Ifo Viewpoint No. 73: PISA and the German Three-class Society

Hans-Werner Sinn
It is now official: The UN Special Rapporteur on the Right to Education, Vernor Muñoz Villalobos, has sharply criticized the tri-partite German educational system and has made it partly responsible for the poor performance, in terms of equal opportunity, in the PISA tests. The country of poets and thinkers has again been pilloried because of its poor educational system.

Muñoz is right. The tripartite educational system, rare in most parts of the world, no longer fits the times. It reflects the three-class society of the nineteenth century. Formerly, the nomenclature was the folk school, the middle school and the upper school, an implicit admission that the schools were for the upper class, the middle class and the common folk. Today the politically correct terms are lower secondary school, intermediate school and upper secondary school (Gymnasium), but the new names hardly disguise the fact that the German educational system cements the existing inequality in society.

Germany separates its pupils into the three school forms already at the age of ten years, while virtually all other countries keep them together until they are out of puberty, at the age of 14 or 15 years, and only then separate them, and mostly such that some pupils leave the common school earlier than the others. The early selection maximises the influence of parents and minimises the importance of the children’s actual talent. A child of academic parents has a seven-times greater chance at an upper secondary education than a child of a skilled labourer. Children of a foreign background are particularly disadvantaged. While 40% of German pupils go on to upper secondary school, only 18% of foreign pupils make it. Every second foreign pupil (49%) attends a lower secondary or special school. Among the German pupils only one in five (21%) does.

The German system admittedly has more than just disadvantages. The early separation of pupils gives special support to the talented ones. The German upper-secondary school diploma (Abitur) is still considered an excellent degree. The French baccalauréat or the Anglo-Saxon high school diploma, which more than half of all pupils achieve, are comparatively inferior.

Nevertheless, the advantage of a better promotion of gifted pupils does not offset the obvious disadvantage that the talent reserves of working-class children are not exhausted. One finds many children at German upper secondary schools that do not belong there, and among the children of craftsmen and workers there are many that could have achieved a higher education if they had been supported early enough.

As the Ifo Institute’s Ludger Woessmann has determined, in an extensive econometric study based on the OECD PISA data, there is no empirical evidence that the early separation of pupils has a positive influence on the average PISA test results. In fact, there is even some evidence that the early separation tends to reduce average pupil performance. In any case the early separation leads to a massive increase in the performance differences of the tested pupils. Germany, alongside Belgium, has the widest spread in pupil performance of all OECD countries, which has received the strong criticism of the OECD. If these greater differences could be seen as the price for higher average pupil quality, the German system could still perhaps be justified. But since this system increases the differences without improving average performance it should be committed to the dustbin of history.

Germany must again debate the benefits of the comprehensive school. In principle the comprehensive school that some states had introduced in the 1970ies on an experimental basis was not a bad idea. The problem was that the idea was burdened with the ballast of an antiauthoritarian educational philosophy and was not successful as a result. It is now time to forget the old ideologies of the left and right and to adjust the German educational system to international standards.

The way Germany has tried to achieve equality and justice is misguided. Since Germany abuses equal opportunity with its educational system, it needs an excessive welfare state to produce the desirable measure of equality at least after the fact. The underprivileged claim, by way of democratic redistribution, what was refused them in their education. This is expensive and has counterproductive incentive effects. High German unemployment and anaemic economic growth have their main cause precisely here. How much better it would be to reduce the inequality from the very beginning, when educating pupils. Then the state could save a portion of the high redistribution costs that crush private initiative and motivation. And if everyone is aware that their children have a fair chance for advancement, they will be more reconciled to a liberal society and its economic benefits. Workers with hopes that their children can become millionaires will no longer demand an envy tax on millionaires, as Germany has just introduced.

Hans-Werner Sinn
Professor of Economics and Finance
President of the Ifo Institute

Published as “Alte Ideologien”, Wirtschaftswoche, No. 11, 13 March 2006, p. 250.