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Why not? A Critical Look at Upward Mobility Within Berlin's Impermeable Education System

Introduction

What comes to mind when you hear the word ‘Hauptschule’?
Leaving the entrance to Humboldt University, she interrupts her casual stroll to grab lunch. Without a second thought, she answers bluntly, completely straight-faced, as if there were no fact more obvious in this world: “Students in Hauptschule have no future.”

Eyes closed, he can’t help but grimace, failing to hide his discomfort with the question. After wracking his brain for some kind of “acceptable” answer that would not expose his prejudice, he succumbs to one thought alone: “Violence.”

Did you attend a Hauptschule?
Sitting on a lawn outside the Free University, books stacked on the grass, a group of students—German and international alike—converse in English. The two Germans in the group instinctively look at each other, grinning at the outrageousness of such a possibility: “Oh, no, no. We went to a Gymnasium. It’s not possible to go to university from a Hauptschule.”   

These are but a sampling of answers we received from a poll of university students in Berlin, asked to reveal their educational backgrounds, that of their parents, and their honest reactions to the word Hauptschule.  They mirror the general perception in German society of the Hauptschule, the lowest part of the three-tiered secondary school system in Germany, often referred to as “the school for leftovers [of society]” (cf. SZ-Magazin 26/2008, p. 9). The harsh truth is that it is not just a superficial perception – the stratified school system in Germany is rife with problems and has institutionally failed to integrate the bulk of students from less advantaged backgrounds, be it migrant, low-income, or otherwise.

At the core of the problem is the system of early tracking which, in Berlin, starts after only four or six years of primary school. At the age of ten or twelve, students are separated into certain schools based on perceived intellectual ability. After the release of a 2007 Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) report on Education in Germany, it was stated that the country had “the least permeable of all school systems (despite being free of charge) in respect to social preconditions,” according to a government official from the Federal Ministry of Collaboration and Economic Development. Our research delves into the institutional roots of this problem and seeks to answer the most pressing questions regarding upward educational mobility within the system: 
• What institutional barriers exist within the German education system that hinder upward mobility for students from low-income and first-generation backgrounds? 
• What channels exist that allow students enrolled in Hauptschule access to opportunities to pursue further education? 
• What private initiatives or public-private partnerships exist to improve chances for transition into levels of higher education? 
• What public policies and initiatives have been implemented to reform (or even overcome) an anachronistic education system that exacerbates and perpetuates pre-existing social inequalities?

Of special interest here is the population of students who are enrolled in a Hauptschule or Realschule, and whose parents have not attained any form of tertiary education. For this group, we introduce the term “first-generation of higher education”, in regards to students who would be the first in their family to obtain any form of tertiary education. It is our strong belief that with supportive surroundings, high student achievement and participation in higher education is achievable by students sent to the lower tiers. 

Why the focus on low-income background and educational level and not those with an immigration-background? We believe that unequal educational access remains, at its base, a socioeconomic problem, which reshifts the focus of the discussion onto the failure of society to provide resources to those with less, as opposed to centering the question around issues of immigrant integration. Indeed, the added linguistic and cultural barriers play a major role, but the high percentage of students from an immigration-background being sent to Hauptschule is more a product of the educational and socioeconomic background of their parents, rather than a matter of culture or race.

Research Methodology

First, we were interested in experts’ opinions on education, compiled from published studies and from personal interviews, that provide the framework to contextualize the problem our research seeks to tackle. Secondly, we placed special emphasis on the protagonists who personalize these scientific results. Those interviewed helped steer us towards an objective yet personal, multi-angled approach: an insider with knowledge of the Hauptschule-Realschule hybrid school; two former students whose stories embody the potential for upward mobility; 20 randomly-chosen students at the Humboldt University and the Free University in Berlin. The quotes that you will find at the beginning of each section are taken directly from our field research that show the difficult, blunt, and bare-bones reality of the problem. 

