Towering Problems in German Education

Arek Socha via Pixabay // CC

The recent PISA study shows that the land of poets and thinkers faces relegation if it does not change course.

In the 2018 PISA Study, published on December 3, Germany once again merely received a certificate of participation. The prize trophies went to the Chinese cities and regions of Beijing, Shanghai, Jiangsu and Zhejiang, whose income levels – though not their populations – are significantly lower than average for OECD countries.

As Angel Gurría, the Secretary-General of the OECD, drily observed in the very first paragraph of the report’s introduction: “The quality of their schools today will feed into the strength of their economies tomorrow.”

Germany, on the other hand, behaves like a student trying to wing an exam – leaning back contently and barely achieving the passing score.

All the same, the quality of Germany’s educational system will also have an impact on its economic success. Since the German economy is based to a considerable extent on world-leading technology, a passing score can rapidly turn into rustication. Therefore, some liberal extra lessons are urgently needed.

The OECD’s PISA study attempts to map out school performance in the areas of reading comprehension, mathematics, and science.

In comparison with the first PISA study in 2000, which, in stark contrast to today’s complacency, triggered the eponymous “PISA shock”, the tasks have slightly changed. 

The definition of literacy has now been extended to include the use of websites. For example, pupils are now assessed based on their ability to fish out relevant information out a confusing flood of data.

Moreover, the impact of the socio-economic background was again investigated in order to make claims about equity.

For the first time, however, the well-being of the pupils was also taken into account. In total, 600,000 participants around the age of 15 took part in what is the most extensive study to date – 5,451 pupils aged 15 came from Germany.


The most important result: compared to the 2015 PISA Study, Germany changed for the worse in all areas as far as the average results are concerned.

The fact that this is not directly reflected in the country ranking is also due to the fact that former model pupils such as Finland have stumbled as well, although they are still well ahead of Germany.

According to the authors of the study, the documented decrease in reading comprehension, the focus of the 2018 study, is not statistically significant. However, performance in mathematics and natural sciences has now “significantly” deteriorated for the second time since 2015.

In comparison: Estonia, the European leader, achieved an average of 523 points in literacy, 523 points in the field of mathematics and 530 points in the natural sciences. The German results are particularly dire if one looks at pupils with learning difficulties: 20.7% of German pupils end up with a literacy level of 1a to 1c. As Heike Schmoll correctly notes, these are functional illiterates.

However, 11.3% also achieved the highest levels of proficiency (5-6), a good result by international standards, even though the usual suspects are again ahead of Germany.

It is not just school performance that gives cause for concern. The impact of social background on pupils’ results in Germany is still above the OECD average.

As far as reading comprehension is concerned, the social background plays an even greater role in 2018 than it did in 2009. The difference in Germany was a whopping 113 points. Only in Israel and Luxembourg does social background have an even more negative impact on this key competence.

Although 10% of disadvantaged pupils are “academically resilient” – i.e. they still demonstrate excellence – in this category as well, Germany lags behind countries such as Estonia (16%), Canada (14%) or Finland (13%).

All the same, in terms of well-being, Germany is in a top group with the Flemish part of Belgium.

However, before canes and the notorious Karzer (a school prison) are reintroduced: there is, fortunately, no connection in Germany between instilling a fear of failure in a child and the level of literacy. As the study’s authors emphasize: “A high level of performance and a high level of well-being are not mutually exclusive.”

It is a welcome addition to the study that youth well-being, bullying and the school climate have now also been included. The question of what school ultimately means for life and personal development is more important than the chase after the best performance indicator.

Regardless, the question remains what needs to be done to stop the negative trend in education.

Time for a Liberal Course Correction!

The first step toward a better educational future is quite simple: one must listen to the people who stand in front of the classroom every day. Particularly compared to their OECD peers, school principals in Germany complain much more frequently about the inadequate provision with human and material resources.

The Federal “Digital Pact” was an important step in the right direction when it comes to digitization and modern learning in the schools, but Germany also needs renovated school buildings, sufficient teaching materials, and, above all, many more well-trained and highly motivated teachers.

In order to relieve the burden on education staff, it would also be important to make sustainable investments in areas such as digital infrastructure, including, for instance, a “digital janitor” who relieves exasperated teacher from having to spend half of the lesson time firing up the computer.

Schools in socially deprived areas are in particular need of additional support. The weakest pupils need the most energetic teachers.

For this, financial incentives must be created not least to prevent the ghettoisation of the mind and of particular districts.

Because every school faces different challenges, it is also necessary to create free space in which innovative concepts can be developed and implemented that precisely fit the specific situation. Education vouchers can ensure that the best ideas can prevail in free competition – and that bad ideas are punished.

Last but not least: if one seeks to improve literacy levels, reading is the oldest trick in the book. Germany needs sustainable reading promotion programmes, especially for those pupils who do not find a bookshelf in their homes. After all, the number of books in the parental household is still the best predictor of success at school.

Education is not just a question of the classroom – it affects the whole of society.

For example, differences in performance can be observed along gender lines: girls’ literacy levels are slightly higher than those of the boys, who do a little better in mathematics – with a wider spread.

Here, positive role models must be created and promoted. Even more important are holistic approaches to immigration and integration. “The number of students with an immigrant background has grown considerably over the past 20 years” the authors of the PISA study point out, and

“how schools and education systems respond to the challenges and opportunities that arise with immigrant flows has profound implications for the economic and social well-being of all members of society, including immigrants themselves.”

The greatest danger lies in the trend towards “dualization”, i.e. the increasing separation between insiders and outsiders.

In the area of literacy, there is a huge average performance gap of 63 points between pupils with and without a migration background, even though 16% made it into the top quartile.

Particularly in light of the top performances achieved at grammar schools (Gymnasien), a looming social divide thus becomes apparent.

While a substantial portion of the pupils is able to successfully navigate the knowledge landscapes of the 21st century, another portion is mired in the quicksand of ignorance. This cannot be reconciled with a liberal understanding of education, which aims at enabling everyone to develop his or her talents to the greatest possible extent.


The liberal idea of education cannot be measured in mere numbers. That the PISA study also includes “soft” factors is a step in the right direction, even if it is, at best, a reminder that test results in education serve the same purpose as counting calories during a diet: necessary for orientation, but without saying anything about its taste.

But not everything is a question of individual preference. For example, a national institution for educational innovation and quality assurance could help to develop the best educational recipes, which can then be prepared with regional ingredients.

A certificate of participation in the Federal Youth Games is no disgrace. However, in international education competition, the standards should be much higher.

Thomas Clausen