Problems, problems, problems: The state of the schools is a catastrophe

problems, problems, problems
The state of the schools is a disaster

By Hubertus Volmer and Volker Petersen

The education summit in Berlin is about the problems of the schools and a possible new cooperation between the federal and state governments. It has long been known what the problems are. A memory.

It is wonderful to read what the Federal Ministry of Education itself wrote about the education summit this Tuesday in Berlin: It could be seen as a “prelude to the renewal of the promise of advancement and a new culture of cooperation”.

But working together is one thing. Only two education ministers from the federal states have agreed – the incumbent president of the Conference of Ministers of Education, Astrid-Sabine Busse from Berlin, and Hamburg’s school senator Ties Rabe. The education ministers from the CDU-led countries have all canceled. Instead of a joint declaration, there is polyphonic criticism. The whole thing should be the start of a dialogue. But it has long been clear what the education system is suffering from. And that for years. Here are the most important points:

Dramatic teacher shortage

According to a survey by the Education and Training Association last year there was a shortage of 50,000 teachers. Too few teachers mean that the classes have to be larger than is good for the lessons, that certain courses cannot be offered in the sixth form if the demand is not great enough, and also that classes are cancelled. Die Zeit determined a few years ago that five percent of the lessons are canceled – twice as much as claimed by the federal states.

All this is particularly bad for the weaker students, because they need the help most urgently. It also places a greater burden on many of the teachers who are still holding the position. The lessons are more stressful and more class work or exams are piling up on the desk. The result: more exhaustion, more sick leave – and thus further cancellation of classes. The federal states are doing something about it, for example in many places they have increased the salaries of primary school teachers. But the training takes a long time, so that the problem can only be solved in the medium to long term.

Digitalization? failed

The whole of Germany was asleep when it came to digitization and too little happened in schools for a long time. But it is not the case that they were still stuck in the “Cretaceous period”. Education researcher Klaus Hurrelmann writes in a foreword to the latest Cornelsen school management study that there is a spirit of optimism in many schools. The institutions invested in teacher training, taught the media skills of the students, and promoted individualized and self-determined learning through digital tools.

However, it hasn’t really arrived yet. Around two thirds of parents in Germany are dissatisfied with the digitization of their children’s schools after the corona crisis. According to a survey by the high-tech association Bitkom, around 50 percent rated the stand as “sufficient” or “poor”, i.e. with grades four and five. Almost 20 percent even rated it as “unsatisfactory”. The federal states have been demanding an extension of the digital pact for schools for a long time. It started in mid-2019 and is to redistribute 6.5 billion euros from the federal government to the states over five years.

Broken school buildings

Dirty school toilets, roofs through which it rains, mold on the windows: conditions prevail in many schools in Germany that no employee would tolerate. Many schools are “rather barracks of education than cathedrals”, said the general manager of the German Association of Towns and Municipalities five years ago. The situation hasn’t gotten much better since then GEW calls for a 100 billion emergency program just for the renovation backlog at educational institutions in Germany. Although schools already account for the largest part of municipal investment planning, this area is also where the schools see the largest investment backlog. He is now at 45.6 billion euros in the current KfW municipal panel quantified.

The problem is not just money, but, as is so often the case in school politics, responsibility: the state schools are usually run by cities, municipalities or districts. So whether students have to sit at a moldy window also depends on whether they are lucky enough to live in a wealthy community. There is help from the federal government, but it is slow to arrive. 3.5 billion euros were made available in 2018, but at the end of last year only about half had been accessed, as reported by “Spiegel”, citing a small inquiry in the Bundestag.

Lousy achievements

If too few qualified staff have to teach under inadequate digital conditions in ramshackle buildings, how will this affect learning success? Right: not good. The German school barometer has just come to the conclusion that many pupils suffer from learning deficits.

According to this, from the point of view of the school management, 35 percent of the students are clearly lagging behind in their learning. Of course, schools in socially disadvantaged locations perform worse than others. According to the school management, 65 percent suffer from learning deficits. Almost 80 percent of schools also say that they cannot offer all children and young people the support they need with their learning.

The education researchers Felicitas Thiel and Michael Becker-Mrotzek also reported “alarming findings” especially in elementary schools in a report for the Conference of Ministers of Education. Every fifth fourth grader does not reach the minimum standards in German and math, almost every fourth seven to ten-year-old child shows an increased risk of mental disorders. It is clear that Corona has only strengthened a trend that already exists. The causes are manifold: They start with the lack of staff in the day-care centers and end with the relative neglect of elementary schools not up for a long time.

Federalism, bureaucracy, current challenges

If everything worked, the schools would also be able to cope with other challenges, such as supporting refugees. The fragmentation across 16 federal states alone ensures that there is hardly any nationwide attention to the everyday school drama. In addition, school policy is a losing issue: if it goes well, the responsible party is of practically no use. And since it is hardly any better in the state next door, problems can easily be discussed away – if they even make it onto the public attention radar.

This is one of the reasons why a wide circle of associations, foundations and trade unions from the education sector are calling for “a real national education summit” headed by Federal Chancellor Olaf Scholz. The federal government may not be formally responsible – but without its influence there should be no chance for the “fundamental, all-social reform process” demanded by the associations.

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