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History & Background

The Federal Republic of Germany, with its population of 80.8 million, lies at the heart of the European Union. It shares borders with nine neighboring countries and is a key member of the European Union. It is a densely populated country, with 230 residents per square kilometer, as compared to only 26 per square kilometer in the United States. Its 143,000 square miles (357,000 square kilometers) measure only 370 miles (640 kilometers) from west to east and about 500 (or 876 kilometers) from north to south. Because the country lacks natural resources, its highly educated workforce constitutes Germany's most important economic asset; thus, education and vocational training enjoy high prestige and financial and administrative support.

Germany's 780,000 teachers in 52,400 schools educate more than 12 million pupils. Over the past decade, the educational institutions of the Federal Republic of Germany have confronted the challenge of increasing numbers of immigrant children. The country's labor force is made up of 12 percent foreigners, and half of them are from Turkey. Approximately 7.4 million non-Germans live within the country's borders, and most of them in the West. In the 1990s the country experienced an influx of immigrants from the former Soviet Republics, many of them ethnic Germans, although not necessarily proficient in the German language. Because of Germany's citizenship laws, descendants of ethnic Germans may become citizens with relative ease, while those from non-German backgrounds may not, despite generations of residency in the country. As a result, these people, many of them Turks, often retain their own language and culture rather than seeking to assimilate; their presence has obliged schools to confront ethnic and religious diversity. In some urban schools in the West, the proportion of immigrant pupils may be as high as 70 percent.

German public education officially began in 1763, when Frederick the Great of Prussia mandated regular school attendance from the ages of 5 through 13 or 14. The denominational or confessional school remained the norm throughout Prussia (which encompassed the Rhineland and most of modern Germany) during the nineteenth century. Teachers often worked as sextons or church organists, and clergymen served as school inspectors. Catholic and Protestant (Lutheran) areas of Germany were geographically separate, facilitating religious oversight of local schools. In Prussia, efforts to establish schools in which Catholic, Protestant, and Jewish children could receive a common instruction, separated only for classes in religion, failed, despite several serious efforts at reform. In the cities, free, public schools educated children of the working class, while public schools, which charged some fees, attracted children of middle class families and offered a more rigorous curriculum. Women, in low numbers, entered the teaching profession in the late 1800s.

After the Napoleonic era, the responsibilities of the Gymnasium (a secondary school preparing boys for university admission) was expanded to include the preparation of civil servants, a task later assumed by the intermediate secondary schools. By 1900 the Gymnasium had developed three basic models providing for a specialization in the classical languages, modern languages, or mathematics and science. Girls were not admitted to the Gymnasium until 1908 and not admitted to Prussian universities until 1910.

In 1920 Germany introduced the four-year unified public elementary school that provided the same instruction to all children. School attendance until age 18 became compulsory. Another significant change was the requirement that even teachers in the elementary school must have passed the Abitur, the qualifying test for university admission. The basic types of schools in Germany before 1945 were the Volksschule (the four-year common elementary school), Mittelschule (the six-year middle school) which followed it, and the academically rigorous Gymnasium. While non-denominational schools prevailed in Bremen, Hamburg, Baden, Hesse, Saxony, and Thuringia, more than 90 percent of Prussian children attended a denominational school throughout the 1930s. The teaching of history and religion in Prussia aimed to fortify citizens' resistance to the doctrines of the Communists and Social Democrats.

Hitler's National Socialists abolished church-run primary schools. The post World War II influx of 12 million refugees, many of them expelled from German territories assigned to Poland, mixed religious boundaries and further weakened the churches' role in education. In the 1960s West Germany began to phase out small rural schools in favor of larger regional schools where children could be grouped according to age level. This movement effectively ended denominational distinctions in public schooling.

From the renaissance through the nineteenth century, religion played a role in higher education as well. Monasteries became centers of scholarship and learning. Early universities prepared men for the ministry or priesthood. Heidelberg, the first university on German soil, opened its doors in 1386, followed by the universities of Leipzig in 1409, and Rostock in 1419. During the early centuries of their existence, instruction at these universities occurred in Latin. Traditionally, German universities offered education in theology, law, philosophy (including the natural and social sciences and the humanities), and medicine. During the Hitler era, teachers and university faculty were required to swear a loyalty oath to National Socialism, and freedom of expression was sharply curtailed. About 300 Jewish university professors were driven out, causing a huge loss of scholarly, scientific, and intellectual capacity. Girls were discouraged from pursuing higher education and lost the gains they had made during the first twenty years of the century.