After breaking down the key institutional and social barriers that hinder upward educational mobility in Germany and presenting case studies of two students who succeeded “despite the system and not because of the system,” as sociologist Dr. Ulrich Raiser puts it, we will provide an overview of public and private initiatives introduced to overcome these obstacles. We do not propose to offer an immediate, easy, or one-size-fits-all solution to the problem. Our aim is to highlight both what is not working and what has worked, and suggest best practices for next steps. Most importantly, we hope to shed light on a problem that should appeal to the basic humanity of every German citizen: The right of all children to dream, regardless of socio-economic background or social conditions they were born into, and to achieve their dream through the best education possible.

Challenges and Institutional and Social Barriers to Accessing Higher Education

“Hauptschule is one of the big advantages to our society – to get the students to be the productive part of the society.”
- Student, Free University

This student naively commends the stratified three-tier education system in Germany, which on the surface simply appears to reward students for demonstrated academic achievement and promise. Based on grades and teacher recommendations, those students who are deemed “most academically able” are placed on a track toward higher education (Gymnasium), those of “middle ability” on a vocational track (Realschule), and those who are “least capable” on a basic learning track (Hauptschule) (Carey, 25). This meritocracy seems effective, as presumably the best and brightest will have the choice to study what they want at university, Realschule students have the option to secure jobs after apprenticeships or restricted tertiary education (Fachhochschule), and Hauptschule students are left to fill the unskilled labor force, depending on demand. This structure essentially sorts students to be the intellectuals, the laborers and the unskilled laborers. 

Put in other terms, the system weeds out students by age 10 or 12 and prepares those “less capable” to serve as the, euphemistically put, “productive part of society.” This is, however, a miscalculation, as the unemployment rate for persons with below upper secondary education was four times as high as that for persons with tertiary attainment in 2005 (Carey, 13). This is a fact often reflected in the Hauptschule curriculum itself, where in place of study of classical literature—which is standard at Gymnasium—students often learn how to apply for social benefits such as public welfare. Like another student polled stated, “I think it’s senseless because, after Hauptschule, you can’t find a job.” 

Restricted Mobility Within the Three-Tiered Education System

“Having a child in Hauptschule basically means that any higher education is nearly excluded.”
 – Dr. Ulrich Raiser, Office of the Berlin Commissioner for Integration and Migration
Such a stratified system significantly reduces the chances of a student recommended to Hauptschule or Realschule of taking the  Abitur exam and attending university. While mobility between tracks is possible, and there have been exceptional cases of even Hauptschule students transferring to Gymnasium and ultimately reaching university, they are just that—the exception. 10% of 9th grade students in the 2004-05 school year were in a different track from their 5th grade track but only 20% of those minimal track changes were upward changes (Carey, 26). In other words, less than 3 per cent of the students went up.

In an interview with us, Dr. Ulrich Raiser from the Office of the Berlin Commissioner for Integration and Migration, confirmed this very point: “Once you are in one school type, and this counts especially for the Hauptschule, it is not impossible, but pretty difficult to get into either Realschule or Gymnasium”. Dr. Raiser, whose own research focuses on the upward educational mobility of immigrant children, emphasized in his interview with us that students from migrant and working families are particularly at risk, because their families do not always understand how the education system functions (Raiser, 2007). 

Influence of Parents’ Educational Level and Parental Involvement in School
Based on research from the Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) test results, Prenzel et. al (2005) found that a child from the top quartile of socio-economic background is 4.0 times more likely to go to a Gymnasium than a child from the second lowest quartile of socio-economic background, on average in Germany (Carey, 26). Parents can also override a teacher’s recommendation to attend Hauptschule or Realschule. However, if the parents have not attended such schools themselves or simply do not understand how the system works, as is often the case with low-income and migrant families, they would not know the process for overriding a teacher’s recommendation or even the possibility of this option. A striking comment made by a university student who had gone to Gymnasium like both of his parents, poignantly addresses this trend: “Hauptschule? It’s a way to segregate much of the Turkish students.” 

