Why Do German Students Learn More, When Their Schools Get Less Money?

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By 11/09/2015

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WINTER 2016 / VOL. 16, NO. 1

Education analysts often compare U.S. schools to those in Finland, Korea, Poland, even Shanghai. Surprisingly, the nation of Germany rarely appears in this discourse, even though it has much in common with the United States. Each of the two nations is the largest democracy, with the biggest economy, on its continent. And each has a diverse population, strong unions, a federal system of government, demand for a skilled workforce, and a school system that in 2000 was badly in need of reform.

ednext_XVI_1_editor_fig01-smallAfter examining schools and public opinion in both countries, our team at Education Next, together with scholars at the University of Munich, were left with an intriguing question: why have German schools made significant progress since the turn of this century, while U.S. schools have not?

You can read our report at hks.harvard.edu/pepg, but here are some key facts:

Back in 2000, U.S. and German students at age 15 were performing at roughly the same level on international tests in reading, math, and science, and shortly thereafter, a spirited school-reform movement was launched in both countries. And yet, by 2012, German 15-year-olds were outscoring their U.S. peers by 32 points in math, a difference representing more than a year’s worth of learning. In science, scores were 27 points higher in Germany, and in reading, 10 points (Figure 1).

Notably, the German gains did not come at the price of equity. In both countries, the difference between the scores of students in the upper and lower quarters of the test-score distribution narrowed considerably between 2000 and 2012. Gap closing was steeper in Germany (Figure 2).

ednext_XVI_1_editor_fig02-smallLarger gains in effectiveness and equity may be related to higher German teacher salaries. In 2013, at the higher-secondary grade level, entry-level German teachers received 51 percent more in wages, while those with 15 years of experience received 41 percent more (roughly $70,000 in Germany compared to $50,000 in the United States). Beginning elementary-school teachers earned about $47,500 in Germany, about $10,000 more than the entering U.S. teacher.

Somehow, the Germans find a way of paying these generous salaries without imposing higher costs on taxpayers. Per-pupil expenditures for secondary education run about $10,300 in Germany and $12,700 in the United States. At the elementary-school level, the numbers are $7,600 in Germany, $11,000 in the United States.

Despite the fact that Germans are getting more for less, they are not as satisfied as Americans are with their local schools and teachers, according to our polls. On the traditional A-to-F scale, 47 percent of people in the United States give their local schools an A or a B, as compared to just 42 percent of Germans. Similarly, the typical U.S. adult gives an A or a B to 51 percent of the teachers at the local school, while Germans rate just 41 percent of their teachers that highly.

Why did German schools improve after 2000 when U.S. schools did not? Was it because school reform in Germany was pushed forward by a consensus among state-level political leaders, educators, teachers unions, and the public at large, while in the United States, union and partisan opposition quickly emerged?

Why are costs in Germany so low when teachers are paid so well? Is it because German schools are run by the states, with little federal direction and no local school boards at all? Are operations more efficient when schools are run mainly by one tier of government instead of by an often fractious federal-state-local partnership?

Why do Germans give teachers lower grades, when students there are learning more? Is it because German students, if they want to get ahead, must pass exams at about age 10 and again upon finishing secondary school? When students must pass high-stakes exams, do both the parents and the public at large expect more from their teachers?

Of course, no firm conclusions can be drawn from any comparison between just two countries. But it’s still worth pondering these questions when two similar countries see such dramatic differences in educational outcomes.

–Paul E. Peterson

Comment on this article
  • Marc Ness says:

    Three answers (among many possibilities) your excellent questions come to mind: 1) administrative costs, if K-12 public ed is anything like post-secondary. Too many programs with administrators added to the teaching layer of staff. 2) large PS systems spend an astonishing amount of money on what used to be called special ed. Often necessary, and to some effect, but just as we overmedicate our “problem” students, we institute discrete programs for every deemed shortcoming of the public ed system. 3) underpaid front line staff. Contracted-out infrastructure staff to cram down wages/benefits, low pay for teachers vs administrators, a constant chiseling away of resources (so much so that the US Senate is considering an extension of the special tax deduction for teachers who buy supplies for their classes).

  • Doug says:

    American child poverty rate of 20% means little more can be done by schools. Poverty must be eliminated FIRST not later.

