Educational Equity for Immigrants in Germany

Building a Smarter German-American Partnership

The German and American public education systems differ substantially. American students who attend public high schools can enroll in classes in a wide range of subjects. Regardless of whether they are high-achieving, academically-driven individuals or students with interests more pertaining to trade-related or vocational careers, students may elect to enroll in courses ranging from carpentry and computer science to theater and history. Furthermore, schools in the United States often educate students with wide ranging levels of academic aptitude in the same facilities.

Conversely, education in Germany operates on the basis of a tracking system.  After leaving primary school at approximately age eleven or twelve, students are separated into different schools based on their level of academic aptitude. German students must demonstrate their academic prowess at a young age if they hope to attend top-level secondary schools, Gymnasien, which prepare students for university.  Lower-achieving students are placed into Realschulen or Hauptschulen, which gear their curricula more toward technical and vocational trades, respectively.

Proponents of education tracking systems contend that separating students at a young age provides them with an education more catered to their areas of strength, rendering them better-equipped for the job market than students who attend general secondary education institution such as “Integrierte Gesamtschulen” or “comprehensive schools,” schools that educate pupils of Gymnasien, Haupt-, and Realschulen together. According to a recent report, these institutions educate approximately 9.2% of German youth.  However, as Germany’s population demographics shift, the system incurs harsh critique for its debilitating impact on immigrant populations.

Students with limited knowledge of German language are less likely to accurately demonstrate their academic abilities. Approximately 12% of students in primary schools are “of foreign origin” (Mueller 2006). Turkish Germans, the largest minority group in the nation, face some of the greatest difficulties.  A recent survey indicated that 80% of Turkish first graders have no knowledge of German (Mueller 2006).  In a survey conducted by the German Marshall Fund in 2011, 44% of Germans ranked language acquisition as the first priority to integrate oneself into a culture. This answer doubled the European average.

Granted, mechanisms exist within the German education framework in order to address issues of inequity. Parents who contend that their children were unfairly tracked sometimes lobby higher level schools to accept their children. This too, presents a challenge to immigrant parents who may not be able to communicate effectively to address such issues.

Regardless of their level of academic aptitude, students with sub-par German language skills face incredible difficulty when confronted with curricula solely in German. While many regard language acquisition as paramount to integration and the responsibility of immigrant communities, young students have the potential to face lasting consequences for their academic performance very early in life. Children with poor language skills may emerge from school with low prospects of obtaining gainful employment, thus, underscoring their social strata in German society and promoting negative perception of immigrants amongst Germans.


Additional Reading:

Basic Structure of the Education System in the Federal Republic of Germany

In Göttingen lernt es sich am besten

“Integrating Turkish Communities: A German Dilemma” by Klaus Mueller