UW Honors Program, “Re-enacting German and American Identities”
Summer A Term, 2015
The Difference in Heads:
Minority Students & the German School System
Greater levels of globalization facilitate the movement of individuals across national boundaries, bringing immigration to the forefront of societal conversations regarding education, economics, and politics. Immigration adds complexity to transnational and national issues, as migration is more than just a movement of individuals. Migration is a diffusion of language, religion, social values, foods, political beliefs, and economic systems.
After World War II, Germany rebuilt itself economically, politically, and socially. Immigrants played a key role in the re-imaging of Germany. Economically, immigrants filled the demand for labor, in short supply after war casualties. Politically, immigrants presented a new challenge for the nation-state: how to deal with ethnically non-German individuals trying to carve out new lives for themselves in Germany. In schools, the children of immigrants challenged traditional notions of German education as they brought to the classroom new languages, religions, and values.
Today, Germany continues to struggle with immigration policy. As part of the European Union, Germany must consider not only its best interests with respect to immigration but also those of its partner nations. Although immigrants play a crucial role in Germany’s society and economy, discrimination against immigrants in German schools and the German labor market has resulted in unequal education and job opportunities for immigrants. This group research project seeks to explore the complexities and realities of life for immigrants in Germany.
This paper examines the educational experiences of “migrant background” students in German schools in the attempt to answer: Are Germany’s “migrant background” students being served by German schools? Secondary research questions include: Are German primary school teachers trained to teach “migrant background” students? What challenges do “migrant background” students face in Germany’s schools? Ultimately this paper seeks to answer: How could German schools better serve “migrant background” students?
An Introduction to the German Education System
Germany’s education system is decentralized meaning each independent German state, or Länder, determines its own education policy. While regional differences do exist in funding and tracking policies, most German states have similar school structures, use similar curriculums, and require similar teaching credentials. Across the country, German children are required to begin their formal education at the age of six. However most children attend some form of daycare or preschool prior to this age. Children enter Grundschule to attend grades 1-4, or in Berlin grades 1-6. At the end of their primary education, German children are tracked into one of three secondary school institutions: Hauptschule, Realschule, or Gymnasium. A student’s Grundschule teacher(s) make a recommendation for where that child should be placed and largely teachers’ recommendations are honored. However it is ultimately the decision of the student’s parents to select where their child will pursue his/her secondary education.
Hauptschule is the lowest of the three German tracks. It offers students a practical education to prepare students for a vocational apprenticeship. In most German states Hauptschule is offered for grades 5-9. Realschule, Germany’s middle track, typically includes grades 5-10. It offers students a more advanced general education that may lead either to an apprenticeship or the transition into Germany’s highest track, Gymnasium. Gymnasium is meant to prepare students for university and includes grades 5-13. After graduating from Gymnasium, students receive “Abitur”, a special diploma necessary to pursue university studies (“An Overview of the German System of Education”).
This tripartite tracking system has existed in Germany since the 1950’s with few reforms. However in 2000, the results of the PISA, an international test of academic ability and critical thinking, placed Germany at the bottom of all industrial nations. Germans were understandably horrified by this news and much debate ensued over how the education system must be reformed, the biggest reform of this time being the transition to all-day schools. By 2006, Germany’s overall performance had improved on the PISA however new information was reported that of all the nations participating in PISA, German students had the highest correlation between their social-economic background and their performance. Stated differently, a student’s social-economic background could reliably predict their academic performance as measured by the PISA. After this finding was reported, the UN launched a Human Rights investigation. The UN Inspector found that Germany’s school system “excludes children from poor families and immigrant backgrounds” (Andell, 2008).
This paper will explore the many challenges “migrant background” students face in Berlin’s secondary schools and how students may be “excluded”. For the purposes of this paper, a person with a “migrant background” is defined as:
1) Someone not born in Germany that migrated to Germany in 1950 or later
2) A person that does not have German citizenship
3) A person who has one or both parents that fulfill one of the above criteria.