In fact, after conducting the small poll of 20 students from universities in Berlin, we found this very trend, with only four students who had parents that went to a Realschule and none who attended a Hauptschule. Although the small pool of those interviewed do not constitute a representative and reliable data sample, the results do reinforce the findings of research on the topic, affirming that individual educational attainment is strongly determined by the parental educational attainment (Bruhn/Haaker, 12). This situation is particularly salient in Germany, where it has been found that of the children who start school in Germany and whose fathers have a university degree, 83 % attend university. For those whose fathers have no degree, the figure drops to 23% (Der Spiegel, June 23, 2008).

Low Expectations at School

“Bad degree, bad education, social problems…a need for very good teachers and social work.” 
– Student, Humboldt University
This stratified school system places pressure on teachers in the Hauptschule and Realschule. Their students have to acknowledge an institutionalized truth: German society thinks less of you, and you’d better prepare for it. As a result, teachers “dumb down” their teaching material and expect less of their students. “The achievement of immigrant, minority, and low income students seems to be particularly vulnerable to the effects of teacher expectancies” (Schofield, 2006). Nevertheless, if students in the Hauptschule do dream big, they might be told to think again, regardless of any ability they might really have.

Every student has been asked the question, “What do you want to be when you grow up?” In a system that is not as stratified and promises the best opportunities for those who work hard, the answers of a group of bright-eyed students might burst out a barrage of occupations: A fireman! A basketball player! A doctor! A famous singer! The idea that anything is possible and achievable through education is critical in motivating students with ambitious goals. “Lower expectations may lead to negative or otherwise unhelpful behaviors towards students on the part of instructors,” (Schofield, 2006). As such, at many Hauptschulen in Germany, students who want to go into management positions are simply told to be realistic. 

Few Incentives for Teachers, No Accountability

Another institutional obstacle is the way in which teacher occupation functions in Germany. Many teachers are civil servants and are thus essentially tenured. In Hauptschulen, where in general the level of violence and social problems of the students is much higher than at other track schools, the scope of a teacher’s responsibilities expand beyond that of educator to role model, mediator, and provider of a safe learning environment. There is little accountability for teachers who “give up on students” and often perpetuate the very inequities the system has institutionalized. Often, teachers must compensate for the limited support and motivation first-generation students get at home.  Unfortunately, there are few training programs that support those teachers who actively want to fill this expanded role of the teacher as educator and mentor, and there are even fewer incentives (financial or otherwise) for those who may not be immediately inclined to attempt that daunting task.  

Lack of Support at Home

One of these teachers that has thrived in the role of educator-mentor and inspired many underprivileged students to succeed is Karin Jaeger, a teacher at the Heinrich-von-Stephan Oberschule, a model school in Berlin that combines Hauptschule and Realschule tracks. Ms. Jaeger confirmed the difficulties in discipline and negative peer influence that the environment of certain Hauptschulen can create, but talked specifically about the challenges her students face at home. When Humanity in Action (HIA) visited the school, she expressed that “many of the children that attend our school come from families on social welfare and are the only ones to get up in the morning. When some come home, their parents are often watching television, and are uninvolved in their child’s education.” As a result, it becomes more and more difficult for the school because it has to teach the students even basic rules of social behavior.

Overcoming the System to Achieve Success

“I had the feeling of being important and that the teachers cared for my educational development.” 
– Maria, former student at Heinrich-von-Stephan Oberschule

In front of an ivy-covered, red-brick wall, the number 27 above the gate distinguishes the Heinrich-von-Stephan Oberschule from the other narrow buildings in Berlin’s Moabit district. Hanging above the entrance corridor, a single painting of the school’s founder reminds visitors of the school’s successful integration of Hauptschule and Realschule. As our trio of HIA Fellows stood outside the closed double doors of the school, two young women converged from opposite directions of the street, enthusiastically embracing each other before greeting us in front of the school. Just for today, these two former students of the Heinrich-von-Stephan Oberschule were back at the school where they first met several years ago.

