Interlude: Education Wonkery

I don’t recommend doing so, but if you want to send a German into full-on, spittle-flecked rant mode, just mention four short letters, PISA.  That’s the OECD’s much-criticized but closely-tracked international comparison of education systems.  If you listened to the resulting PISA rant, you’d think the German education system was collapsing.  But after you’ve lived here a while, you realize that in this nation of Henny Pennies, anything Germans talk about will seem to be going to hell in a handbasket.  Germany’s public-school system actually does decently in international comparison (about the same as France), andBlog_mckinsey_teacher_starting_pa_2 generally beats the U.S.

Apropos German public education, Kevin Drum links to a study on school excellence (.pdf) by McKinsey Consulting (!): "School systems, from Seoul to Chicago, from London to New Zealand, and from Helsinki to Singapore, show that making teaching the preferred career choice depends less on high salaries or ‘culture’ than it does on a small set of simple but critical policy choices: developing strong processes for selecting and training teachers, paying good starting compensation, and carefully managing the status of the teaching profession."

So, it’s not teacher pay and benefits in general that make the difference, but rather starting pay.  As Drum puts it: "Gotta nab the bright kids straight out of college before they settle into product management jobs at Lever Brothers."  And look where Germany lands!  Starting teacher pay in Germany, as a percentage of GDP per capita, is almost 50% higher than it is in the U.S.  According to McKinsey, this extra money does seem to attract talented people.  Not that they’d admit it: as in so many other areas of life, what people say about their motivations doesn’t exactly correspond to what they do:

In fact, salary is rarely stated to be one of the most important reasons for becoming a teacher, even in systems where compensation is good; in the words of one Finnish teacher, "None of us do this for the money."  However, the surveys also show that unless school systems offer salaries which are in-line with other graduate starting salaries, these same people do not enter teaching.

The numbers above probably understate the difference in living standards for beginning teachers in the U.S. and in Germany.  In the U.S., teachers generally graduate from college with large debts, don’t get paid during summer vacation, and, may have to commute far out of town to find housing they can afford.  This explains why many places in the U.S. have introduced subsidy programs to help new teachers find decent housing or pay off their education debts.  Public school teachers as charity cases — fancy that!  I’ve never heard of similar programs in Germany, because beginning teachers make a comfortable salary (see above) and graduate with only a tiny fraction of the debt that their U.S. counterparts have to contend with.

The study also advises countries to confer high status on teachers.  Teachers in Germany generally earn the right to become official civil servants (Beamter), which brings with it a smorgasbord of benefits that are the envy of every red-blooded German.  Most American public-school teachers also enjoy civil-service protections but they’re not comparable with the extroardinary perks a German Beamter gets.

But here’s the question that’s probably on the tip of everyone’s tongues right about now.  If Germany does spend so much money and confer so much status on public school teachers, shouldn’t they be doing much better in the international league table?  I’m willing to cut Germany some slack against tiny, ’boutique’ nations like Finland and Singapore, but Germany is also getting its hat handed to it by large, diverse nations like Canada and Australia.  The McKinsey study downplays ‘cultural’ factors, but you perhaps some are at work here…

5 thoughts on “Interlude: Education Wonkery

  1. “Teachers in Germany generally earn the right to become official civil servants (Beamter), which brings with it a smorgasbord of benefits that are the envy of every red-blooded German.”

    That’s not true, new teachers nowadays typically don’t start off as civil servants but as employees. In the “richer” states, there’s recently been a tendency to reintroduce civil servant status for new teachers, but in the eastern states, for instance, hardly any new teacher can hope to become civil servant.

    On the other hand, I don’t really get your argument why the supposedly better “status” of German teachers (again, I don’t quite agree that this is the case, although pay may be comparably better or at least less miserable) should lead to better results in education. First, why would the better status of civil servant bring about better teachers? Second, I would think that the results of teaching much rather depend on what_you_teach than on who teaches. In Germany, the teachers have to strictly follow the Lehrpläne (curricula provided by the state government), and if those are crap, even the brightest teachers aren’t able to produce the necessary results.