Increasing Diversity in German Schools
Johann Friedrich Herbart, a German philosopher and educator of the early 19th century, said the greatest challenge educators face is the “difference in heads” or meeting the diverse needs of a diverse student group (OECD, 2010). Today, German schools are more diverse than ever before. In 2005 Germany was officially declared a nation of immigration. However Germany has been a migration site for persecuted and oppressed peoples for centuries. In the 1950’s and 1960’s Germany’s guest worker policies, encouraged Central and Eastern European workers to come to Germany to rebuild the country after the devastation of World War II. Finding greater opportunity in Germany, many guest workers chose to stay in Germany. When Germany was reunified in 1990, its economy crashed. Unemployment was rampant in both West and East Germany. German-born citizens and immigrants competed for few available jobs, spurring hatred and intense racism. Although the economy recovered, hostility towards immigrant groups has unfortunately remained in Germany as evidenced by the Pegida movement that took root in Dresden in 2014.
Today seven percent of Germany’s population speaks a language other than German as their first language. Turkish is the most common minority language with over 1.8 million speakers. In fact 3 million Germans have origins in Turkey. German classrooms, especially in the capital of Berlin, reflect the growing diversity of the German population as 30% of students in Germany have a “migration background” and in Berlin the figures are much higher (Crutchfield).
For this research project I conducted school visits, spoke with and attended presentations from education and diversity experts, and interviewed current Humboldt students that had attended secondary school in Berlin.
The first school I visited was the Heinrich-von-Stephan Schule in Berlin. Karin Jaeger, one of the school’s most highly regarded teachers, gave a brief presentation on her school and described some of the new movements the school has embraced including project learning, whole-person education, and allowing teachers greater autonomy. I then sat in on two classes at the school. The first was a history class of older students, 16 and 17 years old. The day of our visit the students were learning about the French Revolution. During my visit I observed students’ interactions, the teacher’s interactions with her students, and I looked at the classroom materials including the textbook, other books present in the class, the various classroom posters, and the technology present in the classroom.
After visiting the first class, Karinne, a fellow UW student, and I had lunch with some of the school’s younger students and Ms. Jaeger. During lunch I was able to have some short conversations with students. I also observed how the students interacted with each other. Many students at the time were fasting in celebration of Ramadan. I took note of where and with whom students were sitting.
The second class I visited at this school was an upper-secondary English class. During the class period, the teacher invited his students to ask Karinne and I questions about life in the U.S. and current topics of debate including gun control and police brutality. I took note of what topics the students were interested in and any comparisons the students made to life in Germany, especially with regards to race relations.
The second school I visited was the Leibniz Gymnasium in Kreuzberg. After a brief introduction to the school, I had the opportunity to speak with some of the students. Karinne and I conducted an informal interview with two students that have a “migration background.” We asked if they view their school as diverse, if racism is present in their school, if teachers understand and value their students’ unique cultures, and then discussed what makes a good teacher. I tried to pay attention not only to what the students were saying but also their tone and body language as they discussed this difficult topic. At this school I also had the opportunity to ask questions of three of the school’s teachers. Two of the teachers were quite new to the school while the third teacher had been teaching at the school for many years. The teachers represented different departments including biology, history, and debate. In conversation with these teachers I asked if they received any specific training to teach language minority students, how these teachers address the diverse needs of their diverse student population, if students are given the opportunity to share their home culture with their peers and teachers, and what parent/family relationships look like at this school.
The third school I visited was an integrated secondary school called the Ferdinand-Freiligrath-Schule. Here, Karinne and I had the opportunity to observe a mixed age classroom with 10 students. Again I took note of how the teacher interacted with her students, how students interacted with each other, what the classroom included in respect to educational materials, technology, and art, and what was most valued in the classroom. While in this class, I had the opportunity to speak briefly with some of the students about the various art projects they were working on and what their hopes are for the future.
After seeing several classrooms for myself, I grew curious what those who had been through the German education system thought. I conducted three informal interviews with current Humboldt University students who had attended secondary school in Berlin. Two of the three interviewees were young men and one of the three interviewees was a young woman. I did not ask these students about their personal background except to inquire whether or not they were current Humboldt students and whether or not they had attended secondary school in Berlin. The questions I asked these three students included:
1. Was diversity present in your secondary school classroom?
2. Was diversity discussed in your classrooms?
3. Do you think your teachers addressed the diversity of cultures present in your classroom?
4. Do you think minority students are being served in Germany’s schools? Why or why not?
I allowed my interviewees to direct much of our conversation and asked follow up questions in response to their initial answers.