In the gravel-covered school yard, our conversation took place on a shaded bench across from the building where both Maria and Josslien shared classes together as young pupils. Away from the bright mid-morning sun and curious young students, they reminisced about the recommendation process for schooling past primary school. Josslien, a soft-spoken 19-year old, still remembers this moment in her primary education. “I was told to go to a Realschule, but I did not feel like going to Realschule, because my marks were better. I just had difficulties with spelling.” Because of these difficulties, the then-11-year-old scored only “satisfactory” in her German classes, a grade much lower than the rest of her outstanding scores. Despite her strong grades outside of German, she was still recommended not to go to Gymnasium.

As she described the obstacles she faced in school, she recalled her teacher’s cold answer when she expressed her desire to become a lawyer. Knowing that such a career would require the  abitur-degree, he remarked, “I don’t think you can become a lawyer because you can’t write.” In the end, despite his recommendation for Realschule, she succeeded in attending Gymnasium. But without proper support for her studies, she experienced problems catching up and eventually changed from Gymnasium to the Heinrich-von-Stephan Oberschule. At her new school, she was more successful, thanks to the more welcoming atmosphere that helped her to better deal with her challenges.

During our interview, Maria also emphasized having a positive learning atmosphere. For the quiet but easily excitable 19 year old, the collegial atmosphere resulted very much from the engaging initiatives of the teachers. With programs independent of special governmental assistance existing for over twenty years now, the school has changed completely. “I felt really safe at this school,” Maria said. 

Maria’s voluntary engagement as a peer mediator also helped promote the peaceful atmosphere. She intervened in any troubles around the school: “As a mediator, I stopped people from having a fight. We were a group of fifteen pupils, and we learned how to settle a fight without getting involved into it.” Fortunately, fighting was rare, perhaps due to the weekly class-council in which any problems were discussed in a serious manner, which Maria remembers as one of the reasons for the supportive environment in the school: “The support of the school was very important, because I spent most of the time here. When I came to this school, I was a shy person and did not have a very strong self-esteem. But here I had the feeling of being important and that the teachers cared for my educational development, even when my grades were not excelling.” 

How much her self-esteem grew is reflected through her decision to spend a year in a high school in Illinois, USA, after she passed her intermediate school exams. Initially, her decision to go was motivated by just her strong will and her desire to deal with the challenges of planning a year abroad: “I made the decision to go there, because I thought it was a really good thing.” Because of her strong desire, her grandmother helped make her dream possible. She had the chance to broaden her horizon, not only by attending a U.S. high school, but also through a trip through the United States, during which she visited places most Germans only know from Hollywood movies.

After another year of schooling in the Gymnasium, Maria is now trained to become a nurse. She doubts that her high-school education qualified her directly to become a nurse, but she says, “it helped me to find out what I really wanted to do.” In her apprenticeship class, she is just one of three who do not hold an abitur degree. But her education abroad helped her make up for any lack of higher education schooling, which inspired her to become a nurse. 

It is evident that the warm environment of the Heinrich-von-Stephan Oberschule also gave both girls the chance to become more outgoing. “In this school, I felt more comfortable, because I was shy before,” Josslien told us. In the two years she spent at this school, she also appreciated the supportive structure of having two teachers who are responsible for the group and who spent considerable time with the students, which differed from the Gymnasium-structure. As she went back to Gymnasium, she had to catch up again with the higher level of learning; but, after the time at the Heinrich-von-Stephan Oberschule and her earlier experiences of Gymnasium-style learning, she succeeded. As a result, she received her Abitur this summer. In August, she will start a year volunteering in a bilingual kindergarten before she begins her university studies next year in the field of education. Although she does not plan to become a lawyer anymore, she triumphed over her teacher, who, by focusing solely on her academic weaknesses, failed to encourage her to study hard and work towards fulfilling her dreams.

