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Public school education in Germany today confronts a spectrum of challenges not unfamiliar to American educators. Some Germans find the school curriculum outdated, as the schools struggle to keep pace with technological innovation. In comparison to other industrialized countries, Germany ranks nineteenth in number of computers per thousand of population, nineteenth in Internet service providers, and seventeenth in the number of Internet users. The high cost of telephone calls makes Internet usage expensive. New training programs and apprenticeships for workers in high tech fields have not kept up with the demand for qualified technicians and software engineers. In addition, the presence of the Internet in schools causes some school children to question the knowledge and authority of their teachers, and opens the door to hundreds of information sources not approved by any state.

Furthermore, since the early 1990s, Germany has suffered from unemployment rates as high as 12 percent in the West and nearly 20 percent in the East. As a result, some Germans question whether a good education guarantees a good job. Particularly in the East, where teachers of Russian, Marxism-Leninism, economics, political science, and the history of the working class were thrown out of work after unification, the value of education has been called into question.

The continuing presence of religion in Germany's schools would appear threatened by the pressures of immigration. Today there are about 28 million Catholics in Germany and roughly the same number of Lutherans. While these churches have traditionally dominated religious education in schools, they have attracted few believers in the East, where only 25 percent of the population is Lutheran and about 3 percent Catholic. Since the imposition of the church tax (10 percent of the individual's income tax), many East Germans have taken the legal step of disaffiliating themselves from churches, and membership has actually declined. Germany's population now encompasses 2.3 million Moslems, most of them Turks who live chiefly in the West. There are another 370,000 Orthodox Christians, 200,000 evangelical Protestants, and a growing community of 50,000 Jews, most of them immigrants from the former Soviet Union. The 1990s witnessed legal disputes in Germany about the traditional Moslem head covering worn by some schoolgirls and teachers and about the presence of crucifixes in Bavarian classrooms. It seems likely that the most acceptable solution to increasing religious diversity should be a tendency toward courses in ethics rather than religion, a trend strongly opposed by the Christian Democrats and Christian Socialist Union.

The academic success of immigrant children remains uncertain. Bilingual education programs have mostly been abandoned, although some immigrant children may participate in after-school programs or special classes to learn German as a second language. Even Berlin, where about one fifth of the schoolchildren speak a first language other than German, now has only a half-dozen schools still offering some form of bilingual education. The dropout rate for Turkish children is three times that for Germans, and German children are three times as likely as Turks to achieve the Abitur and go on to higher education. This hurdle blocks foreigners from entering the teaching profession; thus immigrant children confront teachers who seldom speak their mother tongue. The problem of immigrant children varies with geography; there are fewer foreigners in the new federal states and most of those in the West are concentrated in cities.

Another social issue challenging teachers is that schools have increasingly been expected to assume responsibilities previously held by families and, in the East, by socialist organizations. Such responsibilities have devolved onto the schools as the need increases for women as well as men to work for pay. Moreover, Germany has a high number of single parent families; in the late 1990s, half of all babies in the East were born to unmarried women. The number of single parent families means that schools need to take on some responsibilities for afternoon care, supervision of homework, and enrichment activities such as sports and arts. Some, particularly the Gesamtschulen, now offer afternoon programs or a full day of instruction.

The coming decades will bring far-reaching changes, arising from Germany's membership in the European Union. Because teachers from other European Union countries will be eligible to teach in Germany, there must be broad agreement on the qualifications required for effective teaching, such as the balance between subject matter knowledge and practical training.


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—Helen H. Frink

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