October 3, 2022

Education: Competing Against the World


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

Cynthia Barnett | 8/1/2006

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.

Tags: North Central, Education

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