Report Blames School Failures for Dampening German Economy

The latest OECD report assessing international education has not only given the German system poor marks, but also says it is partially responsible for the country's economic downturn.
The Education at a Glance 2003 report, released Tuesday by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, said significantly fewer German students are completing a university education than in other economically developed countries -- a development that has seen Germany's economic fortunes sink as those of its neighbors in Europe have grown.

In a handful of European countries -- including the United Kingdom and several Scandinavian states -- 30 percent of students go on to complete univversity, while in Germany that figure is only 19 percent.

"Despite a trend reversal, Germany still lies at the bottom end of the spectrum," Andreas Schleicher, OECD head of indicators and analysis, said in Berlin Tuesday. "That goes for schools as well as universities and trainee- and apprenticeships. If you look at the central things that successful countries do differently, there you see a highly diverse offering of qualifications today ... There, they try to create a system of public education that, in a fundamental sense, allows supply and demand to mutually correct each other. In other words: they offer flexibility."

Whereas the German economy has stagnated in recent years, an increasingly educated work force in other countries has led to considerable growth in productivity, Schleicher said.

During the 1980s and 1990s, the number of students entering German universities was lower than in many more economically successful countries -- including Scandinavian countries, Ireland, Spain and Korea -- a factor that Schleicher attributed to Germany's comparably lower growth in worker productivity.

He said, "in the last ten years, there has been no visible productivity in Germany that can be explained by education."

Education "deficits"

Responding to the report on Tuesday, the German government's deputy minister for education and research Wolf-Michael Catenhusen said "the study is disturbing" and conceded there are still deficiencies in Germany's education system.

He said it was the government’s goal to make education more attractive and added Germany still "has a long way to go" before its education system can be considered the world's best.

Still, he said the report did identify success in the country's recent Bafög-Reforms, which called for a 30 percent increase in the number of university students who receive federal financial aid.

Catenhusen said the report pointed to a positive trend in that respect. The percentage of students entering college increased by 4 percentage points between 1998 and 2001, rising from 28 to 32 percent of students.

But even there the OECD report pointed to weaknesses, since the average for member states was 47 percent. Additionally, Schleicher said, potential growth in the number of students entering university had largely been exhausted because so few students in Germany are able to meet the prerequisites for higher education. In Germany, only 42 percent of students leaving school can enter university, compared to an OECD median of 57 percent.

Spending less and getting less?

The report also found that investment in Germany's educational establishments is -- despite federal reform efforts -- still far behind that of the OECD aggregate. Germany's educational expenditures amount to 5.3 percent of its gross domestic product, compared to an OECD average of 5.5 percent. (By comparison, the United States ranked as the heaviest investor in education, with 7 percent of its GDP earmarked for schooling.)

Lower spending has its consequences, too. "If you take a look at what is available to students today, you have to see that the designated annual class time for pupils is 642 hours -- notably lower than the OECD median," said Schleicher.

"There's a second factor here, too: At the primary and secondary levels, the teacher-to-student ratio is very unfavorable." In Germany's schools, there is one teacher for every 25 students, "the most unfavorable ratio in any of the OECD countries with comparable data," according to Schleicher.

Chairwoman of the education union, GEW, Eva-Maria Stange accused politicians of setting the wrong priorities in budgetary policies. "It can’t be, that building roads is more important than building schools," Stange told daily Berliner Zeitung. She said Germany needed to urgently invest more money in education.

"Infexible salaries" and graying teachers

At the same time Stange urged a fundamental rethinking among teachers to counter the education crisis. "We need more individual encouragement and attention in class and less assessments, grades and certificates," she stressed.

Schleicher said the report also raised questions about the personnel structure of the German school system.

"Compared internationally, German teachers have a good base salary, but, interestingly, they have markedly less work-related bonuses," Schleicher said. He added that the salary structure for German teachers is "too inflexible."

But pay isn't the only issue state and federal governments must address -- the graying of Germany's elementary school teachers is another problem raised by the OECD. Compared to other member states, in the first through tenth grades, Germany has the oldest teachers -- with 39.1 percent between the ages of 50 and 59.

Even with falling enrollments, the country still needs to prepare itself for considerable demand for new teachers in the near future. The ability to attract those new teachers, the OECD cautioned, would be dependent on wage and working conditions.

Study expected to accelerate reform pace

The revelations of the OECD report, though not surprising to observers of German education policy, are likely to further fuel reforms to the country's education system, which has been rocked by criticism in recent years.

In 2000, the OECD issued an international schools survey that ranked German students 25th out of 32 countries in overall reading, mathematics and scientific literacy and shocked politicians and education policy experts out of their complacency. In response, the country launched a four-billion-euro education investment program, which included the introduction of the country's first all-day schools.