A small preface:

This post feels incomplete to me but it’s been sitting in my drafts pile for months. This post also feels more negative in places than I’d like; it’s maybe a bit ranty. I like including more links and pictures, but this post has very few of these.

I’m putting it out there anyway.

Note that there are several sections. If you get bored with or don’t like a portion, I’d encourage you to skip/skim ahead.

End of preface

Education is much of what makes us civilized. I’ve seen many comparisons between school systems across the world and I’ve been exposed to the systems in Germany and in the USA. Here are some of my experiences and the interesting (to me) differences.

This is part 1 of what was originally an even longer post. Part 1 talks about education of kids. Part 2 is about how I think the educational system effects the broader economy.

TLDR:

  • Measurement of school performance is standardized in Germany.
  • Measurement in Germany is test based, especially in university.
  • Apprenticeship programs are very important in Germany.
  • Germans kids interact with far fewer other kids; they stay within groups mostly in chunks of four years. This makes for more close-knit relationships.
  • The educational systems impact the cultures in some interesting ways.
  • German institutions use regulations and privacy protection as a catch-all excuse for everything. Possibly because of this, they are a lot less flexible.

Here’s what I want to share:

  • my own school experiences.
  • some comparisons of schools in the two countries
  • I don’t really have a conclusion. The countries are different. I’m mostly American. Many German readers would likely respond negatively to what I say here. That I don’t know what I’m talking about. They’d probably be right.

A big pile of Caveats

I live in Germany. My kids are in the German system. I have some criticisms, but those criticisms should be taken with a big hunk of salt. In particular:

  • I, myself, spent less than two years in the German system1. The rest was in American schools.
  • I have only been a parent of kids in the German system. I have no experience as a parent in the American system.
  • I’ve spent most of my life in the USA. I’m culturally American and since living here, I often feel out of place. On the other hand, I was born in Germany, I’m a citizen, I’ve spent about 12 years in Germany… but really, I’m American.
  • I’ve taught English to a handful of kids over the last three years. I get some insight from them.

Kindergartens in the two countries are quite different

German kindergartens:

  • Are called Kindertagesstätten in my community.
  • Have kids ranging in age from 3-7.
  • Are not part of the school system. There is some interaction with school but it’s limited to the bureaucracy of transitioning to 1st grade.
  • Are run by city government. Schools are county run.
  • Are basically cheap day care. The staff has to go through a Pedagogic apprenticeship. 2 Some of the folks working at our local kindergarten are fantastic. Some of them… don’t really seem to do much.
  • When we first moved here the cost of full day care could cost two or three hundred euros per month. Parents complained about the high cost. Two or three hundred a month… Compared to what Americans are used to, it’s basically free. The law has since changed in my state, and now it’s actually free.
  • Are not intended to teach anything most would associate with school. You won’t hear the ABC songs there. They focus on letting the kids continue to be kids. They say they’ve been asked by schools not to teach reading basics.

American kindergartens:

  • Are single age; basically the zero’th grade. Just another grade.
  • Are taught in schools by certified teachers, just like grades 1+. K-6 and K-8 are the most common schools.

American daycare/preschool:

  • is almost always private and is paid for by parents.3
  • Instruction varies depending on the specific one you’re in.
  • Can be just a parent that takes in some additional kids.
  • Are not subject to much regulation. Regulations that do exist apply mostly if you have more than four or five kids 4 in the group. I believe the regulations are limited to safety type stuff.

German “Tagesmutter5:

  • Are similar to the American mom taking care of a couple extra kids
  • are paid for and arranged by government with parent co-pay. I don’t know the out of pocket cost, but I bet Americans would say it’s small.
  • also don’t require special schooling.6

Here in Germany, academics begins in 1st grade. Before then, you’re just a kid. Americans get little childcare support before the age of 6 or 7.

German Kindergartens and schools are not accountable to parents

So this post would not be as interesting without the juicy bits, and a big part of writing this post is venting. This section will be more controversial. These are my own opinions about my experiences with one kindergarten in one town.

Parents and administrators dance a difficult dance. Parents are often obnoxious. Parents are often overprotective of their little snowflakes. Parents often act like they are the employer. Parents often have unrealistic expectations. Kindergartens and schools have their own needs and legal obligations that parents are often not aware of. Years ago, when I lived in Silicon Valley, I volunteered as an assistant scout master in Boy Scouts of America. The kids were great; the parents were annoying.