After World War II, the country was divided into the Federal Republic of Germany, consisting of the French, British, and American sectors in the West, and the German Democratic Republic in the east, which was under the dominance of the Union of the Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR). In the west, the Allies undertook a process of removing Nazi ideas from the country's schools. However, West German education did not undergo substantial reforms after World War II because the occupying powers had high respect for the German academic secondary school and universities. Moreover, the differing educational systems of France, Britain, and the United States made it impractical to apply any single new model in the western zone. Colleges of education founded after the war were denominational in character, and the teaching of religion was mandated in the 1949 Basic Law, or constitution, of the Federal Republic of Germany.

Gradually some modest changes made the system more democratic. One such change was the reducing or eliminating the cost of textbooks and school materials to parents and making six years of a common primary education, rather than only four, the norm. By and large, however, the chief features of early twentieth century education were retained through the 1950s: stratification with different types of schools, teachers, and pupils; the dual system of vocational training and general education; centralized decision-making at the state level; and the processes of grading and selection throughout the school system. In 1953 just 3.3 percent of any given age group earned the Abitur (the examination certifying satisfactory completion of the academic secondary school) or Gymnasium, entitling the graduate to university admission; 90 percent of those so qualified actually entered a university. However, because war veterans received preference for scarce study spaces in the country's war-damaged universities, girls stood a much poorer chance than males; only about half the female recipients of the Abitur actually continued on to university study. Only 6.1 percent of any age cohort completed the elementary school and six-year Realschule (an intermediate secondary school preparing civil servants and other administrative employees). The largest number, 63.3 percent, of any age cohort left full-time schooling around the age of 15 and continued with mandatory part-time education until 18, while working or participating in a vocational training program.

Twenty-four new universities sprang up in West Germany in the 1960s and 1970s, including the distancelearning center at Hagen established in 1975. In 1969 the federal government in Bonn assumed some authority over education, which had previously been entirely under the jurisdiction of the 11 federal states. The federal government increased uniformity and standardization in vocational training and the Abitur, the university admissions qualifying test.

In 1964 the Social Democratic Party questioned the adequacy of the West German educational system and, after lengthy inquiries, the German Parliament declared it to be in a state of emergency. Compared to similar European industrialized nations, relatively few German youth continued full-time schooling until 18, fewer German youth entered university study, and federal spending on education comprised a relatively small portion of the total national budget. The national investigations also found significant differences in educational opportunity and quality between regions. Some of these differences included class size, provisions for foreign language study, the supply of qualified teachers, and the numbers of school leavers attaining appropriate certificates or diplomas. Educational leaders warned of an anticipated shortfall of skilled workers able to adapt to new developments in technology. Their report recommended reducing the importance of parental status and social connections in decisions about children's secondary education and basing these decisions solely on children's abilities. The report also documented significant gender inequities in education: more girls than boys left full-time schooling at an early age, fewer continued into the Realschule or Gymnasium, and girls' choices of educational paths were most likely to be based on their fathers' occupations. Girls from rural areas, working-class backgrounds, and from Catholic families fared the worst.

The findings of this nationwide inquiry resulted in a number of significant reforms. A two-year orientation phase in grades five and six was introduced to give schoolchildren more time to consider future educational choices. The number of academic subjects required for the Abitur was reduced in 1960; in 1972, students were given the option of concentrating in a few specialized subjects. However, complaints from universities that this step weakened the general preparation of incoming students forced a partial rollback of Abitur reforms. The percentage of young people continuing their education into the Realschule, Gymnasium, or university doubled. However, these increases created a larger supply of better educated workers than the job market could fully absorb.

Further reforms had a more direct effect on the teaching profession. The role of pedagogy in teacher preparation was expanded, and the hours devoted to the study of teaching methods increased to about one-fourth of the total. From the mid-1970s through most of the 1980s, the country experienced an oversupply of teachers, and fewer new teachers were hired. A Federal Ministry of Education and Science, established in 1969, was combined in 1994 with the Ministry of Science and Technology. However, attempts to increase federal authority over planning and coordination disintegrated in the early 1970s, in part due to disagreements between the political parties. In general, the Social Democrats favored greater national oversight, while the more conservative Christian Democrats advocated state autonomy.

