Academic journal article Phi Delta Kappan

Comparing U.S. and German Education like Apples and Sauerkraut

Academic journal article Phi Delta Kappan

Comparing U.S. and German Education like Apples and Sauerkraut

Article excerpt

There is little point in comparing the performances of German and American students on any standardized achievement test, because public education in Germany fulfills a vastly different role from public education in America, Mr. Noack points out. Indeed, an evaluation of any education system is meaningful only if it relates its students' performances to its own mission and goals.

HOW OFTEN DO we hear or read disparaging remarks about American students' performances on standardized achievement tests, especially in comparison with their Asian or European peers? Yet those comparisons are as useful as comparing apples with sauerkraut, or as misleading as using gas mileage to compare a compact car with a full-sized sedan, family van, 3U4-ton truck, or motor home. If all one wants is a vehicle with the best gas mileage, then the compact or subcompact car may indeed be the best choice. But what if, along with good gas mileage, one also wants increased safety, comfort, or load-carrying ability - then which vehicle is best? Similarly, which education system is best should depend on which educational features and outcomes are most important to us. To use only standardized academic tests to evaluate the comprehensive American public education is like using only gas mileage to evaluate sedans, trucks, and motor homes. Academics is a very important component, but not the whole of American education. In Europe, however, academics is the whole of education. The German system provides a good example.

From Firsthand Experience

I recently lived in Germany for one school year. This situation enabled me to visit a few of the country's public schools repeatedly and to study its education system through official channels. My ailing mother, whom I was visiting in the Black Forest in southwest Germany, coincidentally lived not far from the two high schools in Tuttlingen, with which my school district near Seattle had maintained a thriving GAPP (German American Partnership Program) student and teacher exchange for more than 10 years. As a high school principal and district curriculum director, I had formed strong professional ties with the Tuttlingen teachers. Consequently, they invited me into their schools not as an outsider but as a trusted colleague. I visited their classrooms, sat in on faculty meetings, and attended special events.

The public education campus in urban Tuttlingen consists of two adjoining grade 5-13 high schools (one is somewhat college-prep oriented, the other more standard), one grade K-4 primary school (two others lie at the city's periphery), and one grade 10-12 vocational/technical school. One gorgeous special education school (for students aged 3 to 21) is also located in the city; its principal and I have shared a lifelong friendship, dating back to our fathers' friendship in East Prussia in the 1930s. In addition, I became quite familiar with the regular primary, middle, and high schools in Koenigsfeld, a quaint town in the Black Forest in which my parents resettled in 1970. My dad had served the small community as its music director, and through him I had ready access to their schools as well.

I also have firsthand knowledge of the education system in the former Communist East Germany, having attended school there until fourth grade, when my family escaped to West Germany. Ultimately, in 1956, we settled in Chicago, where I resumed my education without knowing a word of English (we had been taught Russian, not English, in East Germany). No ESL program existed in Chicago, nor was any teacher or student willing to teach me English. So I had to learn English on my own to survive - to reduce the number of times I was beaten up by classmates and openly ridiculed by teachers for being a "Nazi" (which was still synonymous with "German" back then). I also have some limited knowledge of education in Nazi Germany through my brothers, who are 11 and 13 years my senior. …

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