Inequality in Hamburg

By the age of 10, most German children are tracked into a college-prep or vocational program.  “A child from a privileged background is four times as likely to reach a Gymnasium, the main route to university, as one with similar grades from a working-class family,” reports The Economist. To reduce inequality, Hamburg is delaying tracking and eliminating school choice.

Propelled by the Greens, Hamburg’s government wants to extend primary school, where children of all abilities learn together, from four years to six. “Social distance is diminished when children learn longer together,” says Christa Goetsch, Hamburg’s (Green) education minister. The reform would end parents’ right to pick their high school, because pushy middle-class parents advance their children at the expense of others. Less controversially, Hamburg’s half-dozen types of high school are to be melded into two, Gymnasien and “neighbourhood schools,” both of which will offer the Abitur, the exam needed to enter university.

Middle-class parents “worry that children will be held back by schoolmates destined to be social and economic laggards and by teachers who cater to their weaknesses,” reports The Economist.

Via Education Gadfly.

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  1. I have a German friends and was shocked when I heard about this from him. I am not necessarily against tracking, but the German system is far too rigid and biased. Even if kids want to move between tracks and are willing to do the work to get there, they get locked into a certain track at such a young age that it’s impossible. Tracking can be a good thing for kids, but it needs to be, among other things, flexible and responsive.

  2. I cannot imagine how they get away with tracking children with good grades from working-class families to the vocational track. Don’t their parents complain? Perhaps instead of trashing their system, they should incorporate more accountability or transparency with regards to their tracking decision making process. If they needed to rationalize their tracking choices based purely on grades and testing then perhaps there would be less inequality.

  3. They probably do not track children with high intelligence to the lower class. If, in fact, “bright children” from working class families were just being kept out of the best school, then they wouldn’t have to extend the educational time in the heterogeneous classrooms–they could just change the policy to say that all kids with certain test scores get into the better school.

    The fact that they are extending the time in the heterogeneous classrooms suggests that it’s much more than a matter of access and much more likely to be ability.

  4. George Larson says:

    I am not an expert on Germany. I did live there for a couple years. I thought the reason German’s like their system was their vocational system educates and leads to good paying jobs.

    It did strike me as unjust, but it is their country.

    I also vaguely recall American progressives saying how much better Germnay’s education was than ours.

    None of this has ever been a secret.

  5. Hmmm, if Germany gets rid of tracking I guess we’ll only be left with Japanese companies to make decent automobiles.

  6. SuperSub, you do realize that most Japanese cars are made in the United States, don’t you? My Hondas were made in Ohio.

  7. But they were designed in Japan.

  8. George Larson says:

    I should add that the Arbitur had an oral component and passing high was sufficent to attend medical school. The Arbitur was considerably more than a high school diploma.

    I expect the parents concerned about their kids being held back by this attempt to reduce inequailty will hire tutors to make sure their kids make the cut. I believe that is what they do in Japan. So much for reducing inequality.

  9. tim-10-ber says:

    Remember the american government school system in place today got its start from germany…based upon a lie but this is where forced schooling came from…

    also in the US how many educators look at a kid and his family and write them off because their family never achieved or they come from a broken home vs looking at the child and saying I wonder how I can help? I wonder what talents are hidding in this child and how can I help them achieve to their highest potential? in many districts the weakest/least experienced teachers still go to the kids that need to the strongest teachers (not advocating by any means that the middle and high achievers get the weakest/least experienced teachers)…we need excellent and highly effective teachers in every classroom…

    nothing wrong with generations of craftsmen, plumbers, carpenters, electricians etc either but the kids do need to be able change tracks if they so chose

  10. “also in the US how many educators look at a kid and his family and write them off because their family never achieved or they come from a broken home vs looking at the child and saying I wonder how I can help?”

    Uh, none that I know. I’ve been fortunate to know many children who came from very troubled backgrounds but were driven to be high achievers, and I’m proud to say that my colleagues all work to help these children do just that.

  11. To mention the education woes of Hamburg without mentioning its immigrant population is to tell half a truth at best.

    The Turks in Germany are a large ethnic group. Though Germany doesn’t keep stats on ethnicity in its census, estimates are that 4 million people are of Turkish decent in Germany. Turks in Germany, that is, Turkish resident aliens, number more than 1.5 million, and are 1/4 of the foreign population. The demographics are interesting too:

    wikipedia says:
    54.2% of Turks in Germany are male and 45.8% are female. Of the population, 50.5% are between fourteen and twenty-nine years old, whereas among Germans the comparable rate is only 25%. In the Turkish population, 33.8% are between thirty-nine and forty-nine years old, while 32% of Germans are within this age group. Only 15.7% of Turks are age fifty and above, while this rate is 43% among Germans. So Turks in Germany still make up a younger population than do Germans.

