Why Do German Students Learn More, When Their Schools Get Less Money?

Education analysts often compare U.S. schools to those in Finland, Korea, Poland, even Shanghai. Surprisingly, the nation of Germany rarely appears in this discourse, even though it has much in common with the United States. Each of the two nations is the largest democracy, with the biggest economy, on its continent. And each has a diverse population, strong unions, a federal system of government, demand for a skilled workforce, and a school system that in 2000 was badly in need of reform.

ednext_XVI_1_editor_fig01-smallAfter examining schools and public opinion in both countries, our team at Education Next, together with scholars at the University of Munich, were left with an intriguing question: why have German schools made significant progress since the turn of this century, while U.S. schools have not?

You can read our report at hks.harvard.edu/pepg, but here are some key facts:

Back in 2000, U.S. and German students at age 15 were performing at roughly the same level on international tests in reading, math, and science, and shortly thereafter, a spirited school-reform movement was launched in both countries. And yet, by 2012, German 15-year-olds were outscoring their U.S. peers by 32 points in math, a difference representing more than a year’s worth of learning. In science, scores were 27 points higher in Germany, and in reading, 10 points (Figure 1).

Notably, the German gains did not come at the price of equity. In both countries, the difference between the scores of students in the upper and lower quarters of the test-score distribution narrowed considerably between 2000 and 2012. Gap closing was steeper in Germany (Figure 2).

ednext_XVI_1_editor_fig02-smallLarger gains in effectiveness and equity may be related to higher German teacher salaries. In 2013, at the higher-secondary grade level, entry-level German teachers received 51 percent more in wages, while those with 15 years of experience received 41 percent more (roughly $70,000 in Germany compared to $50,000 in the United States). Beginning elementary-school teachers earned about $47,500 in Germany, about $10,000 more than the entering U.S. teacher.

Somehow, the Germans find a way of paying these generous salaries without imposing higher costs on taxpayers. Per-pupil expenditures for secondary education run about $10,300 in Germany and $12,700 in the United States. At the elementary-school level, the numbers are $7,600 in Germany, $11,000 in the United States.

Despite the fact that Germans are getting more for less, they are not as satisfied as Americans are with their local schools and teachers, according to our polls. On the traditional A-to-F scale, 47 percent of people in the United States give their local schools an A or a B, as compared to just 42 percent of Germans. Similarly, the typical U.S. adult gives an A or a B to 51 percent of the teachers at the local school, while Germans rate just 41 percent of their teachers that highly.

Why did German schools improve after 2000 when U.S. schools did not? Was it because school reform in Germany was pushed forward by a consensus among state-level political leaders, educators, teachers unions, and the public at large, while in the United States, union and partisan opposition quickly emerged?

Why are costs in Germany so low when teachers are paid so well? Is it because German schools are run by the states, with little federal direction and no local school boards at all? Are operations more efficient when schools are run mainly by one tier of government instead of by an often fractious federal-state-local partnership?

Why do Germans give teachers lower grades, when students there are learning more? Is it because German students, if they want to get ahead, must pass exams at about age 10 and again upon finishing secondary school? When students must pass high-stakes exams, do both the parents and the public at large expect more from their teachers?

Of course, no firm conclusions can be drawn from any comparison between just two countries. But it’s still worth pondering these questions when two similar countries see such dramatic differences in educational outcomes.

–Paul E. Peterson

This article appeared in the Winter 2016 issue of Education Next. Suggested citation format:

Peterson, P.E. (2016). Why Do German Students Learn More, When Their Schools Get Less Money? Education Next, 16(1), 5.

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