To inform my research, I also met with several experts in education and diversity. Professor Dr. Stephan Breidbach is a professor of English at Humboldt University. His research concerns language policy, education theory, and foreign language teaching. I met Professor Breidbach during his office hour for an informal interview. The questions I asked Professor Breidbach included:
1. How are teachers trained to teach language minority students in Berlin?
2. What discussions, if any, about race & diversity are occurring in German classrooms? In what context do these discussions occur?
3. How do you think German schools could better serve language minority students?
Given Professor Breidbach’s expertise in linguistics and bilingual education, our talk shifted to these topics over the course of our discussion.
I was fortunate that a talk by Dr. Viola Georgi of the University of Hildesheim was scheduled as part of our official program. Dr. Georgi spoke on education and migration on Germany. She discussed the history of German migration, the politics surrounding it, Germany’s great diversity today, and how this diversity has impacted the educational system. She presented several of the challenges “migration background” students face including a lack of bilingual education teachers or programs, lack of mother tongue instruction, disproportional placement in Germany’s lowest tracks, and educational materials that negatively portray migration.
A second scheduled component of the program was a presentation by the Junge Islam Konferenz. This organization hosts four to five day conferences for young people to discuss the perceptions and stereotypes of Muslims around the world. Through its work, this organization strives to abolish prejudices against all peoples. In their presentation, Robin Laumann and Marett Klahn from the Junge Islam Konferenz discussed how stereotypes, especially of Muslim students, impact their relationships with teachers and may impede their educational success. Robin and Marett ended their presentation by detailing how they believe inequalities can be abolished through changes in education policy.
It was of course a great asset to have Manka Varghese as one of the program coordinators. Dr. Varghese focuses her research and work at the University of Washington on language minority teacher education and the relationship between immigration and schooling. Last Spring I took Dr. Varghese’s class, “Teaching the Bilingual/Bicultural Student” which introduced me to many of the challenges language minority students face in schools. While in Berlin, Dr. Varghese conducted a class on immigration and schooling, which focused on the changing immigration and citizenship laws in Germany as well as recent reform movements in the German education system.
To complete my research, I also read a selection of texts on the history and structure of Germany’s education system, the history of migration in Germany, and various studies regarding the challenges “migrant background” students face in schools.
After gathering this information, I spent some time synthesizing what I had learned. Below I present my findings.
Current Challenges for “Migrant Background” Students
To become a secondary school teacher in Germany, one must complete 5 to 6 years of university studies with specializations in at least two subjects and complete a 2-year practical training in the classroom (“Teacher Education in United Kingdom and Germany”). Despite the length and rigor of teacher preparation in Germany, few universities offer classes in multicultural education or diversity training. One teacher I spoke with at the Leibniz Gymnasium believes that courses for teaching language minority students have only emerged in the last 5 to 6 years.
Teacher preparation programs expect teachers to gain fluency in English and know some French and Latin. However these languages are not the mother tongue languages of most of their minority students. When teachers do not have fluency in their students’ mother tongue language, the teaching strategies they can employ in the classroom are restricted and school/family relationships are impeded. Furthermore students are sent a message that their language and culture is not worthy of study.
Lack of “Migration Background” Teachers
Teachers in Germany are not reflective of their students. While 30% of students have a “migration background”, only 5% of teachers claim a “migration background” (Georgi, 2015). Unfortunately this figure is not surprising given that so few “migrant background” students make it to university where they have the opportunity to pursue a career in teaching. Muslim women are further deterred from a career in teaching because less than half of citizens 25 and over think Muslim teachers should be able to wear the hijab while teaching (Laumann & Klahn, 2015).
When an individual with a “migration background” does pursue a career in teaching, they are expected to bring “ethnic expertise” to their school. Often they are tasked with translating and communicating with a whole community of families, well beyond those of just their students (Georgi, 2015). While they may or may not have language skills, it is unfair to assign one teacher this huge role.
