FloridaTrend.com, the Website for Florida Business


Tim Keim, 14
Gutenberg Gymnasium
Mainz, Germany

Family: Tim's father is a graphics designer. His mother is a teacher. He has one younger brother.

School: Tim usually rides his bike to school, about a 20-minute trip.

School year: Begins in September and ends in July. School days are generally shorter in Germany; Tim's are from 8 a.m. to 1:10 p.m.

Courses: German, English, French, algebra, physics, chemistry, music appreciation, art, history, religion and sports.

Post-high school hopes: Tim's work at Gutenberg Gymnasium will culminate in the Abitur, the national high school exit exam. Scores determine university placement.

Non-academic passion: Hip-hop dancing in the evenings at a spot in town called the Dance House.

By the time Tim was in the fourth grade, his parents and teachers determined he was suited for study at a Gymnasium -- the top tier of German secondary school education.

Deciding Their Fate by the Fifth Grade

Unlike teenagers in the United States, Tim Keim hasn't had to worry about whether he'd be accepted to a university since he was in the fourth grade. That's when his parents and teachers decided he was headed for a Gymnasium, one of the schools at the top rung of Germany's three-tiered secondary school system.

The system assesses students' capabilities during the course of grade school (Grundschule) and segregates them into one of three tracks beginning in fifth grade. Study at a Gymnasium was once reserved for an elite segment of the population. But as the country's economic strength has grown and more jobs require higher levels of education, a growing percentage of the population studies at a Gymnasium or Realschule. Realschule, the middle tier, can lead to university study or other white-collar tracks.

Like the vast majority of German teens, Tim doesn't have a job; he is expected to focus on his studies. He is unsure about which profession he will pursue. Most Gymnasium students usually postpone that decision until late adolescence.

About 30% of German students attend a Hauptschule, where they get vocational training in early adolescence and a job in their late teens. After 10th grade, most Realschule and Hauptschule students continue education at a Berufsschule, where they are introduced to the world of work. The federal and state governments, along with trade unions, work with the schools to organize vocational/ apprenticeship programs that train students for more than 400 trades and professions. The students are paid for their work during the last two to three years in the programs, and they must take rigorous exit exams to earn their program certificate, recognized by employers throughout Germany.

Germans have long been proud of this system, in place since the 19th century. It turned out some of the best craftsmen in the world, not to mention some of the top scientists and intellectuals of the 20th century. But as the German birthrate has slowed and the country imports increasing numbers of workers from Turkey, Yugoslavia and other countries -- more than 2 million Turks now live in Germany, for example -- the system has shown shortcomings.

Germans were aghast when a 2000 Program for International Student Assessment (PISA) study found that social and ethnic background influences student achievement in Germany to a greater extent than in any other country. Germany placed 21st out of 31 countries in reading skills. Twenty percent of teenagers, including many immigrants, were practically illiterate.

Gayle Sena Christensen of the Urban Institute's Education Policy Center spent last year in Berlin studying the immigrant student experience in Germany; 12.5% of people in Germany now are foreign-born, according to the Organization of Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD). Christensen says immigrant access to the top schools is completely inverse to that of the general population: About 50% of the immigrant children end up in a Hauptschule. Meanwhile, a non-immigrant student in Germany is more than four times more likely than an immigrant student to attend a Gymnasium rather than a Hauptschule.

Unlike Canada and Australia, which have some of the best language-acquisition programs for getting immigrant children up to speed, Germany has nothing of the sort, Christensen says. It also doesn't have special training for teachers, such as the U.S. English for Speakers of Other Languages (ESOL) program. "Whether immigrant or nonimmigrant, I think it's very problematic to make a decision about whether a child is college-prep material at the age of 9," Christensen says.

Germany's three-tier educational system works well for native Germans but appears to shortchange immigrants -- in a country where nearly 13% are foreign-born.

Support is building for education reform in the country, "but it's very difficult -- it's very political," she says. "All the people in power went through this system."

The system clearly works for some -- particularly native Germans like Tim who are steered into a Gymnasium. In addition to German, he speaks French and can answer a journalist's questions in fluent English.

His favorite subject? Art -- particularly drawing because he is so good at it. Is it true that Gymnasium students spend at least two hours a day on homework? "I can actually make my spot with about an hour of homework," he says. "I have some nice free time."