I’ve been a part of the German equivalent of the PTA for both the Kindergarten and now the school. It’s called Elternbeirat. Allow me to tell a couple stories from my own experience with the Kindergarten Lydia and Malcolm went to.

But he wasn’t actually hurt.

I once got a call from the Kindergarten. “Can you please come. Malcolm’s hurt”. Ok. The kindergarten is basically across the street. When I got there, Malcolm had a big red splotch on the top of his head. He’d been hit by a stick, was bleeding and it looked dramatic due to his blond hair. He seemed dazed but ok. The kindergarten had called an ambulance as was required in such situations and he and I took a ride to the ER. He was fine; it was just a small cut. The doctor/nurse applied a little glue and sent us home.

So the next morning, Robie and I went to the kindergarten asking to chat with our main contact person. The contact couldn’t talk that day, because she had to deal with lunch for the kids but would make an appointment. It took two weeks to meet with her. During the meeting she actually seemed a bit surprised that there was anything to talk about.

During this period, there was a boy that all of the parents knew of by name. He was a wild kid and often aggressive. This is the kid that had caused Malcolm’s injury. Robie and I had to ask ourselves if the kindergarten people were aware of this kid. Are our kids safe in this kindergarten?

The kindergarten was aware of the boy’s issues and indicated they were trying to help him, but they were surprised we’d ask. 7 After this conversation, the event came up a couple times and every time their story was the same. Malcolm wasn’t actually hurt but the law required them to call the ambulance. What is there to talk about?

Kindergartens care about their legal obligations. Parents are expected to drop off their kids, pick them up, and not ask questions about what happens in between.

Communication is not expected and actively discouraged

I was in the Elternbeirat/PTA for this kindergarten. During one of the meetings I asked could they rotate the person managing pick ups. This would make it possible to see our main contact person more than a couple times a year. Would be nice to ask how our kids are doing and if there are any issues. “Would be nice for you! (not for us) Our people are too busy!” I was kind of shocked by this response to what I thought was an easy request. I’m not looking for a long conversation, just a minute here or there. I was instructed to ask for an appointment. But how would I know there’s a reason to even ask? If there’s a problem, we’ll let you know. I said maybe I should just ask for a meeting every couple weeks8

In a later meeting, I brought it up again. I just want to know what’s going on with my kids. The head of the kindergarten plays politics; worse than anything I experience in my professional career and was good at surrounding herself with friends. One of the other parents in the Elternbeirat meeting asked me, “So because communication isn’t happening the way you want it to…”.

I was asking for access to an adult for one or two minutes maybe every two weeks.

Another parent advised me to just ask my kids. What? This is a kindergarten. Malcolm was 3. I was later told explicitly that interaction between parents and employees of the Kindergarten were to be limited to “hello” and nothing more.

Communication with the Kindergarten sucked. Most of the parents I know had the same frustrations. They chuckle and say, “well, what can you do?”. If our kindergarten comes up in circles of parents whose kids go to the other kindergarten, they give this knowing look. They mention the head of the Kingergarten by name. The city government people are also aware of the issues of this Kindergarten; they have issues of their own with that Kindergarten.

Nothing changes.

I can’t imagine Americans tolerating this. To my mind, this reflects really poorly on German culture. 9To allow things to continue like this… In the US, my kids would not have stayed there. The problem for me was that all of the local kids go to this kindergarten. Malcolm and Lydia needed friends in the neighborhood. So we tolerated it too. I will also say that three of the folks who’ve worked there, Kerstin, Markus, and Eike, are particularly awesome. Sadly, they suffer from horrible leadership.

I don’t speak Arabic

Here’s another incident I observed involving another parent. One morning, one of the moms tried to ask the Erzieherin/Kindergarten teacher a question. The response she got in a somewhat condescending tone was, “well, I don’t speak Arabic”. I had three thoughts on this:

  • The mom is from Pakistan and speaks Urdu, not Arabic. A minor point.
  • At that moment, the mom was not using Urdu; she had asked the question in English. Many of the families are not native Germans, learning a language is hard. Many learned English as young people in their home countries
  • This particular Erzieherin is American; she has dual citizenship. She grew up in our town and is 99% German but two of her grandparents were American soldiers who stayed here 10. She speaks English, but refuses to use it.

One of the other Erzieherins is Polish, as in: she grew up in Poland and moved here as an adult. A mom we know from the kindergarten is also from Poland. The Erzieherin insists on speaking German with her.

Just request an appointment

The party line at the kindergarten, with regard to communication, is if you want to ask about anything at all, just request an appointment. It took two weeks to discuss Malcolm’s urgent care visit. Another family asked for an appointment for some more routine stuff. It took six weeks.