Inequities in the German Tracking System
The German education system is marked by a strict tracking system. Unfortunately “migration background” students are disproportionately placed in Germany’s lowest tracks. This may be because students, who speak a language other than German as their first language, are still continuing to develop their German language skills. In fact 60% of students in Germany’s lowest track, Hauptschule, are language minority students. As a result of low tracking, only 3.3% of language minority students ultimately go to university (Crutchfield).
A major challenge that many “migrant background” students face is stereotypes. This is especially true for Muslim students. There are 2 million Muslims living in Germany under the age of 25. The German media has played a large role in creating perceptions of the Muslim population as a security risk. German Muslims are often unfairly associated with extremist, terrorist groups. This has led 53% of the German population to view Islam as an antidemocratic religion that is incapable of existing in Germany (Laumann & Klahn, 2015). Unfortunately these stereotypes follow Muslim students into the school space as well. One secondary school teacher at the Leibniz Gymnasium told me that there is a stereotype that male Turkish students will be disrespectful to their female teachers. While this is pure myth, it unfortunately may influence how a teacher views and treats some of her students. One male student I talked to with origins in Turkey talked to me about being hated by a teacher. He attributed this teacher’s hatred in part to his Turkish background. Given Germany’s strict tracking system, discussed above, teacher’s perceptions of their students are critically important for their secondary school recommendations. Stereotypes may lead teachers to undervalue a student’s merits and ultimately recommend a lower track than their accomplishments deserve.
In recent years, several studies have been conducted on the material presented in German textbooks. One such study found that migration, when discussed in textbooks, is almost always connected to problems or conflicts. It is portrayed as something extreme and unusual. Furthermore this same study found that texts use the terminology “foreigner”, “stranger”, and “immigrant” interchangeably. The discussion questions that follow such passages ask questions largely from a majority perspective and do not consider the experiences and struggles of the immigrants (Georgi, 2015).
Cornelsen is one of Germany’s largest publishing groups. In 2001 it published a German grammar book with some arguably very racist content. In a sentence structure example, the book describes the “discovery of strange people” in Africa. The next example states “for a long time Africa remained the dark, undiscovered continent.” The negative and backwards portrayal of Africa in this text could be very harmful to German students who identify as having origins in Africa (Marmer).
Another recent textbook published by Cornelsen is “Die Islamische Welt und Europa.” Despite its focus on the current status of the Middle East and Middle Eastern relations, the textbook’s cover hosts a drawing of a Bazaar that might be an accurate depiction of life in the Middle East hundreds of years ago but today simply portrays Islamic culture as backward and totally foreign (Laumann and Klahn, 2015).
What may be most shocking is that in Germany there is no private textbook industry. These texts were approved by officials.
A further issue is that there are few textbook authors with “migration backgrounds” even though nearly a third of students reading these texts have a “migration background.”
Discussions on Diversity
I was curious if, and to what extent, diversity is being talked about and addressed in German classrooms. The secondary school students I interviewed said that diversity is only discussed in language and history classes. The students mentioned that in history classes diversity is discussed especially in regards to World War II and the Holocaust. However this seems to imply that tragedies and problems surrounding diverse populations are a thing of the past in Germany when in fact populations still face oppression. It is also troubling that in language classes diversity is discussed as it relates to global diversity and differing cultures around the world, rather than the distinct and numerous cultures one could find in any Berlin classroom. The students also mentioned that there is one day a year in schools dedicated to being “nice to other nations.” Again this doesn’t begin to address the diversity present within German borders today.
One secondary school teacher I interviewed said that she avoids the topic of diversity in her classroom because she does not want to point out the differences amongst her students. She said her students with “migration backgrounds” view themselves as German and talking about their Turkish roots, for example, would only make them feel “othered.”
In my interviews with current Humboldt University students, I learned that diversity was only discussed in these students’ secondary schools when there were “problems” or “misunderstandings.” When I asked for examples of such instances, one male student described a time in 8th grade when two Turkish girls arrived at school with signs that said “All Germans are sons of Hitler.” I found it interesting that the example this student gave of a problem related to diversity was one of the majority being “wronged” rather than what surely must be countless instances of the minority suffering. It remains unclear whether the refusal to address the difficult topic of increasing diversity in German schools is hurting or aiding students.