Reforms got underway in higher education as well. In 1971 the federal government began providing financial aid to students (which states had done since 1957) in an attempt to democratize higher education. Hochschulrahmengesetz (a law for the reform of higher education) passed in 1975 and was aimed at greater nationwide unification of this level of instruction. Fachhochschulen (new polytechnic schools) were introduced in the late 1960s and early 1970s. More comprehensive and technical universities were founded. Untenured professors and staff gained a voice in university governance, alongside senior professors who held university chairs. Critics demanded a more practical orientation for courses of university study in the mid-1970s, but effected little change in this area. And, despite objections, universities retained their emphasis on research over student-centered learning.

Nonetheless the balance between higher education and vocational training shifted between 1980 and 1990. In 1980 apprentices outnumbered university students two to one; however, a shortage of apprenticeships in the late 1980s motivated more adolescents to enter universities. By 1990 the number of university entrants surpassed the number of young people beginning an apprenticeship. University enrollment grew by about 75 percent between 1977 and 1992, but increases in faculty, staffing, and facilities failed to keep pace, resulting in serious over-crowding.

In 1981 only about 38 percent of those who actually enrolled in higher education were women (the proportion is 40 percent in West Germany in 2001). Women were still less likely than men to actually begin higher education, more apt to concentrate in the arts and humanities, and more likely to drop out of higher education. At the Fachhochschulen, women concentrated chiefly in traditionally female areas such as health professions and social work. Although significantly more young women began to enter apprenticeships, many completed only a two-year course, which was considered inferior to a full course of vocational training.

While the Federal Republic of Germany maintained many features of the system of education inherited from the Weimar Republic, the socialist German Democratic Republic created an entirely new educational system after World War II. The intention of this new educational system was to sever all connections between religion and schooling, eliminating differences between rural and urban areas, the educational opportunities for boys and girls, and social classes.

Schools in the Soviet zone of occupation re-opened in October of 1945. This was quite a feat, given that many school buildings had been damaged, teachers had been killed or displaced, and the region was forced to cope with the influx of ethnic Germans. Eliminating Nazi influence was carried out more rigorously than in the West: three-fourths of the teaching force was fired for having sworn the mandatory oath of loyalty to the National Socialists. Approximately 15,000 new teachers, young and hastily trained, entered the classroom in 1945. Almost 23 years later, 93 percent of the country's teachers had been trained since World War II. The replacement of such a large portion of the teaching profession gave the German Democratic Republic an opportunity to start anew.

Control over the educational system was centralized at the national level, with the Ministry of Education carrying out directives formulated in the Central Committee of the ruling Socialist Unity Party. The Ministry produced textbooks and detailed schedules for their use, including timed lesson plans. Deviation from this centralized curriculum was discouraged by the widespread fear of exposure for failing to promulgate the official doctrines of the socialist state.

A school reform in May 1946 eliminated the three-part secondary education system inherited from the Weimar Republic, which separated students into vocational, managerial, and academic tracks. Further reforms in 1958 and 1959 established 10 years of compulsory education in the polytechnic school, which all pupils attended, following a uniform curriculum, free of militaristic, racist, religious, or imperialist teachings. Pupils in grades 7 through 10 worked a few hours each week to become accustomed to industrial production and to develop solidarity with the working class.

Through the 1950s and early 1960s, East German educators furthered their efforts to utilize education to overturn social class. Achievements of the peasants and working class were highlighted in history, literature, and the social sciences. Children whose parents belonged to the worker and peasant classes received preference in admission to higher education, while those whose parents opposed the Socialist Unity Party might be denied access. Some offspring of white-collar professionals, the landed aristocracy, enemies of the socialist state, and some adherents of organized religion were sent into apprentice-ships and factories. Arbeiter- und Bauern-Fakultäten (special adult education courses), in existence from 1946 to 1962, were offered for workers, former soldiers, and returning political prisoners. About 25 percent of all university students entered higher education through this path. Gradually, the process of social and political selection was accomplished through polytechnic schools and the Freie Deutsche Jugend (socialist Free German Youth groups) present in every educational institution; the Arbeiter- und Bauern-Fakultäten were discontinued. Only about 12 percent of the country's pupils continued their education into the university, for the country's leaders guarded against the emergence of an over-educated, under-employed elite, which might foment a rebellion. Not everyone could accept the political restrictions on academic freedom. Between the country's founding in 1949 and the building of the Berlin Wall in 1961, about 2,700 university faculty and 35,000 students moved west.

