At an elementary school in Essen, a city in northern Germany, students stream in from recess. They stuff boots into cubbies and hang up their jackets.
The fourth-grade classroom looks a lot like the classrooms in American public schools. The class has one teacher, who covers all the subjects in the same classroom. Some students excel, some struggle, some are in the middle.
But next year, that will end.
Every student will be placed on one of three different education tracks: Gymnasium, Realschulen or Hauptschulen. Gymnasium includes eight years of university-prep school. Realschulen is six years, and typically leads to an apprenticeship instead of college. Hauptschulen is the lowest track, meant to serve slower learners.
Bela, one of the fourth-graders, says he wants to be a deep-sea scientist when he grows up, studying marine ecosystems and animals. To do that, he’ll have to go to university.
In Germany, kids are divided up after four years of school, put on paths to university or vocational training.
In the United States, 66 percent of high school graduates enroll in college. In Germany, only a third of students do.
Germany is very selective about who gets to go to college, because the state pays for every student to attend a public university, and there are a limited number of spots.
Decisions about which students should be tracked for college depends on a mix of grades and test scores, and are heavily influenced by teachers. Students spend the first four years in school with the same instructor.
Lis Vincenz is the principal at the elementary school in Essen. She says this system puts a lot of pressure on teachers, who have to make these tough calls with anxious parents peering over their shoulders.
“They just had their mid-term grades last week, and it only took three hours for the first parents to complain,” Vincenz says. “Parents feel very pressured to have their kids be university-bound.”
Vincenz isn’t a big proponent of the tracking system, and she would like to see students stay together for a longer period of time.
She once taught at a Hauptschule, the lowest track. She questions whether full potential can be predicted so early, pointing out that students at Hauptschulen are disproportionately poor, or children of immigrants.
“Any form of tracking is a form of discrimination really,” Vincenz says. “Even if you don’t tell that to the children, they are feeling that they are not really wanted.”
Supporters of tracking point to Germany’s vocational system, where students who don’t go to college are given the opportunity to learn a trade. Graduates of vocational education are still able to earn good money, sometimes even more than college graduates.
“I see the functionality in it, and I’m impressed by the society that results from it,” says Joshua Hallet, an American expat living in Germany.
Hallett and his wife Wendy live in Dusseldorf, an affluent city north of Cologne. They have two teenage sons who are on the university track.
Wendy Hallett says she loves the tracking system. Her sons are high-achieving students, and she says they were always held back in American schools.
“For our kids to be pulled out, and now be in a classroom of basically all gifted and talented kids, it’s insane,” she says. “They’re taught at a level that they understand and where they can perform.”
The Hallett family is American, but have lived in Germany for three years. Both sons were put on the university track.
Subject matter doesn’t necessarily differ from track to track, but the depth and pace of teaching does vary. And, says Joshua Hallett, Americans would be quick to call that unfair.
“The tracking system in Germany is so, for lack of a better word, un-American,” he says. “It doesn’t give you that golden ring to reach for. Americans are bred from an early age that nobody can tell you what to do, but you can do what you want.”
The irony is, the American comprehensive high school was partially a reaction to Germany’s tracking.
In the 1950s, former Harvard president James Bryant Conant served as an ambassador to Germany. He didn’t like the tracking system he saw there, so he came home and led a movement to reform American schools.
It took 30 years, but by the 1980s any type of tracking in the U.S. — even within high schools — was widely considered regressive and unjust.
In Germany, though, the system hasn’t changed much in 60 years, even though parents like Anya Turner worry about the effect it’s having on their children.
“My daughter is maybe not as focused as we want her to be sometimes. And having looked back at my education I can relate,” Turner says. “I would find it very sad for her path to be set after the fourth grade.”
Turner’s daughter is 9-years-old and will be placed on a track soon. If she isn’t recommended for Gymnasium, the university track, Turner and her husband could decide to ignore the suggestion and send her there anyway. In the German state of North Rhine-Westphalia, the government recently granted parents the right to make that choice.
However, ignoring a recommendation is still rare because, for all of their misgivings, Germans still trust the system.
This is the final part in a series from WGBH’s “On Campus” that explores how higher education works in Germany, compared to the U.S. Click the links at the top of the page for previous coverage.
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