PISA: The consequences for Germany

The findings of the OECD Programme for International Student Assessment are alarming. A country with the economic and political significance of Germany belongs at the top of the league and cannot be satisfied with an education system performing at the OECD average level – never mind below it.

But PISA should not mislead us into starting discussions about reforming our education system from scratch again. In fact, many of the shortcomings PISA brought to light were not new. Earlier studies had already drawn attention to the weaknesses of our educational system and prompted me to set a new educational reform process in motion.

Two years ago, I sat with German state officials and social partners, church representatives, parents, pupils and educationalists in an education forum to discuss what would have to change – without regard to our particular areas of responsibility – if our children and young people were to have a better education and better training. The 12 recommendations that emerged from that forum already make a start to addressing the problems that were highlighted by PISA assessment. The time has now come to take action!

Experiences in countries like Finland, Canada, Australia or Japan, who are now reaping the benefits of earlier reforms, suggest that Germany’s educational system can be improved within the foreseeable future. But it is not enough just to copy them; it is a question of learning from good examples and incorporating the lessons into our own strategies.

One thing is clear: the foundations for successful learning are laid early on in life. We must therefore concentrate our efforts on early childhood education. In this respect, the education forum’s demand for clear objectives for early childhood education and care programmes hits the nail right on the head. These must be more than just child-minding facilities. Their job is to stimulate our children’s curiosity and eagerness to learn and to prepare them for primary school. Children with limited aptitude for speech or who do not speak German very well require particular attention so they can start school with the same chances as other children. In addition, we must assess and improve the initial training and in-service training of our teachers.

The shortcomings in reading and mathematical literacy uncovered by PISA make it abundantly clear that there must be a distinct improvement in the individual support offered to all children. There is no contradiction between the improvement of education across the board and the promotion of excellence. Equality of opportunity and fostering excellence in education must both be central planks in our school education system.

We must organise learning in our schools in such ways that children can learn from each other. This benefits the most advanced pupils as well as those who find learning more difficult.

We must also recognise that learning takes time. This is particularly so where children are required not just to absorb information mechanically, but to actively acquire knowledge and skills and apply them. This is why the establishment of full-day schooling throughout Germany is so important. With all-day schooling it would be easier to prevent social exclusion, improve language competence and foster individual talents. All-day schooling – long taken for granted in other countries – is also an important factor in making family life and professional life compatible.

Teachers play an important part in the implementation of these measures. New demands for teachers call for qualifications beyond subject matter specialisation: methodology and didactics, a stronger practical orientation and routine in-service training are an absolute must.

Moreover, our teachers should be given more recognition by society for the hard work they do. As in industry, good teacher performance should be rewarded and we should make greater use of the incentives already available to us.

Last but not least, we must give our schools in Germany greater autonomy, free them from bureaucratic encumbrance and make them fit for the future by giving them more responsibility! Here too PISA shows the way. Finland scored best in the survey. It has empowered schools, while at the same time subjecting them to regular quality control. The right mix of autonomy and assessment is the recipe for an educational system that works.

Good education requires resources. Clearly, we must invest more in the education of our children. The money spent is an investment in the future and must be considered as such, not a cost. The federal government has already set a good example in this respect. Since 1998, expenditure on education and research has been raised by an impressive 21.5% to around € 8.8 billion, the highest level ever.

The 12 recommendations of the education forum are on the table and can now be implemented. I welcome the fact that Germany’s federal and state authorities have jointly decided to monitor the implementation scientifically. A first report on progress is expected for 2004.

Edelgard Bulmahn

©OECD Observer, No. 231/232, May 2002


Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA), OECD, 2001.

For more on the 12 recommendations, consult “Empfehlungen und Einzelergebnisse des Forum Bildung”, published by Arbeitsstab Forum Bildung in der Geschäftsstelle der Bund-Länder-Kommission für Bildungsplanung und Forschungsförderung, 2002.

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