I could go on. I’ve already fixated on this more than is interesting.

The dance between parents and kindergartens/schools is challenging. Parents can be difficult but I think should still have some input or at least visibility into what happens. Communication should happen more than once a year.

Lost in a foreign environment

This section gives some of my own experience as a kid in school. I think it may give context to the stuff I say later in this post. If you get bored reading this section, be sure to check out the stuff after.

My early years in school were challenging. My dad was an American ex Air-Force guy living in Germany and worked for the school system of the American dept of defense. Because of this, I got to go to kindergarten and part of first grade on Rhein Main Air Force Base. I spoke English,… sort of, but 99% of my environment was German speaking. I lived in a German community. I interacted with my mom and sister in German. My dad spoke English to me and I usually replied in German.11 I interacted with a bunch of my dad’s American friends.

In hindsight, I was lost in the English speaking school environment. Kindergarten was fine. My teacher Mrs Parker was very nice to me and I felt welcome. First grade was another matter. Like my son Malcolm, I was probably in my own world and often wasn’t paying attention, but I do remember a bunch of occasions where everyone in the class seemed to know what was going on but me. Everyone else seemed to have their work ready and knew what we were doing next. Me, while I spent a bunch of time thinking “huh?” I think a big part of it was that my English was weak. I remember my older sister trying to help me improve English because the school had said I needed it.

My heart goes out to immigrant kids. My heart went out to my daughter Lydia when she started first grade in German school.12

Some time in first grade, I was moved to the local German school, the Gerhardt Hauptman Schule 13 and I did much better… for a while. I understood what was going on. I wasn’t lost. I don’t remember learning to read; it just seemed like one day I could. A huge part of this was that my native language was German. Everything was fine… for a while.

Second grade in Germany was a disaster for me. My teacher, the same teacher as first grade, was totally unable to keep me under control. I have a memory of randomly getting up, running a circle around the classroom and sitting back down. During class.

One day, our class had some visitors. Two adults. I found out when I got home that they were there to observe me. The school wanted to move me to the school next door, the school for the Behinderten/handicapped, the short bus school. Leading to this, I regularly saw the school psychologist, Frau Turwächter 14. I saw her a couple times a week during school time. She was really nice and I got to do crafts and stuff. My mom held onto a wooden boat I made. I have it now.

I have another memory from that time. I remember sitting in the school office, probably after causing more trouble. I remember the way the principal looked at me. He looked at me with something that felt like hatred or contempt. I was seven. Did I correctly interpret his expression? I hope not. I hope that there are no school principals anywhere that respond to any kids like that.

A couple months into second grade and before I was moved to the other school, my dad took me to the US. I was kidnapped. Had I stayed in German schools, my life would have been very different.

Miles in American schools

My next step was Bufford elementary school in Lennox, California. I ended up in Ms Rhoda Hart’s class. She is an example of how a teacher can make a positive difference. She worked closely with my step-mom to get me on track. I had to learn to actually speak English 15. I had to learn to read and write English. By the time I got to the end of third grade, it was decided I should skip the fourth grade.

This turn around wasn’t entirely the doing of the schools. In Germany, I was a kid whose parents were divorcing, but I can’t speak to how much impact this really had. I continued to see my dad very frequently, but it was surely difficult for mom and my sister 16 to keep me in line. On the American side, there was my dad to “discipline” me 17 and my step-mom Silvia. Silvia spent a lot of energy on my schooling. I want to say she was kinda sadistic about it.18

So I want to get back to the American/German comparison, but there are a couple more details from my history that will be relevant. I hope you’ll indulge me a little longer.

Fifth grade was a normal year. I did fine to well. Sixth through eighth was at small private school where I did fine, but was not one of the “smart kids”. Part way through eighth I landed back in public school where I was again just another kid until I ended up hanging out in my ninth grade science teacher’s room during lunch. Mr Tomac. I remember complaining that the class was going sooo sloowwwwly. He talked to school counselor to get me into the honors class. The counselor then also changed all of my other classes.

After third grade, I wasn’t a “good student” until halfway through 9th grade. I’m not sure German schools would have been as flexible.

