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Teaching in Germany (symbolic image): Almost one in three does not reach the minimum standards in mathematical comprehension and arithmetic after the ninth grade

Photo: Martin Möller / Funke Foto Services / IMAGO

"The shock is deep-seated." This is how the statement of the Federal Parents' Council and the Federal Students' Conference on the "Pisa Shock 2.0" that hit Germany on Tuesday morning begins. The horror is at least as great as it was about 20 years ago, when the OECD, the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development, first made German schools aware of their mediocrity.

The statements refer to the current Pisa findings, according to which the school performance of ninth graders in Germany has plummeted massively in recent years. According to the report, 15-year-olds' skills in maths, science and reading comprehension are worse than at any time since Pisa data began in 2000. Almost one in three does not meet the minimum standards in mathematical comprehension and arithmetic after the ninth grade – with foreseeable consequences for everyday life and the labour market.

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And when it comes to educational equity, i.e. the promotion of particularly weak – and particularly good – pupils, Germany continues to lag behind in international comparison: performance here depends more than in most other OECD countries on the level of education and the parents' wallets, and newly immigrated children are not sufficiently integrated and supported. The Pisa researchers call the findings "alarming" for this group.

»More than schools and daycare centres«

The study shows "that learners and their future are not taken seriously," says Florian Fabricius, Secretary General of the Federal Students' Conference. And Dirk Heyartz, chairman of the Federal Parents' Council, makes massive accusations against the federal states responsible for school policy: "In the 21st century, learners are dependent on mathematics and science, but our schools hardly teach them." The German system is far from educational justice – and thus gambles away knowledge resources in the competition for the best minds. Germany now needs a turnaround in education, demand parent and student representatives.

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"As long as politicians and school administrators refuse to take necessary steps that are obvious to the experts, we will continue to head for the abyss," says Matthias Wagner-Uhl, chairman of the Association for Community Schools in Baden-Württemberg: "Large parts of politics have still not understood that education policy is much more than schools and daycare centers. It is economic policy, labour market policy, social policy, social policy, security policy, environmental policy and much more.«

A wake-up call that is likely to fall on open ears, at least in some ministries. "We have to invest more in education," says Karin Prien, CDU education minister in Schleswig-Holstein: "We have to prioritize education in the budgets of the federal and state governments – across all age groups." For decades, Germany has become entangled in ideological debates about the school system, is late to digitalisation and, despite the second-highest teacher salaries in the OECD, does not manage to get enough qualified staff into its schools. Their stance, according to Prien, is clear: "Social is what creates educational justice." A "social education state" must now stand as an ideal above all political debates.

»Neither social workers nor travel agents«

Hamburg's Senator for Education, Ties Rabe (SPD), was mostly calm on Tuesday. "The results were to be expected," said the Republic's longest-serving education minister. Now the causes must finally be clearly named in the public discussion. From Rabe's point of view, these are "the long period of school closures and teaching restrictions during the corona pandemic" and "the number of children from educationally disadvantaged homes", which has increased "considerably". Since 2012, the proportion of children with non-German roots has risen from 25.8 percent to 38.7 percent. Rabe called for a stronger focus on learning basic skills such as reading, writing, listening and mathematics.

On Tuesday afternoon, half an hour after the end of the Pisa press conference in Berlin, the Thuringian Ministry of Education set its own thematic focus. It sent out a press release with the title "Erfurt tram advertises for teachers". In this way, one of the "most attractive and eye-catching advertising media" is being used to attract teachers to Thuringia. Education Minister Helmut Holter (Die Linke) is quoted as saying that the railway is "an eye-catcher": "Combating the shortage of teachers has top priority."

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The teachers' representatives reacted much more predictably to the Pisa disaster. "It is important for politicians to make subject teaching a priority again," said Susanne Lin-Klitzing, chairwoman of the German Philologists' Association. Teachers urgently need to be relieved of non-teaching tasks: they are "neither administrative assistants, social workers nor travel agents. They are experts in teaching their subjects." Because specialist knowledge is the most important factor, this role of teachers must be strengthened, "instead of pushing them further and further to the margins in favor of changing social repair tasks."

School policy trench warfare reloaded

Karin Broszat of the Association of Secondary School Teachers also sees the causes of the Pisa crash in a wrong course set by previous school policy. "Anyone who has strayed so far from meaningful differentiation and the idea of achievement in education should not be surprised by the consequences," says the Baden-Württemberg state chairwoman of secondary school teachers. More performance-based differentiation – i.e. not joint learning, but a highly structured school system – would benefit children from socially disadvantaged backgrounds in particular.

The Association of Education and Training, on the other hand, borrows from former Federal President Herzog. "There has to be a Pisa jolt through Germany," demands VBE boss Gerhard Braun, explicitly referring to the shortage of teachers as a decisive cause of the diagnosed drop in performance. This is where politicians need to start, as well as with digitalisation and staffing schools with multi-professional teams.

A demand that is also supported by the Education and Science Union. More staff is now urgently needed – but not only: For years, Germany has had "both a performance problem and a blatant justice problem," says Anja Bensinger-Stolze, GEW board member for schools. Among other things, she spoke out in favour of a continuous promotion of basic skills, which does not stop after primary school or in front of the school gate. She demanded that social hurdles in the school system be dismantled: "The Standing Conference of the Ministers of Education and Cultural Affairs has focused too much on the topic of 'quality development and standardisation' and far too little on other fields of action such as the promotion of language and reading," said the GEW woman.