The stories of Maria and Josslien reflect the importance of supportive structures in school, which can turn rather shy girls into outgoing individuals capable of facing challenges and successfully overcoming them. Upward mobility also means that students who failed once in their schooling have the chance to catch up again through a supportive school structure. Maria summed up the differences of the teaching approaches between the Heinrich-von-Stephan Oberschule and the Gymnasium she attended for one year: “In the Gymnasium, everything was about grades and not about the people. They did not care about students who failed. I did not count as a person.” For students like Josslien and Maria, supportive structures are important not only for upward mobility, but educational success too. 

Public and Private Initiatives for Upward Mobility

“The circles you move in shape your chances because it’s the networks that matter.” 
– Kaija Landsberg, Founder, Teach First Deutschland

We focused on access to social mobility for first-generation students in the Hauptschule. Accordingly, we did not actively explore programs that existed prior to our research to help students from disadvantaged backgrounds already in the highest education levels possible. These programs include the START Program established by the Hertie Foundation and the Vodafone Stiftung Program for low-income students with high academic potential, the BTBTM Program through the Turkish Scientific and Technological Center in Berlin, and the ArbeiterKind de Mentorship Program for students from working-class families who want to be the first in their family to go to university.

While these programs certainly have had a positive impact on the students who come from low-income backgrounds or limited educational history in their families, each of them focus on helping students who are already enrolled in grammar school. For our purposes, we intend to explore opportunities that serve not students who are already enrolled in grammar school but those who are in the lower tiers of the German education system, particularly in Hauptschule.
Reforming an Anachronistic Education System
“The Hauptschule system should be abolished because of the early separation.” 
– Student, Humboldt University

Our interests in support systems specifically span two levels—the public sphere and the private sector. On a public level, the topic of educational reform has been an extremely hot one. Dr. Jutta Allmendinger, professor of sociology at Humboldt University and the president of the Social Science Research Center Berlin (Wissenschaftszentrum Berlin), commented in a newspaper interview that the competence and overall skills of students in Gymnasium develop faster than the skills of students in Hauptschulen. She added that one could say, “People are made helpless, not through their abilities, but through government failure” (Taz.de Interview). For her, the government’s limitations in herding children into one of three tiers of education necessarily perpetuate the difficulties students face in moving up within the schooling structure. As a government official from the Federal Ministry for Economic Collaboration and Development pointed out from the 2007 OECD Report on Education, “children from poor and less educated families have less chance to achieve higher education.” 

Regarding the current three-tier system, Dr. Raiser asserted that “Germany’s education-system really needs strong reforms in the sense that selection happens too early. Today, this general perception is also the position of the Berlin Senate.” Since the release of the 2003 PISA results, the shocking report has sparked on-going debates about educational reform. As it stands, the system places students with limited resources to further their learning into the lowest levels and, in doing so, precludes the opportunity for many such students to achieve higher dreams. 

Dr. Raiser explained that the Berlin Senate is currently introducing educational reforms that could overhaul the structure of secondary schools. According to the Coalition Treaty of the Berlin Senate, a new project focusing on overcoming this segregation will be implemented from 2008-2011 with a € 22 million budget. Starting this fall, 20 schools in Berlin will begin a pilot program developing the Gemeinschaftsschule, a school designed to overcome the three tiered-system through different combinations of the three school types. This partnership school design, while not entirely new in Germany, would allow students to continue their joint schooling past the primary school level.