Even ghetto schools can be pretty awesome. A big thank you to my teachers

For high school, I went to Inglewood high school.19. I was supposed to go to Crenshaw high but I went to junior high in the Inglewood district and just stayed. American schools fail American kids in many ways but mixed in it are some really excellent teachers. I’d like to list the ones that impacted me:

  • Mr Tomac got the ball rolling to get me into the honors classes. He was available and welcoming to kids who wanted to hang out during lunch. I tracked him down five or ten years ago to thank him. He had disappeared after freshman year. Turns out there was a shooting across the street from where he lived and his son has just been born. I believe he ended up teaching in San Luis Obisbo.
  • Mr Dimitri was an excellent government teacher. My appreciation for politics started in his class. He also coached the cross country team, which I was a part of. Sadly, I heard he died a couple years after I graduated. He wasn’t that old.
  • Dr Vega. He coached the academic decathlon team. Great mentor. Sadly, he also died shortly after I left. His wife was the principal of one of the elementary schools. She offered me a job teaching when I visited after graduating college. A part of me wishes I’d taken her offer.
  • Ms OBryan and Ms London were excellent math teachers. Ms OBryan made it possible for me to learn a little bit of calculus in a year that it wasn’t really offered at IHS. 20
  • Mr Hester was a good American history teacher. I learned a lot.
  • My Krisloc was a good and fun World history teacher.
  • Social studies at IHS in general were excellent.
  • Mrs Ridgeway worked in the computer lab and treated me like a son.
  • Although the principal of the school, Mr Freeman, was a joke21, the assistant principal Dr Daniels really made up that. She was awesome. She clearly cared. She helped remind the students that excellence is possible.
  • Those are the names that standout in my memory. I generally liked the rest. I can think of three teachers that weren’t that good, out of the probably 20 teachers I had, that seems like a good ratio.

My 2nd and 3rd grade Ms Hart plus the named high school teachers I just mentioned are most of why I got to study at M.I.T. The MIT. The MIT you read about in the news. I graduated from MIT, had a successful career, and I basically retired at 45. All that was the direct result of the efforts of those teachers. My aspiration, once we move back to the USA is to try to follow their example. I’d like to teach math to high school kids.

Getting back to the point and a defense of German school

There are lots of things American and German schools have in common and I won’t say anything about the commonalities. Here are some differences that I have perceived.

Remember, I was a kid in American schools and a parent in one German school. I also want to defend German schools from my criticisms. My own experience in the German system was one of failure. The American system worked out much better for me. But no system is perfect and there will always be some students that are left behind. For most students, the German reality is probably the way to go. In both systems, the most important role is that of the parents. If I were king, I’d do a hybrid. My main issue with the German system is the pigeon holing at such an early age and inflexibility to make adjustment when a pigeon is in the wrong hole.

German schools:

The TLDR is: they are much more standardized, with smaller groups of kids.

  • Elementary schools, called Grundschulen, are first through fourth.
  • Which school you go to depends on your address and very few kids go to private school.
  • Everyone has the same teacher with the same group of kids all of those four years.
  • Parents have no input as to who that teacher is. If a kid has poor chemistry with the teacher, too bad.
  • Schools are run by the county and so mayors and city council have no influence.
  • Germany doesn’t seem to have “bad schools”.22
  • Grades/”Noten” begin in the third grade and already have some emphasis behind them.
  • Performance in Grundschule drives which school you go to next.
  • English is taught starting with third grade.23
  • The next school is one of three types.
    • Gymnasium is the good track 5-13 in one school. University bound kids go there
    • Real is the intermediate track 5-10. Also in one school. After 10th grade, kids can transfer to gymnasium if their grades are good.
    • Some schools combine the two on one campus.
    • In Gymnasium and combined schools, 5th and 6th are assessment years. They influence which group of kids you’re in and in the case of combined schools, whether you’re in gymnasium half.
    • In all schools, grades 5 and 6 are intact groups of kids for both years.
    • In all schools, grades 7-10 are intact groups of kids.
    • Grades 7-10 appear to be grouped by ability/performance. 24
    • There’s also Hauptschule, which I guess would be the lowest tier, but I believe they are a lot less common
  • After Real schule, many kids can go onto Gymnasium; the university track
  • Upon completion of Gymnasium, you get what’s called Abitur. Abitur can also be done in adult/night school. Either way it’s the gateway to University.
  • Grades 11-13 are only Gymnasium.
    • Sometime during the 11th grade, the kids select three focus topics for 12th and 13th. Like a college major. They still have core classes.
    • 11th grade is intact groups. With the exception of foreign languages, you take all your classes with the same kids.
  • Part of Abitur is to take a series of standardized tests given by the state you live in.
    • It could be compared to AP exams.
    • The exams are subject based, sort of like a college major: English, Math, German literature
    • Performance on these exams determines your final school grading.
  • Competitive sport is not a part of the German school system. If you want to play team sports, you have to join a club. The German club system is awesome:
    • not clubs like after school clubs on campus. more like the local karate dojo, or little league
    • Largely funded by the government. My kids did gymnastics at a cost of 6 or 7 Euros/month. I see that as basically free.
    • My kids’ gymnastics training was real; the progression to what you see on TV was apparent to me. Lydia went to four tournaments a year.
    • When you finish school, you can continue. A family friend has been in the same soccer club since he was a kid and now his kid is in the same club
    • German clubs are not just for sport. Music, beekeeping, historical societies…