Repression of Culture
Not only do students not have the opportunity to learn about and explore their heritage culture, schools and government institutions actively work to discourage cultural identification. All new German immigrants are required to complete integration classes, which include German language and history instruction. German laws and policies make it clear that immigrants are meant to blend in to Germany’s culture, leaving their own behind. At Herbert Hoover secondary school, where 90% of students have a “migration background” and most a mother tongue other than German, a ban on speaking Turkish and other languages was implemented. This policy earned the school the German National Prize and $94,000 by the National German Foundation (Crutchfield).
Are German schools serving “migrant background” students?
One of the questions I hoped to answer through my research was “Are German schools serving ‘migrant background’ students?” Overwhelmingly I have found that they are not. Minority students attend schools where they face unfair stereotypes from their teachers and peers, where teachers are unprepared to address the great diversity present in their classrooms, where textbooks present a narrow, one-dimensional view of history, and where students’ access to higher education is limited by all the aforementioned challenges. Many of those I spoke with in Berlin agree. One female Humboldt University student tellingly said that there are “equal conditions (for students) but maybe not equal opportunity.”
It is clear that German schools are not serving “migrant background” students. Although some reforms have been made in recent years to address the needs of this student group, more must be done so that every child residing in Germany has access to a great education. First and foremost, Germany’s teachers, current and future, must receive cultural competency training. All teacher education programs should address topics including diversity, identity, democracy, and intercultural communication. Training in foreign languages and study abroad experience should also be a component of every teacher education program. Teachers should be prepared to host dynamic conversations about diversity in their classrooms. Furthermore, Germany must actively recruit and train teachers that have a “migration background” so that students can see themselves and their community represented in school leadership. Educational materials, including textbooks, must also be modified to be more objective and present not only a majority perspective. This can be accomplished by setting strict standards for national approval. The German tracking system has prohibited “migration background” students from reaching their full academic potential. Germany’s tracking system must be re-evaluated and reformed so that “migration background” students are fairly represented in each of Germany’s three tracks. Finally, the families of “migration background” students should be welcomed into the school space. One teacher I spoke with at Leibniz Gymnasium discussed his idea of showing his school to the mothers of his “migration background” students over the summer. This would allow them to see what school life looks like in Germany and demonstrate that they are a welcome part of the school community. With these reforms, “migration background” students will have the opportunity to reach their full academic potential and Germany will prosper as a result.
"An Overview of the German System of Education." The Educational System in Germany. N.p., n.d. Web. <http://facstaff.bloomu.edu/lspringm/resources/schulsystem.html>.
Andell, K. “A country divided: A study of the German education system.” (2008)
Crutchfield, Anne. Language Minority Education Policy: Turkish Immigrant Pupils in Germany.
Georgi, Viola, Dr. "Education & Migration." Humboldt University, Berlin. 30 June 2015. Lecture.
Laumann, Robin, and Marett Klahn. "JIK Meets the University of Washington." Berlin. 1 July 2015. Lecture.
Marmer, Elina et al. (2010): Racism and the Image of Africa in German Schools and Textbooks. http://www.zef.de/module/register/media/a992_MarmerSowRacismant heImageofAfricainGermanSchoolsandTextbooks.pdf
McGraw, Barry, and Denise Lievesley. "Literacy Skills for the World of Tomorrow- Further Results from PISA 2000." (2003): n. pag. Web. <http://www.oecd.org/edu/school/programmeforinternationalstudentassessmentpisa/33690591.pdf>.
OECD. Educating Teachers for Diversity: Meeting the Challenge. Paris: OECD, 2010.
Sliwka, Anne. "From Homogeneity to Diversity in German Education." Educating Teachers for Diversity: Meeting the Challenge. Paris: OECD, 2010. N. pag. Web.
"Teacher Education in United Kingdom and Germany." Humboldt University, n.d. Web. 03 June 2015. <https://www.sprachenzentrum.hu-berlin.de/de/studium_und_lehre/studentische_beitraege/education_in_britain_and_germany/katja1.html>.