Nonetheless, the German Democratic Republic did introduce some more democratic elements into its educational system. Schoolbooks and materials were free for all pupils, in contrast to West Germany where the costs of such items as uniforms and school supplies sometimes kept poorer children out of the college-preparatory high school, the Gymnasium. From the first, East German schools were coeducational. A 1950 Law for the Promotion of Youth decreed that all children, regardless of gender, should receive the same education, vocational training, higher education, and access to sports. The school day was organized to provide childcare as well as instruction. Children ate a hot noonday meal at school and could remain in school through the late afternoon in the Schulhort, where teachers and assistants supervised homework, extra-curricular activities, and sports. All schools included Young Pioneer groups for children under the age of 14 and Free German Youth organizations for older children. While these groups have been depicted, since unification, as a means of political indoctrination, parents acknowledge that they also fostered group work and cooperation and gave children a certain grounding in civic responsibility. They also provided vacation lodgings and summer camps and sponsored a broad range of school and vacation activities. Although the original intent was to equalize education for all children, educators soon recognized the need for higher levels of instruction for those destined for college or university study. The Erweiterte Oberschule (extended secondary school) was introduced in 1960 to provide a three-year course of study beyond the polytechnic school and to prepare students for higher education.

Occupational choices were made in consultation with pupils, parents, school administrators, teachers, and local authorities. In general, pupils were encouraged to choose occupations projected to be needed in the country's economic five-year plans. In balance, however, workers who succeeded in their careers enjoyed a plethora of opportunities to retrain or qualify themselves for entirely different careers. The entire educational system emphasized practical work applications and a solid grounding in Marxism-Leninism, as well as mandatory instruction in Russian. In recompense, citizens were guaranteed life-long employment, a principle that became increasingly difficult to sustain as manufacturing and technology developed through the 1980s. Furthermore, it became evident that the country's educational system emphasized cooperation and productivity at the expense of inventiveness, critical thinking, analytical skills, and creativity. One drawback was a perpetual lag in the development of technological innovation, particularly in engineering and computer science.

During the 1950s and 1960s, the Federal Republic of Germany also introduced a number of reforms to broaden access to its educational system. The number of intermediate secondary schools designed to train managers, civil servants, and white-collar employees increased. New Fachschulen (secondary technical schools) were introduced. The numbers of college-preparatory secondary schools in rural areas increased. The new two-year orientation phase for fifth and sixth graders, which appeared in some states, provided more time for teachers and parents to assess whether schoolchildren could best further their education in the Hauptschule (general secondary school) and continue into a vocational school to learn a trade or enter the Realschule or Gymnasium.

Reunified in 1990, the Federal Republic of Germany in 2001 encompasses 16 federal states, 11 in the West (Baden-Württemberg, Bavaria, Rhineland Palatinate, North Rhine-Westphalia, Hesse, Lower Saxony, the Saarland, Schleswig-Holstein, and the 3 city-states—Hamburg, Bremen, and Berlin) and 5 (the so-called new federal states of Thuringia, Saxony, Saxony-Anhalt, Brandenburg, and Mecklenburg-West Pomerania) that formerly made up the German Democratic Republic. With unification, West German law became the law of the land and, thus, a massive restructuring of the East German educational system began. Beginning in the 1992-1993 school year, the West German multi-track system of schooling was introduced into the new federal states to replace the 10-year, homogenous polytechnic school. Retaining the egalitarian ideals of socialism, the new federal states created an educational system less stratified than that of the West; most offer a two-track model of secondary education rather than the tripartite division commonplace in the West. Saxony, for instance, uses the orientation phase in grades 5 and 6, and a Mittelschule (middle school) for grades 5 through 10, which combines both the Hauptschule and Realschule. Pupils can enter either of those institutions or the Gymnasium at the end of fourth, fifth, or sixth grade. Courses in Russian were no longer required, and Marxism-Leninism disappeared from the curriculum. Most teachers and university faculty in disciplines such as civics, social studies, history, economics, and political science (about one-fifth of the teaching corps) lost their positions. East Germany soon experienced a need for teachers of English rather than Russian. Rather than the 13 required in the West for a high school diploma, 12 remained the norm. Religious instruction was re-introduced, with some of the new federal states offering courses in ethics as an alternative to Lutheran or Catholic instruction.

Since unification in 1990, Germany's educational system has struggled with new challenges of unifying the radically different philosophies and structures of East and West, equalizing education for both sexes, and adapting a traditional educational system to the demands of a new technological age.

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