American schools

  • elementary school is grades 1-6
  • each year is a different group of kids:
    • I began third grade with a different teacher. My dad and step-mom asked for me to be moved to Ms Hart’s class; my teacher the year before and the school obliged. That wouldn’t have happened in Germany. You get what you get and that’s what you get for all four years and they don’t make changes.
    • The first weeks of American school don’t really involve much teaching because so much is still changing.
    • Lydia’s 2nd-4th grades started running. The teacher already knew her and the other kids.
    • The German system is nice if the kid is compatible with the teacher. If the fit is not so good,… you can move to a different part of town.
  • junior high is 7 through 8th or 9th, depending on where you live. usually 7th and 8th
    • This is when you start going from class to class. Also you are not in an intact group of kids. All five or six periods of the day may be entirely different groups of kids.
  • high school is usually 9-12 and a separate school from junior high
    • my high school was 400-450 kids per grade. I think this is on the higher side. According to this, the California mean is 999 kids per school25 with a national mean of 752.
    • You classes are a mix of grades. When I was in the 9th grade, my math class had 12th graders. That can’t happen in German schools.26

The German school experience is a much smaller group of kids, even if the school is much larger than that.

German kids stay in smaller groups

I think the previous couple points imply something huge/profound: a German grade of 100-200 kids is isolated to basically only those kids. Even further, 1-4, 5/6 and 7-10 are intact groups of 25-30 kids. So even if the school has 2000 kids, each individual interacts only with those in their group. My English students27 report that their pool of friends is mostly from their group. In my experience in American high school, I could have been in a course with any of the other 2000 kids. More than that, I could have been exposed to anyone from 7 different years. When I’m in 9th, there are the 3 years ahead of me and when I was in 12th, there were 3 years behind. So potentially I was really exposed to pushing on 4000 kids. Germans grow up with a cumulative total of about 100 kids. Across their entire childhood.

On average, Germans live in the same place for much longer periods. I can make a list of many people I know who’ve lived in the same house/apartment for decades. In my Portland neighborhood, there are three families who have been around for 30+ years. I’ve owned our house since 2004. Everyone else moved there after me. Here are some Germans that come to mind:

  • I have two Aunts; sisters of my grandmother/Oma who’ve lived in the same rented apartment for 50 years
  • My friend Mishi spent that first 40 years of her life in the same rented apartment
  • My mom rented an apartment in the same building as Mishi for 35+ years
  • An acquaintance, Lucia still lives in that building. she’s a couple years younger than me.
  • In the next building over, Regina and Roger have been there since I was a kid
  • My cousin Harry has lived in two places his whole life. I’d bet the house he lives in has been in the family for over a hundred years.
  • Several of the parents of Lydia and Malcolm’s schoolmates went to the same school.
  • I went to a wedding where the bride lived in the house where her mom grew up.
  • Yes, these things also happen in the US but not nearly as much. I don’t really know that many Germans, but this list was really easy to make. Try making a similar list about the Americans you know.

This is why Germans are viewed as “unfriendly”

So you have a society where people grow up in one building. They go to school exposed to small groups that become very closely knit. The country itself is not that big. Google maps tells me it’d take 8 hours to drive from Hamburg in the north to Munich in the south. Even if you do move, it’s not very far.

Of course Germans are “unfriendly”. Why would they need to meet new people when they have an accumulation of lifelong friendships?28. I consider myself fortunate. I’ve know my friend Mishi since at least my early teen years.29. Robie, the kids and I have made a small handful of friends in the five years we’ve been here. Returning to Portland will be hard.

“Popular kids” is not a thing in German school

My high school was typical, I think. We had sports; basketball was the popular one. The members of the team were not the assholes you see in American movies, but they were definitely popular. We also had pretty girls though cheerleading wasn’t as important as you see in the movies 30. The pretty girls were generally nice 31 but they still has some social capital over others.

