Reflections on a Week in German Schools

Late on Friday evening, weary Roundtable participants gathered to discuss what they had seen and heard and to make sense of the week. In a vigorous two-hour discussion we wrestled a lot of challenges to the ground.

Thanking Aidan Bartley. The first order of business was to thank our indefatigable guide Aidan Bartley for his contributions to the Roundtable in 2012 and 2019. Aidan, a gifted musician, has led the Roundtable through Finland, France, England, Germany, and the Czech Republic with great good humor, in-depth historical knowledge, and scarcely a hitch. He got a rousing ovation from the assembled members, along with a special plaque thanking him for his contributions. He also made off with the last bag of “swag” from the Roundtable, including a used clock.

Aidan Bartley (l) receives plaque from James Harvey on behalf of Roundtable

Then it was on to discussing the events of the week. There was a lot to sort through. We had visited three different schools in two different states (Saxony and Bavaria.). We had visited VET schools specializing in construction trades and media and a gymnasium serving high-achieving students. And we had received extensive briefings on apprenticeship development from large firms (Siemens in Berlin) and the Bavarian Chamber of Commerce and Industry, which offers apprenticeship programs open to all 350,000 small- and medium-sized companies in the state.

Beyond these experiences we had a lot of information to chew over. What to make of the fact that about two percent of American secondary school students attend vocational schools, compared to 50% of German students graduating from VET programs? Can we make use of Siemens’ concept of “handlungskompetenz”—the ability to transfer what you’ve learned from one system to another?

The tracking of students at the end of 10th grade troubled a lot of our members, despite what we were told is a lot of flexibility tin the system. The committed involvement of the business community and it’s willingness to pay significant amounts to apprentices impressed all. The emphasis on individual development and passing on the attributes of “decent” and principled business leaders resonated well with many. This latter point was underscored by the quote from Israeli psychiatrist Haim Ginott, the death camp survivor. Ginott had witnessed appalling atrocities by well educated engineers, physicians, nurses, and school and college graduates. He urged educators to focus on making their students more human.

James Harvey leads debriefing and asks members to identify three big lessons from the week-long experience in Germany

Against that backdrop, we focused on a vision of schooling in the United States, coupled with several conclusions about what aspects of the German system might apply in the United States and how we might move forward to encourage stronger CTE programs and partnerships with the business community.

A Vision. We concluded that three principles could stand as goals for American education as we move forward:

  • Modify the role of teachers and increase respect for teachers.
  • Change the culture of Career and Technical Education (CTE) so that it becomes a desirable goal in itself.
  • Encourage the business community to organize itself in different ways around schools.

With respect to each of these points, it does seem that respect for teachers among parents is higher than it is among many leaders of the conventional wisdom. That certainly seems true if the most recent PDK Poll of Public Perceptions of Public Schools is any guide. The troubling aspect of the latest PDK poll is that although the public respects teachers, parents report they do not want to encourage their children to enter the profession. The well-being of our schools and our society requires reversing that trend.

There seems also to be some recent evidence that new entrants into CTE programs are markedly different from traditional vocational education students. They are interested in careers in engineering and medicine, not manufacturing or agriculture; they have higher GPAs and test scores; their parents are more likely to be college graduates; and they themselves are more likely to both like school and plan on attending college.

Finally, no analog exists in the United States to the German legal framework undergirding the VET program and the commitment of corporations to apprenticeships. The German legal structure does more than merely encourage corporate collaboration with schools, it practically requires it. If we are to encourage collaboration it might better be done through local organizations such as the Lions or Rotary.

Conclusions.  Within that vision we thought three “big things” needed to be accomplished:

  • Develop partnerships with local businesses to do high-quality internships. That might happen in the last quarter of the senior year, but we also need to find ways for sophomores and juniors to gain a real concept of how to approach different careers.
  • Focus on developing more practice in the classroom so that every class in every subject (at least in middle and secondary schools) offers an opportunity to apply the theory students are learning.
  • Get serious about the individual development of students so as to help young people maximize their potential, improve their social skills, and develop, in Ginott’s terms as human beings committed to democratic institutions.

With regard to these conclusions, we felt strongly that a distinct American approach to local businesses is required, that there is no reason not to include practice in American classrooms, and that issues of individual development need to be approached in a culturally sensitive manner.

Harvey summarizes discussion

Commentary. The implications of the vision and our conclusions for school leaders were fairly clear. They need to take leadership to re-mobilize the business community, itself perhaps disillusioned by the lack of progress on standards-based reform. School board governance needs attention so that board members worry less about lunch menus and more about interacting with the business community and local community agencies.

Everyone involved in the school enterprise, it was noted, needs to be prepared to give something up. Win-win solutions on behalf of students cannot be developed if each of the stakeholders won’t budge from traditional postures and inherited positions.

Alongside the conviction that U.S. chambers do not have the capacity to do what the chambers in Germany do was a very strong sense that we are doing some things right. We should not throw the baby out with the bathwater. High tech skills centers, vocational offerings in regional agencies such as New York’s BOCES, and partnerships with community colleges are all promising avenues to explore and expand. With 40% of recent college graduates under-employed and many struggling with high levels of student debt, it is not acceptable that just two percent of American high school students are in vocational education. Our national discussion encouraging everyone to aim for a four-year college has gone badly off track. In turning the ocean liner of American public education around, the first step should be to strengthen what is already in place.

Community colleges are key partners in all of this. We need to break down the silos between K-12 and community colleges.

Perhaps the best summary of all of these issues can be found in quotes from John Gardner, former Secretary of the U.S. Department of Health, Education, and Welfare and founder of Common Cause. In his book “On Leadership,” Gardner said that “Excellence consists of doing ordinary things extremely well.” And he added

“The society which scorns excellence in plumbing as a humble activity and tolerates shoddiness in philosophy because it is an exalted activity will have neither good plumbing nor good philosophy: neither its pipes nor its theories will hold water.”

As a matter of fact, the pipes in older American cities are losing large amounts of water and the theory that everyone should go to a four-year college is rapidly following suit. It is time policymakers paid attention.

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