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), and 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…