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Policy Insights

Early, but also Often

Early childhood education is essential, but PISA reminds us that secondary education must play a role in achieving equality
Copyright: Tatomm

by Daniela Vono de Vilhena

In 2001, a secondary education policy debate left German society rattled. In December of that year, the OECD published its first Programme for International Student Assessment report. PISA revealed Germany, the economic engine of Europe, to be lagging behind its OECD counterparts in both performance and equality among 15-year-olds.

For a country that takes pride in its fairness and intellectual history, the news was shocking. Ever since, “PISA-shock” has driven policy changes in Germany that have considerably improved secondary school outcomes. Where PISA didn’t cause a shift in thinking, the assessment seemed to legitimate it. Now, with enough time to digest the latest edition of the triennial publication, European governments like Germany need to see their secondary education systems for the agents of opportunity, or stratification, that they are.


Learning a lesson

According to PISA, in 2000 Germany had a particularly rigid early tracking system that was funnelling poorer students into effectively dead-end schools by age 10, cutting their future prospects short. Naturally, this was not the intention. The country’s well-regarded apprenticeship scheme had simply begun to attract students from college-prep Gymnasien, which left fewer opportunities for students of the semi-comprehensive Realschule, which left none for students of the least prestigious Hauptschule. The added competition meant that poorer students, who were already more likely to end up at the vocational Hauptschule, were even less likely to go anywhere else. The pattern was magnified for students with migrant backgrounds.

The result was the widest achievement gaps in the OECD. It wasn’t necessarily that Germany’s best and brightest weren’t good and bright. It was that the worst performers were so far behind. In 2000, socio-economic status accounted for 24% of the variation in academic performance among 15-year-olds.

Since then, Germany has become the star pupil. German policymakers at every level have enacted reforms that have made the country’s famous tracking system(s) more permeable (in one way or another), improved assessment, lengthened school days, and improved teacher quality. Targeted interventions have also benefited struggling schools. The result is that the share of performance variation between students explained by socio-economic status has dropped to 16%.

Germany still has plenty to work on, but these policy-driven improvements should not be overlooked.


Early, but also Often

Early childcare provision is increasingly being recognised as an effective tool for mitigating the disadvantages faced by poorer children in education. There is rightfully lots of optimism regarding the role of kindergarten and preschool in reducing social inequalities. The 2015 PISA report recognises that interventions to improve German language proficiency among the youngest children played a big role in the country’s improvement. In an era of acute and worsening social inequality, it is encouraging to find concrete measures that are so effective.

This is just the first stage of the life course, however. Even in a country with universal childcare like Sweden or Norway, parents will do what they can to give their children a leg up. For richer families, that often means private tutors, expensive private schools, or strategically choosing school districts for secondary school. For poorer families, the options might very well be limited to ensuring attendance. This  helps us to understand why students from higher social backgrounds are more likely to overcome low initial performance or sub-optimal school choices later in their academic careers.


Tracked into a corner

Formal tracking alone isn’t to blame. It can even be positive. In the US, where there is no tracking between public high schools, reformers have for years sought to improve vocational education—using Germany as a model. It’s the informal tracking based on anything but—as the OECD puts it—ability, will and effort that should concern us. Research has shown that it can take root in any institutional environment because individuals will always look for the best alternatives they can afford. It’s the job of policymakers to stay on top of it, whether at age 4 or 14. If the 2015 PISA report tells us anything, it’s that they can make a difference.


About the author:

Daniela Vono de Vilhena, Scientific Coordinator at the Population Europe Secretariat and Former Member/Senior Research Scientist at the European University Institute in Florence/Italy.