I want to stress a point again for American readers: German kids spend their school years in small groups from 1st grade through 13th. My daughter Lydia was with the same group of ~23 kids from the day she started through today. I think three kids left the class during those years and two or three joined. If you ask a German kid what grade they’re in, they’ll give you an answer like “3B”. The letter doesn’t say anything about performance32. In this case, it’s just the second group. Lydia plays with kids in her class, 4B. She knows some kids from 4A and 4C, but doesn’t really spend time with them. I can only think of two. Basically all of her friends are in 4B.

Kids going to gymnasium will have to get used to a new group of 30 peers and then again in 7th but that’s it until they’re almost adults.

I think that’s huge. How do you pick on kids you’ve known for such a long time? Anonymity is the killer. Look online. It makes me think of a good American friend of mine. He grew up in a small town. His whole grade was barely enough to fill a classroom. He observed that in such a small group you can’t afford to not get along or you have no friends. I imagine some of that applies here.

Smaller groups are just easier

The first week of Lydia’s second grade year was a little surprising to me: She got homework on the first day.

Why was this a surprise? It wasn’t a lot of homework and she’d gotten homework on most days of the first grade. Why the surprise all of a sudden? I was surprised that her class lacked the chaos of the first days. My  experience in every year of second through twelfth grade was: the teachers are busy getting used to the new students. The teachers were still trying to figure out how many books they’d need. Kids were still being moved around to balance classes. It took a week or two for any teaching to begin.

Every. Single. Year.

Lydia had the same teacher and the same peers. The first day of second grade was hardly different from the last day of first. It made me think and wonder, “why do American schools move everyone around?” Laziness would dictate keeping the groups together. As a teacher, as an administrator, why look for extra work? Is shuffling kids around such a  rewarding part of the job that they’re compelled to do it every year?

I’ve really become fixated on the concept of intact groups of kids over several years.

Persistent groupings of kids increases parental engagement

As I write this, Lydia is in the last week of fourth grade and it struck me this week that the parents of both Lydia’s and Malcolm’s classes are really engaged. Here are some of the ways:

  • There are WhatsApp groups for the parents of Malcolm and Lydia’s classes/groups in the school. Each group is only missing one, maybe two parents.
  • The parents of Lydia’s class organized a camping trip for the class.33
  • The parents of both Malcolm and Lydias classes organized end of the year picnics. Lydia’s class had some sort of BBQ/picnic every year except maybe during Corona time.
  • Most of the other 12 classes in the school have similar WhatsApp groups.34
  • If a kid is sick, the parent sends a message to the group, asking another kid to let the teacher know.
  • If a kid forgets their homework, a scan can be gotten within an hour.35

In the US, where there’s a new group of parents every year, it’s probably too much hassle.

German schools seem to be heavily “tracked”

Many Americans worry about whether it’s a good idea to group kids by ability levels. Should we mix the smart kids with the others? Is it a hit to self-confidence? Is it fair to the kids who get less support at home. Should we “punish” smart kids by dragging down their classes with the kids that don’t care? Germans don’t seem to care about any of that.

Kids with better focus and discipline go to gymnasium. In grades 7+, the kids are divided further by which group they’re in.

I wonder how I would have fared? I’ve had a successful school career, but that wasn’t always true. Would I have gotten stuck? I think tracking is good, but things have to remain flexible. Kids mature, some may grow into or out of a performance grouping. I don’t have much evidence, but it’s my perception that German schools are places to get stuck.

Is the school an important factor in where you live?

Once up a time, my ex was a Realtor 36 and she helped a friend/coworker of mine find a house. My friend Balaji was from India. He and is wife had one main criteria for a house: the school their son would go to. Of course, it had to be about the right size. Unless you’re Bill Gates or Elon Musk, price is always an issue when buying a house. But for Balaji, school was criteria 1, 2, 3, and maybe 4. It seemed a bit excessive.

I have some friends, also in the US who bought a house 5 or 6 blocks from where they were already living. It was a little bigger, but that wasn’t the main reason why they moved. They wanted a different high school. It also cost over $100k more. I thought that was insane.

But it’s not unusual in the US. Lot’s of people factor schools into the decision of where to live. I’m not aware of anyone here in Germany that moved to get their kid into a different school. 37

While I may have painted a negative picture of school accountability, the system does work. Nowhere in Germany will you find a truly bad school; at least not to the standard of bad schools that has been set in areas of the US. Some schools have more immigrant 38 but those schools are fine too. Many Americans, especially conservatives, push for school vouchers; they want to take the money that would have been spent at the local school and apply it to a school of their choice. In the past, I was mostly against that myself; the parents that could be part of the solution (via involvement) shouldn’t disconnect themselves from the system. Today, I’m leaning in favor of vouchers and the reason is, “schools have to want to be better”. It’s frustrating when the school is set in it’s way.