  • Lilianne Hurell says:

    Something else that occurs to me is the culture difference. Too many parents here do not care enough about their student’s success, and are more apt to blame the teacher instead of helping their children learn to behave and do well in school. I work in a small rural village, and parents are more apt to come in and yell at the principal or teacher when their child misbehaves, rather than hold their child responsible for their behavior. This extends even to students who have brought weapons to school, much less students who just refuse to work.

  • R Burns says:

    Some observations about the German school systems: starting at the grade 5 level, Germany streams students into one of 3 paths: vocational, middle level and university-bound high school called gymnasium. Special needs students attend separate schools. Effective Trades training takes place in schools with cooperation from industry. German culture is very different from American culture. It is simplistic to compare schools systems based on numerical data. One question I have is “why don’t we see comparisons between Canadian and U.S. school results. These two countries are culturally similar, have similar school systems, but Canadian students place in the top 10 countries of all International tests, far ahead of the U.S. .

  • Robert Boyle says:

    In comparing schools systems, it may be helpful to start with actual comparisons. German schools do not offer lunch programs, they do not offer bus service and after school activities are limited.

    Special education students are not included in many of the German schools, they are segregated. German schools are highly tracked and generally do not reflect our values concerning the mission of public schools, such as Title 1, Title 6, or Title 9.

    If US schools did not offer special education, no lunch programs, no after school activities, and we allowed segregation it may be possible that we could reduce the cost of what is a robust and vital institution.


  • Eckhard Kuhn-Osius says:

    German schools generally have the goal of educating students academically and not much more. American schools have to take the place of the family, the main social hang-out, the sports club, the cultural center, the local sports team etc.

    The original gain in German students’ scores in the PISA studies may also have to do with the fact that German students did not take the tests seriously at all the first time around. After the public outcry when bad scores were paraded and politicians began to show interest, students and teachers now find these types of tests much more important.

    German teachers’ salaries are not that high compared, e.g., to teachers’ salaries on the East coast, but they are much higher in the aggregate because teachers have excellent health insurance and retirement benefits and do not have to face steep tuition bills for their children.

    In general, German schools are run by academics with very limited input from politicians. In contrast to the easily manipulated grass-roots organization of US education, German schools are by and large run by a benevolent dictatorship of the educated.

    Germany is beginning to introduce all-day schooling on a broad scale. We’ll see what that will do to the system.

  • Alba says:

    A voice from Germany:

    (1) It is true that there is no school bus, except perhaps special-ed students, very rural areas or such specific cases. But there is an excellent public transport system, which means that a child can get to school alone, even if the family lives in a suburban area and not the city centre.

    (2) It is not true, however, that there is absolutely no lunch and no afternoon activities. Both exist and heavily subsidised, but are at least partially funded by the parents.

    (3) It is also not true that children with special needs are educated separately. This really depends on the level and type of disability but Germany has all three methods: full integration into a “regular” class (with some special ed teacher or assistance classes inhouse); separated classes but in the same school; and separate schools. Yes, not every school is wheelchair accessible (but not only special schools for children with severe motoric problems are, also “regular” schools); not every school has a teacher for sign language, braille, autism etc. – but for example my daughter’s school has “regular” classes and classes for children with speech/communication disabilities in the same school. Some classes and activities are for all kids, but obviously kids with hearing or speech impairment, or with high functioning autism that causes communication development problems need different methods, smaller classes and other approaches. I have no idea how it is in the US, but frankly, I pity a child with severe autism or with serious developmental problems that is being sent to a regular school solely in the name of integration . I have no idea how much is invested in special-ed by country, perhaps it would be interesting to know.

    (4) The age in which it is decided whether a student goes into full academic programme or just vocational education is different between states in Germany. In many states, children have several “gateways” to be able to go on a full Abitur track. In any case, not only children on Abitur track are tested in PISA and similar tests.

  • Michelle Garcia says:

    My thoughts on this topic include the same questions but also I sense there is a mentality in parents in the United States that their child can do no wrong and they are blind to the fact that they could possibly be causing extreme problems within the classroom. This affects the learning in that when a teacher takes the time to address the behavior she/he must address it multiple times within one class period. Calling the parent is effective if the child respects his/her parent. But the problem will happen again. Most of the problems involve the students that do not want to be in the classroom and would rather be home chilling out with their video games or sleeping. Germany, from what I remember about my research of their education system has an opportunity for students to choose their pathway – university route or technical route. I know we have a long way to go with our system in the United States but when comparing to other countries lets be real about the factors contributing or interfering.

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