  2. Norbert, I disagree. I think _who_ teaches is of paramount importance. Even if the curriculum is crap, if the teacher is bright, interested in his subject, has a certain mastery of his subject, and is able to communicate his subject interestingly, then children will learn something.

    Unfortunately these are not the people who decide to become teachers in Germany. A recent study has shown that in Germany, teacher is mostly the choice of people who don’t know what to do else or think they don’t have the intellectual capacity to be, e.g., a “real” mathematician or physicist. The best pupils of a class invariably chose another profession.

    And that fits also to my personal experience. I know math teachers who don’t understand their own subjects. Since I’m a computer scientist I know what University math involves and I’m totally baffled how these people managed to get their “Staatsexamen”. My husband is a mathematician and has spent some post graduate years at the University. His experience was that mostly people who were not able to get a Diplom chose to make the “Staatsexamen” and become teacher.

    It is obviously so that the comparatively high (entry) pay and the security of this job are not sufficient to attract the brightest people. The reputation of teachers is relatively low in Germany, and also the work environment in the school is not too attractive — no real possibilities to develop and make career, but also no real possibility to get rid of colleagues who don’t do their work properly. From a compensation and career pov it doesn’t make a real difference whether you are a good or a bad teacher or whether you work 60 hrs or 35. I think these are the circumstances that are most discouraging to young, bright, performance-oriented people who make a career choice …


  3. I don’t know if the studies controlled for that variable. But one has to take into account that the last two years of the German Gymnasium are in many respects comparable to the freshman and sophomore years of US colleges as far as the level of maths (e.g. basic calculus is an obligatory subject for everybody craving the Abitur) or foreign languages. So it seems o.k. to get somewhat better paid if you teach in effect college level stuff.

    There is also the tradition from the times (19th cent.) when the Gymnasium was an elite institution (with a focus on Classics) and the teachers called “professors” enjoyed a prestige comparable to university scholars (Hegel worked for several years as headmaster of a Gymnasium before gaining a full professorship at the university) and that might be another reason for the relatively high pay and status. Finally there is the two-years “Refendariat” (like the residency for doctors) before the real teaching position which is rather badly paid.

    OTHOH the primary and middle school teachers in Germany are in relation even better paid than the prospective “Studienräte”, i.e. only slightly less well and much better than the nursery school/kindergarten educational workers.



  4. The whole thing with Korea is: There are private schools after school. Even at weekends. So a lot of teaching is going on. When you are 17 you usually never sleep more than 6 hours or less. Cause of studying. The thing is out of control. Seoul wanted a law that forbids teaching after midnight! Before the highschool examen starts there are even classes offered at 3:am !!! for some. Why do the studies never describe the difference to Europe here. We have our children here. Elementary school is ok. But later…?


  5. > I’m willing to cut Germany some slack against tiny, ’boutique’ nations like Finland and Singapore …

    Quite appropriate. Josef Kraus is president of the German teachers association (Deutscher Lehrerverband) since 1987; a Deutschlandfunk report tells of his recent book on the Pisa test:

    […] the German analysis of the international results of Pisa 2003 keeps quiet about the fact that even the integration of the few migrant children in Finland does not succeed. The gap towards the local Finnish children is nearly two school years, in Germany it is one. However, while in Germany 15.2 percent of the young have both parents born abroad it’s only 1.2 percent in Finland, this wasn’t told in the German report.[1]

    > but Germany is also getting its hat handed to it by large, diverse nations like Canada and Australia.
    > The McKinsey study downplays ‘cultural’ factors, but you perhaps some are at work here…

    How about mentioning the obvious? It’s not the teachers, it’s the students. Canada has a rigorous immigration policy selecting the world’s best according to its needs, while European countries went right for the other direction. 85% of unskilled labour goes to the EU and only five per cent to the US, some 55% of skilled labour goes to the USA and only five per cent to the EU – remember?[2] Let’s assume Canada[5] and Australia to handle their business along the same lines.

