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What Five American Teachers Learned From Germany's Education System

ri_Wc3kA.jpegThis summer, five of the country's top teachers went to Germany.  

These state teachers of the year, from Idaho, New Hampshire, North Dakota, Virginia, and Washington, D.C., met German public school teachers, visited a private school in Berlin, and toured a vocational training program at a Siemens plant in Berlin. The teachers also visited historical and cultural sites in the city and participated in a discussion with two women who grew up on opposite sides of the Berlin Wall.

The teachers' trips were funded through EF Educational Tours, an educational travel agency for students and teachers, and the Council of Chief State School Officers. 

Education Week spoke with three of the teachers about their trip. (To read about teachers' trips in past years, see Madeline Will's coverage of prior state teachers' visits to Finland.)

Vocational Training and Career Preparation

All three of the teachers remarked on the strength and breadth of Germany's vocational training program.

In Germany, many students end secondary school after 10th grade and start on-the-job training or enroll in a vocational school. Most German students are tracked around the age of 12, either enrolled in a college-preparatory program, a school that prepares them for an apprenticeship supplemented with higher education coursework, or a vocational track. This rigid structure has loosened somewhat in the past two decades as Germany sought to close the achievement gap between its highest and lowest performing students, but critics of the system still say it perpetuates inequalities: Children of native-born parents are overrepresented in the college-bound track, while children of immigrants are more likely to be in vocational schools. 

In the U.S., "there is still sort of this notion that every kid who graduates from high school needs to [go to] college in order to be successful—and that is not the case in Germany," said Heidi Crumrine, an English teacher at Concord High School in New Hampshire.

The teachers saw an example of this vocational education in a visit to Siemens, the largest industrial manufacturing company in Europe. The company participates in Germany's dual-training program, an option through the public school system in which students spend part of the week at a vocational school and part of the week working in industry.

Training, testing, and certification requirements are nationally standardized, so students aren't just preparing for a job with the company where they're apprenticing—they could earn certification in a certain trade at Siemens, and then use the credentials to apply for another job elsewhere.

Some U.S. schools offer similar certification tracks: Crumrine's school, for example, offers training in cosmetology, automotive technology, and health sciences. Students who complete a program can graduate with an endorsement for the trade. But vocational programs in the United States are more localized, operating at the state level or even in individual districts.

This large-scale, public program is more comprehensive than any career and technical education options in the U.S., said Paul Howard, a social studies teacher at LaSalle-Backus Education Campus in Washington, D.C. "Even at the college level in the U.S., we haven't figured out how to give people applicable knowledge," he said.

High schools in this country could do a better job of "helping students make that transition from school to work," said Becky Mitchell, an English and science teacher at Vision Charter School in Caldwell, Ind. The trip to Siemens gave her ideas about forming workforce partnerships at her own school in Idaho that could prepare her students for IT jobs in Boise, the state's capital, she said.

But Howard was skeptical that the U.S. as a whole—a much larger, more decentralized education system than in Germany, with a more diverse student population—could effectively replicate the national vocational training model.

"To say that we can just take what we're doing and drop it into the United States, which has a completely different historical context and cultural context—it's not going to happen," he said.

Teacher Challenges

But the German public school teachers that the state teachers of the year met with also discussed difficulties they experienced in the classroom.

"In the states, we kind of have this mythos that we've built around European schools," said Howard, when in reality, the teachers there face challenges as well.

Some of the issues were similar to those faced by U.S. teachers: Public school teachers told Howard that students from poor families in Germany don't get access to the same opportunities that the children of wealthier parents do.

Teacher pay is also low compared to other professions, they said, and teacher retention is a problem in German schools. (Teacher pay in Germany is actually higher than in the United States—2016 research from the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development found that a veteran high school teacher there makes about $89,000 annually, while the same analysis put the average salary for a seasoned U.S. teacher at $69,000.)

"We're subject to the same bureaucracy, the same red tape," said Mitchell. "And we all want what's best for our students."

A special education teacher who works with hearing-impaired students spoke with the visiting U.S. teachers about the ongoing challenges in including special education students in general education classes.

In the U.S., federal law requires students with disabilities to be in the "least restrictive environment" possible. Almost two-thirds of U.S. special education students spend the majority of their day in general education classes, compared to about 38 percent in Germany

Germany has been including more special education students in general education classes in recent years, but some teachers have said that they lack the classroom supports to teach learners of varied abilities.

"It seemed to me that the [German] schools haven't necessarily changed in their approach—they've just tried to incorporate inclusive classrooms," said Crumrine.

Innovation and Student-Centered Learning

The teachers of the year also visited a private school: the Evangelical School Berlin Centre. Students there spend most of the day in mixed-age groupings, working on individual or group projects. The curriculum is mastery-based—advancement is contingent on developing new skills, rather than spending a certain amount of time in class—and students don't receive grades until they're 15.    

This environment radically changes the job of a teacher, said Howard. Because students spend most of their time working independently, teachers mainly provide guidance and answer questions."[The role is] much more like a manager in an office job than it is a traditional stand-and-deliver teacher," he said.

Some alternative schools in the U.S. are also experimenting with this student-centered, project-based approach. Howard said the Evangelical School reminded him of the Khan Lab School, a small private school in Mountain View, Calif., started by the founder of Khan Academy. (And just like these schools in the U.S., the Evangelical School's overarching focus on student choice and its flexible schedule are exceptions, rather than the rule, in Germany.)

This value on student choice and voice appealed to Crumrine. "When kids are invested in what they're doing, and when they have ownership, they're much more successful—and happy," she said.

Though most American high schools aren't planning to do away with grades or a structured schedule anytime soon, Crumrine says she's seen more project-based learning integrated into standards at the state and district level. In her state of New Hampshire, a leader in competency-based education, students have the option to take a competency-based assessment instead of a standardized test in some grade levels.

Confronting the Past

Outside of the classroom, the teachers visited historical and cultural sites around Berlin.

Howard said these experiences led him to reflect on how Germany and the U.S. both frame dark chapters of their countries' histories, and how educators should tackle these issues in the classroom.

Berlin acknowledges the history of Nazism and the Holocaust, said Paul—the city is full of museums, memorials, and remembrances of victims. Germany sees the Holocaust as a shameful part of the country's past.

Howard contrasted the German portrayal of those reponsible for the Holocaust to the way the Civil War and the Confederacy are remembered in the U.S. "They don't have statues of Hitler and SS soldiers around Germany," he said. "They haven't forgotten that those guys existed; they just didn't build a statue of them and say, 'Well, it's part of our history, so we're going to have a statue of these traitors.'"

In the U.S., said Howard, we're "constantly [burying] our head in the sand when it comes to race." All of the racial discrimination and inequality in this country—from the disproportionate incarceration of black people to the lack of representation in Congress—is tied to the legacy of slavery, he said, though it's a connection that U.S. history classes rarely draw. 

But not all of Germany's past is memorialized in the same way as the Holocaust. Howard said he didn't see much public acknowledgement or discussion of the death and violence caused by German colonialism in Africa. Turning away from parts of your country's history, he said, isn't solely an American tradition. 

Correction: An earlier version of this post misstated the location of Khan Lab School. It is located in Mountain View, Calif.

Photo: The five state teachers of the year pose in front of four slabs of the Berlin Wall that are on exhibit at the Eden Park Hotel in Berlin. From left to right: Becky Mitchell (Idaho), Leah Juelke (North Dakota), Paul Howard (Washington, D.C.), Heidi Crumrine (New Hampshire), and Michelle Cottrell-Williams (Virginia). —Courtesy of EF Educational Tours.

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