    Hamburg, with a population of about 1.8 million has a population of over 300k foreign residents The Turks aren’t integrating or assimilating, and much like the rest of Europe, the young and newest Muslim immigrants are more radical than prior generations. The number of resident alien turks in hamburg is 50k–that’s people who aren’t citizen-immigrants, but just resident aliens. Another 22k resident aliens are from Afghanistan. has this quote:
    “Reiner Klingholz, director of the institute [that led the study], said language remained the key to education and successes.

    “For too long we’ve been used to the fact that we have primary school classes in which 80 percent of the children don’t understand German,” he said.”

    So perhaps to discuss tracking without discussing if anyone teaches the Turks German is a bit far afield.

  12. My father attended high school in Germany some 60 years ago. He was destined for the lower track. To change matters, he went to the United States at age 18, enrolled in college, ended up at an Ivy League school after a transfer, received his Master’s, and had a distinguished career. He’s grateful to the United States for the second chances it afforded him.

    Having spent a good deal of time in Germany, I’ve known a good number of young Turkish Germans who spoke fluent German and were doing splendidly. One should add, however, that Turks had few prospects of becoming German citizens when I was there–even if they had been born in Germany and spoke only German. Perhaps things have changed since then. Still, there was little incentive to assimilate when citizenship was such a distant possibility.

  13. The critics of the plan managed to collect 184,000 voter signatures in favor of a referendum on the issue. They only needed 62,000 to force a vote. A referendum needs only 249,000 votes to be binding on the government. As the referendum would take place in July, it’s very likely that the planned change could be legally overthrown weeks before the begin of the new school year. (,1518,662504,00.html) (the link’s in German, sorry, but the translated pages take up too much space)

    The proposal to create “neighborhood schools” with a pre-abitur curriculum would destroy the curricula in place at the Hauptschulen and Realschulen. This includes the apprentice systems which receive so much praise in the US.

    In order to understand the parental furor, you should also take into consideration that the German University system is public. There is a limit on the number of spots available for students, as the state covers tuition. In the past, the division of schooling early on managed to constrain the numbers of potential university students. When competing for spaces, the score one receives on the Abitur affects one’s standing through the Numerus Clausus. Unlike the US, then, not all high school students are permitted or encouraged to study at university.

    Add to that, the university system as a whole recognizes that different Bundeslaender (roughly, states or counties) provide different degrees of rigor in their school systems. The southern states are known to be more rigorous, so a Bavarian Abitur, for example, is worth more than an Abitur from a northern state, even if they have the same numerical score.

    Hamburg’s allowing all their students to follow the path to the Abitur does nothing to increase the number of seats available at German Universities for their students. It may even decrease their standing in the tables, if it is thought that the “value” of an Abitur from the Hamburg system has decreased.

  14. To continue…

    Placement into Gymnasium is a complicated process. It’s done by teacher recommendation. Parents can challenge the placement. A relative’s was at first not recommended for Gymnasium by her elementary school teachers. This happened in Bavaria, in the late ’90s, and NO girls were recommended for Gymnasium. Her mother challenged the placement, and the daughter was eventually permitted to go to Gymnasium. She first had to pass a written and oral test.

    So, at present, parents can challenge an incorrect placement. A German professor has estimated that ~1/3 of the school placements are incorrect. Some parents don’t want their children to go to Gymnasium, hard as that is for Americans to believe. We know a family who refused to send their son to Gymnasium, although the teachers recommended it.

    The Gymnasium curriculum is very hard, and proceeds at a fast pace. It is not suited to every student. The parents are correct. Whatever they’ll be teaching at the new high schools, it won’t be anything like the teaching and curriculum at the Gymnasiums outside of Hamburg. It’s like taking a local voc-tech school, giving the existing teachers Stuyvesant High School’s curriculum, and expecting them to do it well from the first day. Even if they had a tracked student body, it would take at least 3 years to adapt.

  15. Then, in the press, it has been reported that the Green Education Minister foresees integrating their special needs students into the neighborhood high schools. (

    The current German system divides at too young an age for Americans to accept. The trouble is, it works within that structure. Tracking allows the system to give their upper third a high school system which is much more rigorous than the American system.

    The proposed changes are analogous to NCLB’s goal of universal proficiency by 2012. I’m not surprised middle class parents are up in arms in Hamburg. If you read the original German reports on the issues, it’s very clear that the feeling is that “too many” middle class students are going to university. In the German system, it is possible for the government to decide to change the makeup of the university’s student body by fiat. That is a very scary prospect for middle class parents.

    In the end, I predict that such changes in the German system will lead to an influx of talented German students–into the American University System. Germany will drive away a good portion of its most talented students.


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