April 29, 2009 Edition

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German, U.S. educational
systems compared

Bernard Dckworth
Guest Columnist

At the moment there is a great deal of discussion about education in the United States and in Germany. I believe that it is interesting to compare the school system in Germany to the system in the United States, as they are completely different and served different goals in the past.

The schools in the United States had the goal of making Americans out of the immigrants who came from various countries. My mother attended a school in Minnesota in which the pupils were forbidden to speak their native language on the school grounds. In the beginning it was quite difficult for her to even talk with her brother and friends who all spoke Danish.

The schools in Germany had a much different goal in the past, but here too the situation has changed. All children in Germany attend a primary school just as in the United States, but after the fourth class, the children are separated and assigned to one of three types of schools, normally by the teachers based on grades, deportment, maturity, and so forth. Parents have little influence in this decision.

The first type is the Hauptschule or main school that begins with the fifth grade. The function of the Hauptschule was and is to educate children to become tradesmen, clerks in stores, mechanics, cooks, factory workers and so forth and ends after five years. The children who attend this school usually begin an apprenticeship at the age of 16 or 17.

The second type is the Realschule or secondary school. The Realschule is one year longer than the Hauptschule and the pupils are prepared for apprenticeships in administrative jobs, more challenging trades such as medical and dental assistants, nurses and so-forth.

The third type of school is called the Gymnasium, and ends after the 13th grade with a state examination. In the past it was an elite school, which had the task of preparing pupils for universities. There have been reforms that allow pupils from the Hauptschule and Realschule to be able to study, but the road for them is still very difficult and is only open for those who have completed an apprenticeship and can pass entrance exams. I know people who attended the Hauptschule and are now doctors, lawyers and successful managers, but they are the exceptions rather than the rule.

Not only do the children go to different types of schools, but the schools are also physically separated so that children in the primary school have difficulty maintaining friendships made during the primary school years.

Just as the American system was designed to make immigrant children good Americans, the German system was designed to provide the best human resources for an industrial manufacturing society.

However, it also cemented the differences in the society and made it almost impossible for the lower class to advance into a higher class.

Schools in the USA and Germany were successful for a long time in their goals, but now there is a need for a different education system in both countries. How the system here can be reformed to meet the challenges of the future is being debated heatedly in Germany.

One definite advantage of the German educational system is that if you qualify to study, either by graduating from a Gymnasium or qualifying as mentioned above, universities are tuition free. There are private universities, but these are quite few.

The universities are supported by federal taxes. Of course this means that workers support universities in which their children are all but excluded. Tuition-free studying also leads to perpetual students who study for years without ever graduating or to students who graduate with several degrees in their 50s. This is being made more difficult, but it is still possible.

Having seen both systems in action, my opinion is that both countries now have to adopt a new system that combines the best qualities of both. The system in the United States excludes too many capable young people from studying due to the high costs, and the German system excludes too many capable young people from studying due to a rigid screening at a too-early age. In both countries a well-educated youth is vital for the future.

Bernard Duckworth, a native of Black Rock and member of the BRHS Class of 1957, served in the U.S. Army from 1958-1961. He is as an independent consultant and has been living in Europe since 1970. He and his wife have three children. Send comments to him via The Times Dispatch at tdnews@thetd.com.

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