How about a website?

During my time as a member of our local school’s PTA/Elternbeirat, it was noticed that the school didn’t have website, and the chairwoman of the group wanted to change that. I was volunteered to help with technical support and I got to work. I spent an afternoon looking at the websites of other schools in the district and made some recommendations. We setup a meeting between me, the principal, and two moms brainstorming on what the website should contain, basic structure. Great. We met three or four months later with some updates. The two moms, one in particular, had made good progress on the mock-up/skeleton I’d put together. Things were rolling! Then someone asked when we’d meet next. The principal suggested we wait til after summer break to set the next update meeting.

What? Really? We’re so close to done. Can’t we just knock it out in time for the next school year?

Nope. Two years later, the website was finally given the green light to “release”. The website had been there the whole time, we just weren’t telling people about it. What was the holdup? Well, the principal wasn’t really that interested. To this day, the school has done nothing with the site. 39 Think of all the ways that the site could have been used and the ways that other local schools did use theirs:

  • Corona related updates. Which group of kids has on site school 40
  • Other schools distributed home schooling materials. Our school used a variety of emails, links to whatever website…
  • Information about on-site corona testing
  • Information for new parents of kids entering first grade
  • Calendar containing the vacation days of the school. In addition to the normal national days, there are some extras that depend on the school. Visits of kids from the local kindergartens is a good example.
  • should I continue?

Why haven’t we been using the website? Data-protection is the answer usually given. We don’t want strangers to know.

Our school’s response to Corona

Beyond the website, it took forever to start online schooling. Zoom, Teams, Skype, or whatever. Data-protection. German and the EU are much bigger on data protection than the US, but other schools in the area had managed to do it. My English lessons moved to Zoom and my students all had online school by the end of last school year 41. Even when Lydia’s class had their first online session, it was clear that the teacher didn’t really intend on doing anything with it. They just played with changing backgrounds and emojis. 42

It was kinda frustrating. The school has it’s way of teaching; a way that worked 50 years ago. A way that didn’t work during Corona. Why should we change anything? We didn’t need a website then. Sometimes, I had to think to myself, “these people are still getting paid right? They still have 30-40 hours/week available to do something, right?”. Most parents with jobs 43 replaced the work normally done by teachers while the teachers seems largely absent. Some teachers were awesome. I heard reports that one Frau Webber 44 really stepped up. She found ways to stay connected to her students. She used video calling to administer tests, even though video wasn’t “approved”. In the last weeks of the school year, after corona measures had lightened, she took the class to the swimming pool.

The other teachers just seemed do nothing while waiting for corona to pass.

Random fact: German schools use public transportation for field trips

German public transportation is pretty good; better than the American system of most cities. 45A lot of people like to criticize the American public transit system but my opinion is that the American systems are actually not that bad and there are a bunch of ways that the German system could be improved. [\footnote] One important difference is that American Kindergartens and schools use it and as a result go on several field trips per year. I can’t imagine American parents allowing this.

This is a random group of Kindergarten kids going on a trip. Probably 15 or 20 kids with one or two kindergarten employees and some parents helping out. Notice how little the kids are.
This is one of Lydia’s class’s field trips waiting for a subway connection. This time we went to the zoo. It was 25 kids, the teacher and a bunch of parents.

This is the only way American kids go on trips.

Do I have a conclusion?

No, I don’t really have point. As a parent, I’ve felt frustrated and perhaps this is why I’m negative on some or many of my experiences here. I do think it’s interesting to see the differences. I think there’s a lot to be learned.

I’ll close with one last non-conclusion that happens in both countries.

When I look at my daughter Lydia’s grade school tests, it seems she’s graded on the following three metrics:

  • Is she able to work the problems
  • Is she able to do them quickly
  • Is she able to do them the way the teacher wants.

Lydia struggles with daydreaming, she’s distracted easily, she often works slowly…. But she can do the work. Her teacher often doesn’t seem to care about that part. When I look at the test results, the main question I ask myself is, “do I care whether she got this question wrong?”. I also try to coach her on how to get information from the test. The grade doesn’t matter. What matters it what the test tells you about your weaknesses. It’s a good lesson to learn because it will help her with other teachers.

