What an outcry it was at the end of 2001 when the results of the first PISA study were published. The Tagesspiegel announced an “educational catastrophe”. Every fifth ninth grader in Germany cannot read properly. “German schoolchildren do miserably in an international comparison,” stated the Financial Times Deutschland. The front pages of the daily newspapers screamed “disaster”, the German schools were in a “relegation zone”, they were “inadequate in international comparison”.
Almost all of the German students found themselves in the last third of the OECD school performance comparison, which covers 32 countries, in reading, arithmetic and the natural sciences. Which actually, after the international primary school study Timss had produced similarly sobering results years earlier, should no longer have surprised anyone.
Nevertheless, it was the Pisa study that triggered the “shock” that has been proverbial ever since. And at the end of the – from today’s point of view surprising, but widespread at the time – educational policy self-deception that Germany has one of the best school systems in the world.
Accordingly, the political reactions today read like a cacophony of blame and sham actionism. There must be “more discipline in the schools” again, a compulsory kindergarten year is necessary, a reduction in schooling, a fundamental reform of teacher training. FDP leader Guido Westerwelle called the Conference of Ministers of Education a “snoring-nosed institution” and was to blame for the poor results. The “Welt” wrote that poorly integrated foreign children are depressing German values, teachers’ associations warned against making teachers responsible and, for their part, criticized the lack of interest on the part of many parents.
But something happened. Germany recognized that too many students were being left behind, especially from socially disadvantaged homes and immigrant families – and that it was the job of schools and educational policy to do something about these blatant educational injustices.
Empirical educational research experienced an enormous boost because people no longer wanted to look the other way. All-day school programs, educational standards, comparative work, support for the gifted, the nationwide expansion of day-care centers, only 12 years until the Abitur and the attempt to establish a new type of school alongside the grammar schools with the secondary schools (depending on the federal state, they are called differently) beyond the Hauptschule and Realschule : All of this is just a selection of the many educational policy reforms that followed after 2001.
From today’s perspective, not all of them made sense or were sustainable, and at some point there were so many that around ten years ago there was a change of opinion: good education policy is one that leaves schools more alone. Also, one does not have to make the data of all comparative work public.
Meanwhile, the performance of the German students in the international studies improved slowly but steadily. So that in the 10s the Federal Republic of Germany was no longer below the average for Pisa, but significantly above the average of all countries.
The number of daycare children has doubled, and educational opportunities for migrants have increased. A remarkable development for a large country. Only: What exactly the reason for this was, nobody could really say. And: For years, the performance curve has been pointing downwards again in practically all meaningful national and international comparative tests.
At the end of 2023, the results of what is now the eighth round of PISA will be published. 32 participating countries have become 86, showing the global importance of the study. Almost 8,000 15-year-olds from Germany also took part, the tests just ended, now the evaluation is starting. And whichever educational researcher you ask, hardly anyone expects positive news. Quite a few but with a renewed crash of Germany.
It could be that education politicians will then cite the school closures due to Corona as the main reason. Or the influx of refugees since 2015. But the truth is: the performance of German schoolchildren was already crumbling when the number of refugees was not yet significant. And the school closures due to Corona have not created any new problems, they have only – possibly dramatically exacerbated them. There are indications of how strong this is, but not yet sufficiently good data, also because only a few countries have systematically collected them – key word leave schools alone.
Despite all the entreaties and interim successes, Germany’s education system has never made the breakthrough that everyone had hoped for after 2001. The so-called “lower fifth”, i.e. the proportion of those schoolchildren who cannot read and write properly, is almost as large today as it was 20 years ago. And it continues to be made up largely of children of immigrants and the educationally disadvantaged. In addition, there is a shortage of teachers which, depending on the federal state, is so severe that in Berlin, for example, it can no longer even be compensated for with lateral entrants.
And there is another big difference to the situation before the shock of 2001: Back then, many thought that Germany’s schools were great. Today the prevailing opinion is that Germany’s schools can no longer be saved anyway. It seems as if, over the years, many have accepted with a shrug of the shoulders in the face of more and more negative news that the education system and the lack of social prioritization of education are just like that and always have to be like that.
In this respect, regardless of the expected results, it is questionable whether the outcry of the past will be repeated. One would wish so badly.