department manager at the Berlin Senate Administration for Education, Youth and Economy, is skeptical of a student’s Turkish heritage as the predominant factor for being routed into the lowest of academic routes. Regardless of background, he says, parents need to teach a child German before they enter school. Studies from the year 2000 determined that an inadequate command of the German language was the strongest deciding factor for both educational tract and future prosperity; if a student fails to display the level of language comprehension needed for Gymnasium, he or she is more likely to be routed into one of the lower two schools.
Many parents, on the other hand, attribute cultural bias and an inability of instructors to teach German as a second language as the underlying issues of segregation; pigeonholing students with language issues into the same school speaks to a lack of understanding of these students’ specific needs. “Teachers never learned it in their training,” said Turgut Hühner of the Turkish Parents’ Association in Berlin. “It should be an educational goal to teach these students German.”
Changing the system
In Berlin, to address such concerns, the city dismantled the tripartite structure of schools in favor of a two-column approach: a virtually unchanged Gymnasium, with a new Integrated Secondary School (ISS) running alongside it. The schools offer differing didactical approaches, but both offer all levels of certification, including Abitur. The 2014/2015 school-year is the first in which only two types of secondary schools exist in Berlin.
Parental preference is now the ultimate factor guiding school choice, taking power away from the instructor “prognoses” non-German parents claimed affected their students’ educational outlook. Furthermore, government subsidies incentivize earlier enrollment in kindergarten; the goal is to catalyze early language learning, the purported crux of success within German schools.
A new structure, old critiques
These measures seem progressive; however, both parents and educators still see major faults with the new system.
For example, only one-third of all new ISSs in Berlin have the upper classes needed to prepare students for Abitur. Those without must forge a coalition with a school offering these classes.
“Maybe unintentionally,” said Hurrelmann, “the Berlin political forces have established a two-class ISS system: those with and without direct access to Abitur.” The availability of Abitur, he said, is the main consideration parents take in school selection; those ISSs without the courses needed for Abitur rank lower for parents in the hierarchy of secondary schools.
“Simply put, we really need these upper classes,” said Andre Barth, who teaches ethics and history at the Ernst-Schering School, an ISS in Berlin that lacks such classes. “Without [these classes], it’s not officially said, but they’re basically Hauptschule in disguise.”
In terms of diversity, the average ethnic distribution across all ISSs in Berlin does indeed reflect that of the city itself. According to government data from this past school year, approximately 37 percent of students in Berlin come from immigrant households, while the distribution of non-German students attending ISS is approximately 40 percent. On average, however, only 25 percent of students attending Gymnasium possess immigrant backgrounds.
“There’s still signs that fewer children from immigrant households receive a recommendation for Gymnasium,” said Hühner of the Turkish Parents’ Association in Berlin.
The deep roots of segregation
Maria Macher views continued segregation in secondary schools as a result of miscommunication between parents and educators. Macher works as the project leader of an organization that offers educational guidance for newly resettled families in Berlin. While she acknowledges that immigrant parents often lack the know-how and basic language skills needed to navigate the cultural presuppositions of German schools (such as the importance of kindergarten), she believes school administrators simply assume that foreign-born parents lack interest in the education of their children. The result: foreign-born parents, their students, and educators all “close themselves off” to one another, ultimately affecting the track of a student’s education in Berlin.
Markus Schega, principal of the Nürtingen Primary School in the borough of Kreuzberg, is very familiar with the ways that parents and educators still fail to cross intercultural boundaries. When Schega took over the school six years ago, he faced vehement accusations from parents who claimed that teachers favored German students. To address the problem, Schega implemented mandatory diversity training for all staff and began intercultural programs to bring German and non-German parents together. He’s noticed a positive difference.
“Getting to know one another, simply being around one another, going to school and learning together, dissipates all cultural boundaries,” he says.
“After all, it’s a matter of heterogeneity,” said Hurrelmann. “The best way to cope with heterogeneity of students is to bring them into heterogeneous groups…and then, step by step, to cultivate the individual competencies that these students do have.”
Diversity training, however, does not occur everywhere in Berlin. According to a city survey from 2013, both German and Turkish parents remain generally resistant to heterogeneity in schools, both groups reasoning that it disadvantages their respective students; however, the percentage of parents in favor of school diversity has increased incrementally over the past years.
An intermediary step
Despite continued tenets of cultural segregation within Berlin’s secondary schools, many see the new school structure here as an intermediary step, merely one in a series of changes needed for opening up an educational system originally created for a homogeneous, German-only ideal.
“Children with immigrant backgrounds, without a doubt, have the same opportunities here in Berlin,” says Dilek Leme, a first-generation Turkish mother who was born in Berlin. Her 5-year-old son, Zahir, can already speak both Turkish and German fluently, she says.
Andre Barth of the Ernst-Schering ISS, a first-generation German himself, also remains confident for the future. “When my son is old enough, the [ISS] has to be to the point that I would send my own kid there,” he says, “and I think we’re on the right path.”