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One Country, Many Systems

Germany consists of 16 federal states – and each one follows its own path when it comes to education. This approach has its benefits, but often causes trouble in practice.

Long-distance moves bring big changes, especially for children, who have to settle into their new environment and make new friends. But in Germany, moves between states – say, from North Rhine-Westphalia to Bavaria – pose special challenges. Here, the children suddenly find themselves enrolled in a school that does things very differently from their old school. The classes are different, and so are the curricula. Class may suddenly be much harder than the children are used to. And in some cases, it may take a full year longer to graduate than in their old hometown.

These differences are all due to something known as “educational federalism”. Enshrined in the German constitution, this political principle authorizes each of Germany’s 16 federal states to draw up their own educational rules for nursery, elementary and high schools as well as colleges and universities. Each state decides for itself what types of schools are allowed within its territory and develops its own curricula for them. Each state defines how long students need to attain their highest educational credentials as well as how strict their tests are and what criteria they’re based on. Teacher training and salaries are also covered by educational federalism and so vary from state to state. That makes it virtually impossible for teachers to move from one state to another.

Given all these problems, why does Germany have educational federalism? Advocates of the system point out that student performance is by no means significantly better in other countries with centrally managed educational systems. Instead, they argue, competition between the states creates incentives and opportunities for reform. Critics, on the other hand, object that educational federalism produces inequality. For example, twice as many students graduated with top grades from college-preparatory high schools in Thuringia than in the neighboring state of Saxony. This tilts the playing field in favor of Thuringian students when applying for college or a vocational training program. Critics demand coordination between the states on at least a few basic issues, such as teacher training or the standardization of final exam questions for outgoing seniors at college-preparatory schools.

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