I arrived in Berlin thinking that I would focus my research exclusively on how teachers in Germany are prepared to teach language minority students. Unfortunately I was unable to find experts on this specific topic but this gave me the opportunity to broaden my research to investigate what the various challenges are that minority students face in German schools. I was able to interview a variety of people with some expertise or experience related to my topic including Humboldt professors, Humboldt students, secondary school teachers in Gymnasiums and integrated schools, and secondary school students with “migrant backgrounds.” In conducting my research, I was surprised how honestly and openly those I interviewed responded to my questions. I was also surprised by the many different opinions I heard on issues of immigration and politics. The most striking example of this was when I spoke to two university students at Humboldt. Both were young men who had attended secondary school in Germany and they were presumably friends. However when I asked, “Do you think minority students are being served in Germany’s schools?” their answers were quite different. One of the young men said resoundingly yes and that any discrepancy in achievement was a “problem of the people.” His friend had a very different response saying that while there are many resources for minority students, families often don’t know about them. He shyly asserted that “sometimes I think the government makes it difficult” for minority students. Both young men seemed moderately surprised by their friend’s answers. I hope that my short interview sparked a discussion amongst the young men regarding the state of Germany’s education system for minority students.
Another surprising moment for me in my research was discovering some key differences between the U.S. and German education system. For example I asked three secondary school teachers if the school had ever hosted a cultural night. These events, which allow students to celebrate their home or family culture by creating display boards, cooking traditional foods, and performing traditional dances or songs, are quite popular in Seattle. However these teachers had never heard of such an event. In contrast, during an interview with one teacher, he described how he frequently invites his students’ parents to a bar so that he can form close relationships with the parents and discuss any matters concerning his students. This was shocking to me as in the U.S. parent-teacher relationships are typically confined to the school space and often relationships beyond that space are frowned upon.
As this was my first experience conducting research, and in a foreign country no less, there were certainly some challenges I faced. I found it difficult at first to approach strangers at Humboldt University to ask my interview questions. Immigration and education are hotly debated issues and my questions required my interviewees to engage with these topics and share their personal experiences and opinions. I feared that asking “Do you think minority students are being served by German schools?” could imply that I thought they weren’t being served and thus be offensive. However as aforementioned, my interviewees were surprisingly open and honest in answering my questions. Reflecting back on my interviews, I noticed that I only introduced myself as a student from the University of Washington conducting research. I don’t think I once gave my name. While some might think it essential to establish an interpersonal relationship with interviewees in order to gain their trust and consequently honest answers, I think that my anonymity played to my favor and allowed my subjects to respond openly.
Perhaps the most difficult part of my research was gathering information from “migrant background” students on their experiences. I never wanted to make these students feel “othered” in any way yet I hoped they could be honest with me about how their “migrant background” status had influenced their education. I tried my best to allow the students to tell their own stories rather than prompting them with loaded or indelicate questions.
Over the course of this research project, I learned that I really enjoy hearing people’s stories and perspectives, especially as they relate to larger policies. In my future studies, especially in respect to education policies, I hope to have the opportunity to interview affected parties regarding policies rather than learning about them through textbooks or through facts and figures. Additionally, I noticed that I enjoy examining a topic broadly and through many perspectives rather than looking only at one specific part of a topic in great depth.
This project was highly interesting to me because I am interested in pursuing a career in teaching, especially in low-income schools that often have a high percentage of minority students. Unfortunately many of the challenges minority students face in Germany, including having a lack of minority background teachers, educational materials that are culturally insensitive, and stereotype threat, are also challenges minority students face in the U.S., and I would suspect across the world. While it was difficult to hear young students tell me that they faced racism from their teachers and to read some of the racist textbooks used across Germany, I ultimately feel hopeful at the end of this research project that change is coming through the hard work of organizations like the Junge Islam Konferenz, the teachers I met working tirelessly in Berlin’s schools, and through the research and publications of experts like Dr. Viola Georgi. I hope that others, in Germany, the U.S., and across the world, begin to see the amazing potential contained in immigrant youth and recognize that it is to everyone’s advantage to see that potential grow through excellent education.