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“Social background only decisive after elementary school”

The new PISA study that has just been released reveals that pupils in Germany perform above average in an international comparison. However, results also show that especially in Germany, educational success is more dependent on social status than in other countries. “There is empirical evidence that is rarely perceived in connection with this topic: The performance gap depending on origin is only really widening after elementary school”, says Prof. Dr. Krassimir Stojanov, Chair of Philosophy of Education and Educational Theory at the KU.

Prof. Dr. Krassimir Stojanov (Photo: Schulte Strathaus/Press Office)

Stojanov explains why this is a striking fact: A common explanation for the differences is that especially children with poor command of German are less successful in school. “In accordance with this theory, performance differences would have to be more evident in elementary school already. However, the gap is only really widening after children have finished elementary school and when starting secondary school. This is when social origin gets more and more important”. Stojanov is a member of a group of experts at the Federal Ministry of Education and Research that is currently developing a funding program for research projects in the field of educational justice.

The researcher believes that differences in educational success are often connected to the tripartite school system in Germany with three different types of secondary school: Haupt- or Mittelschule, Realschule and Gymnasium. “Empiric research has shown that especially at Gymnasien (academic secondary schools qualifying for university), it is of crucial importance that the children receive comprehensive support by their parents. Furthermore, the recommendations as to which secondary school children should go to after elementary school are strongly influenced by origin and not only by educational performance.”, says Stojanov. The reason for this is apparently not based on certain prejudices, but rather on the common assumption that children who perform well in elementary school will not be successful in secondary school if it can possibly be expected that they will receive little parental support. “In this context, educational researchers have meanwhile even developed a new word to refer to this phenomenon: ‘parentocracy’. The term implies that the role of the parents in a child’s school career is becoming more important in many ways.”

While children in Scandinavian countries or Canada receive more comprehensive support in the all-day school systems, such systems alone would not be helpful if they did not work with a competent educational concept. “We repeatedly witness that parents merely ‘park’ their children in all-day schools in order to be more flexible in the afternoon – but that misses the point.”

The most recent PISA study found that in Germany, one in five have difficulties in coping even with basic reading comprehension requirements. Stojanov believes that making an increasing proportion of migrant backgrounds responsible for the children's struggles would be too easy an argument. “Statistically, it is important to mention that while the percentage of children with a migrant background is increasing, it is still not higher than for example in Canada. There, school children with a migrant background often even achieve better results than children without a migrant background. The children are not the problem – the educational system is. Especially within the educational sector, there seems to be a tendency to blame external circumstances for own deficits.”

The German school system is still very much organized in a way to be prepared for dealing with homogeneous classes, whereas heterogeneity is rather perceived as a problem. In order to cope with the challenges of heterogeneity, Stojanov says, the system would require more staff and a training that prepares teachers for working with heterogeneous groups.

However, the researcher does not support the fundamental criticism of the PISA study concept: “While it might be legitimate to discuss detailed methodological questions, the PISA study as a whole seeks to disconnect from national curricula and focus on basic competence levels instead that are defined independently of school programs.” The study works with fundamental concepts of educational theory, e.g. regarding reading skills or the construction of meaning. It takes a similar approach for mathematical and scientific skills.”