In the end, life is not a series of tests/grades, so don’t take tests and grades too seriously.

I guess that’s all I have to say. If you made it this far, Thank you.

please leave comments.

My experiences with the German and American educational systems

  1. first grade and the beginning of second

  2. I think it’s about two years, but I don’t know that for sure

  3. Many parents, especially moms, have to consider whether this makes it worthwhile working at all.

  4. beyond your own kids

  5. translates to “day mother”

  6. The ones I’ve met do a good to great job.

  7. This kid came up in one or two of the Elternbeirat/PTA meetings. To this day, I’m appalled at the attitude of the head of the Kindergarten towards this boy and his parents; the mom in particular. The head basically blamed the mom for the behavior problems, that the mom’s South American ways were the issue.

  8. the standard is once a year. Imagine only getting updates once a year. They did try to appease us. After this Robie and I were given monthly appointments. It worked out for us, but 1) I shouldn’t have had to fight for it, 2)what about the other parents and 3)it’s easier/better to deal with issues are they came up. One condition of these extra meeting is we shouldn’t tell the other parents about this special treatment.

  9. I could do a whole post on this difference. American culture promotes questioning the status quo. German culture values conformity.

  10. Germany has lots and lots of American service people who stuck around. My dad was here for 10 years. My sister Jovan’s dad has been here for 40+ years.

  11. I’m happy to report that my daughter Lydia and I interact like this now.

  12. Today, her German is clearly better than mine.

  13. remember that I was born in Germany and lived here til I was almost eight

  14. When I mention someone by name, it means I think they are/were pretty cool and should be complimented.

  15. My American aunt has a funny imitation of my heavy accent

  16. my sister Daniela was a teen and had her own life, but she looked after me

  17. I really need to do a post on this topic

  18. For the summer between 3rd and 5th, Ms Hart loaned us the books that I would have had in third grade. Silvia made me do every exercise of every book. All of them. I had a daily schedule and I was held to it.

  19. I believe the opening scene of the movie Pulp Fiction is set in Inglewood. One of my favorite movies ever

  20. Even with this, the math that I’d learned lasted a lecture and a half in my first math class at MIT

  21. I think it reflects negatively on the parents, including my dad, that he lasted more than a year. Mr Freeman made regular appearances on the school intercom berating and undermining teachers. The teachers picketed to get rid of him. He was principal for at least 6 or 8 years

  22. at least note to the extent that the US does

  23. While Germans are way ahead of the US with regard to languages, they lag behind Scandinavian countries. But folks in those countries speak really good English, so it’s not really a fair comparison

  24. just like the “honors” track in American schools

  25. so 250 per class

  26. also not necessary if everyone is tracked/

  27. I teach them English in a private program; they are still Germans

  28. I experienced something similar in Israel, though there things are simpler if you’re an immigrating Jew. I’m not Jewish but I had an easier time there, but that probably has more to do with their directness, which I really liked. Germans don’t respond as well to saying it the way you see it.

  29. I have a memory of her from age 5 or 6 and she has pictures from that time.

  30. because our football team sucked? Our school, a mostly black school, won only three games the four years I was there. Against mostly white schools! Not farmer white schools, but urban preppie white schools. How did that happen?

  31. though one was particular bitchy 😉

  32. in Grundschule anyway. In grades 7+, it may indicate performance tracks, but I don’t know that for sure.

  33. Robie did much of the work needed to make that happen. Yay!

  34. In Germany, WhatsApp is the most common way I’ve seen people communicate. I know exactly one adult who doesn’t use it. Everyone else uses it regularly. When we moved here, I didn’t know any Americans using it.

  35. The teacher actually discourages this. The kids need to learn to take responsibility. I agree with her, but both of our kids have still taken advantage of this system.

  36. same as Immobilien Maklerin

  37. well, someone once told me that they knew of someone that moved because their kid had been assigned to an undesirable first grade teacher. I can’t confirm whether that’s actually true/

  38. German racism is targeted at people from Turkey and Arabic countries

  39. I recently ran into the principal and the website came up. She tells me the new vice-principal wants to take ownership of the website.

  40. the kids were divided into two or three groups and alternated.

  41. still later than American schools, but then again, German schools managed to meet in person last year as well. My American nephews didn’t go back to school til late fall

  42. to her credit, Lydia’s teacher did record some pretty well done instructional clips. It just wasn’t nearly enough.

  43. ie, not lazyasses like me and Robie.

  44. Malcolm ended up in her class. Yay!

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Miles's thoughts