    Here’s the result: 3sat/Kulturzeit tells of German Muslim students’ concerns in the Glückauf-Hauptschule in Dinslaken-Lohberg. As for critics of Islam, most favour cutting heads of – let’s assume this not to be the attitude promising future professional, academic–or any–excellence. I particularly, ugh, esteem the commentators’ soothing round-up, right after the student body almost unanimously asks for murder: their teacher had asked teasingly whether even she would deserve death, should she tear apart a Quran – yes, they say. The commentator off camera knows better: “of course the students never would kill any one, they opt for a tolerant Islam”.[3] It’s this cognitive dissonance that frightens me most about the report. That said, kudos to the teacher, who really is putting in an effort. Then again, she feels that a ‘moderate Islam’ will be born in Europe, if anywhere – an assumption ridiculed by a reality she isn’t willing to face.[4] Speaking of which, let’s have more insight on the subject: “Germany’s already got a lot of immigrants, they’re here to stay, and Germany probably needs more of them.”[6] Yes, we do, but demographer Herwig Birg tells, why the Grundgesetz will prevent us from having it the Canadian way: “as long as the present basic law is effective, that is without a limit on the number of immigrants on humanitarian reasons, an agreement based on two contingents is not possible”[7]

    To give Canada its due: I understand that it provides migrant students with targeted and keenly evaluated care[5] – we didn’t, and we don’t. While in the late 60ies and 70ies comparatively dismal numbers of migrant children had to cope with autochthonous majorities, and thus integrated quite well; nowadays around 60% of mayor city’s students are of migrant descent, some schools having no native German speakers left. Some valiant thinkers propose busing to counter white flight, an idea being strongly poo-pooed at nevertheless. Let’s assume, say, Mrs Schröder-Köpf and hubby Gasprom Gerd not to have adopted a little girl from chilly Russia to have her submitted to Dinslaken-Lohberg’s brave new ways. Emigration numbers tell that white flight, formerly a metaphor for local relocation, is being understood differently nowadays, Canada et al being on the gratefully receiving end – German post-docs hardly ever opt for Riyadh or Ankara.

    […] in der deutschen Auswertung der internationalen Ergebnisse von Pisa 2003 wird verschwiegen, dass selbst die Integration der wenigen Migrantenkinder in Finnland nicht gelingt. Der Rückstand gegenüber den einheimischen finnischen Kindern liegt bei nahezu zwei Schuljahren, in Deutschland etwa bei einem Schuljahr. Während in Deutschland aber bei 15,2 Prozent der Jugendlichen beide Eltern im Ausland geboren sind, sind es in Finnland nur 1,2 Prozent, das war im deutschen Bericht leider nicht zu lesen.
    Franco Frattini, justice commissioner: While 85 per cent of unskilled labour goes to the EU and only five per cent to the US, some 55 per cent of skilled labour goes to the USA and only five per cent to the EU /
    “natürlich würden die Schüler in Wirklichkeit nie jemand umbringen, sie sind für einen toleranten Islam”, 3sat/Kulturzeit video, length about 7 minutes “In Kanada sind die meisten Einwandererkinder keine Problemschüler. Mit spielerischer Pädagogik und strenger Zuwanderungspolitik hat es das Land im Pisa-Ranking an die Spitze geschafft” “There Goes the Neighborhood!” “solange das jetzige Grundgesetz gilt, also ohne Begrenzung der Zahl der humanitären Zuwanderer, ist eine Einigung mit zwei Zuwanderungskontingenten nicht möglich.” – telling the obvious: “Man kann durch Einwanderung keine Altersstrukturprobleme lösen.”


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