Education in International Comparison
Recovered from the Pisa Shock

In class
In class | Photo (detail): © Kuzmichstudio/iStock

The German school system stands better today than when the first Pisa study was published in 2001. Yet the next challenge already awaits it in the form of digitalization.

It was a shock with notice. “Flunked”, read the title of the weekly newspaper Die Zeit already one week before the results of the first International School Performance Study of the OECD were published. By December 2001 it was time for the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, referring to the Pisa study, to note: “Many schoolchildren scored in the lowest levels”; their achievement was “far below average” in international comparison.

The Germans were shocked; they believed they had an outstanding educational system. And then this: in reading, arithmetic and science their children landed in the back seats – more precisely, between rank 19 and 25 of the participating countries. Pisa tested ninth graders and they had particular difficulty with demanding exercises that required reflection on and the evaluation and application of knowledge. In the 1960s Germany was still the “absolute frontrunner” in education, said Pisa coordinator Andreas Schleicher with a view to the results. “Since then it’s been slowly falling behind.” In the years following the Pisa shock, Schleicher had to endure a good of criticism. Politicians called for his dismissal, accusing him of wanting to make himself the saviour of the German school system.

More high-school graduates and freshmen

It was also Schleicher, however, now OECD Director of Education, who certified in September 2016 that Germany had improved its educational system more than any other country. Germany was still not the model pupil in things educational, he said at the presentation of the OECD annual report “Education at a Glance”, but it had done much. In hardly any other industrialized country are there so few young people without training or a job. Moreover, the number of high-school graduates and freshmen is growing faster than anywhere else.

The Pisa studies of 2003, 2006, 2009 and 2012 already indicated that Germany’s educational system had absorbed the shock; the achievement of schoolchildren had become stronger in international comparison. Recently, in all subjects tested, it was in the top third of the field. So it is with a certain trepidation that German politicians responsible for educational policy await the appearance of the new Pisa report in December 2016. Will the now almost familiar uptrend continue? Or is a damper on the way?

Too many reforms?

How great the uncertainty still is may be seen from the reaction to the national comparison conducted by the Institute for Quality Development in Education (IQB) and published in October 2016. Ironically, it were the schoolchildren in Baden-Württemberg, who after the Pisa shock had always been at the front of national comparison tests, who came out particularly badly. This ignited a debate about the alleged “reform confusion”. Beginning with the “rash shortening of school attendance” from thirteen to twelve years, thought Die Zeit, numerous erratic decisions of the past years had contributed to this crash. The Spiegel demanded: “Please, no experiments!”

It is true that the roll of reforms that Germany’s schools have undergone in the last fifteen years is long, ranging from the expansion of all-day schools to the general farewell from lower secondary schools. The programme for teacher training has been converted to the bachelor and master’s system, many federal states have introduced the centralized school leaving examination, and in 2017 they want to use for the first time a common pool of school leaving exam questions.

Enough reforms? Have they even caused harm in the end? At least that is what those maintain who have succeeded in putting through the return to thirteen years of school attendance, as in Lower Saxony. But one thing is clear: the astounding upswing of the German education system over the past fifteen years speaks more in favour of than against the reforms – not for each individual one, but for the motivating zeal. How the debate continues will depend decisively on the results of the new Pisa study.

Less investment in higher education

Enough construction sites remain in any case. OECD Director of Education Schleicher has also referred to them. For example, Germany has increased education spending per schoolchild by twelve per cent, but in higher education the Federal Republic now invests ten per cent less per student. And even though the number of high-school graduates and children starting school has grown, the share of low-skilled people without vocational training remains a high thirteen per cent in international comparison.

And the next challenge has already been around for some time, for German schoolchildren have only mediocre digital skills. Source of this result: an international comparative study.

Focus on sciences – the sixth Pisa study

The achievements of 15-year-olds in Germany are clearly above the average of the OECD countries. This is one of the results of the sixth Pisa study, which was presented in early December 2016. The focus of the study was on the natural sciences. Here the achievements of German schoolchildren remained at a level similar to that in 2006. In reading, performance was improved; in mathematics hardly changed. There were minus points again for the integration of children and young people with immigrant backgrounds in the school system. In addition, the study confirmed that digital media are too rarely used in the classroom.