The Coalition Treaty states that the system cannot be changed overnight, converting all schools to Gemeinschaftsschulen. On a more tangible level though, the public debate arising from the current reform addresses the social implications of switching to Gemeinschaftsschule. Dr. Raiser explained to us the difficulty in convincing the parents of a child who is excelling academically to enroll their student into a partnership school instead of Gymnasium, given that they might perceive this experimental school to be of lower quality than the Gymnasium. His thought reflects the more difficult task of convincing the general public that Gemeinschaftsschulen are indeed a step in the right direction towards creating a more supportive environment for the students to achieve academically at higher levels. Because this initiative is set to start in fall 2008, it is too early to tell if its impact will have a positive role in helping students from lower socioeconomic backgrounds receive better support and access to higher levels of education.

Rethinking Teacher Support for Student Achievement and Upward Mobility

“We, as a system, are failing to provide these kids with the education they need to partake in society.” 
– Kaija Landsberg, Founder, Teach First Deutschland
While the Gemeinschaftsschule initiative intends to provide a more unified community and greater diversified network for all students in schools, one important factor remains a barrier for providing strong support for students from disadvantaged backgrounds: the role of teachers. The impact of having even just one teacher who cares about a student’s personal growth is critical to raising academic achievement. As Josslien described, “some teachers just do not support you…but others, like my class teacher, were very close to the students, and we could always come to her. She even gave us her private phone number and invited us to her house.” In Josslien’s own experience, the centrality of having a supportive teacher helped her to better learn in school, rather than in a school environment where teachers are less supportive.

Similarly, the inequality in the school system and lack of advocacy for schools from disadvantaged communities led Kaija Landsberg, a 2007 graduate of the Hertie School of Governance in Berlin, to found Teach First Deutschland, a public-private partnership that encourages talented and motivated graduates from all academic backgrounds to teach in primary schools, Hauptschule and Gesamtschule, particularly schools that have a shortage of teachers. Modeled after Teach First in the United Kingdom and Teach for America in the United States, Teach First Deutschland prepares and trains young graduates to teach regular classes in the schools. 

The intention of Teach First Deutschland is to improve the equality of educational chances for all students. Since the teachers have a reduced work-load they can engage fully in afterschool activities and serve as role-models and mentors to the students. Although Teach First Deutschland’s initial cohort of approximately 150 teachers will not begin working in schools around Germany until fall 2009, the infusion of young teachers into disadvantaged communities, where they can better relate to their students in terms of life experiences, personal backgrounds and age, will hopefully provide the mentorship and support that will inspire young students to achieve academically. 

In our conversation with Ms. Landsberg, she acknowledged that the mentoring aspect is critical because these young teachers have the opportunity “to show the beauty of education, that learning can be fun, and the impression that it is good to stay in education.” She added that these teachers, as role models, could lead them towards “what could be if you work hard.” She also confirmed the challenge of the teacher system in Germany because many choose to become teachers for a variety of reasons, including the economic and social benefits. As such, Teach First Deutschland’s unique approach to addressing the issue of educational inequality through an infusion of young, fresh teachers may indeed be a start to supporting the upward mobility of young students from lower tier schools to levels of higher education.

Support for Parents to Maximize Existing Resources

“Rather than tell parents what they’re doing wrong, give them very clear support to strengthen the resources they already have.” 
– Dr. Ulrich Raiser, Office of the Berlin Commissioner for Integration and Migration

For “first generation students,” resources on how best to navigate the education system are critical for parents and students. Without support, their families have little or no awareness of the resources available. According to Dr. Raiser, “the percentage of students from working-class families who reach university in the whole of Germany is very low, so this is not a specific problem for migrant students, but for any students coming from working-class backgrounds.” As Dr. Raiser points out, one of the largest barriers for “first-generation students” is the general lack of knowledge in the home and their community regarding the school system and how to move up from one tier to another. 

Among the community group projects seeking to make a difference is Arbeitskreis Neue Erziehung. Dr. Raiser, who volunteers on the board of this program, described how the association regularly sends letters to approximately 3 million families around Germany with information on how best to maximize the resources and support systems for their children. Such positive community support has proved useful for families who come from backgrounds with limited educational experience.

Lingering Social and Institutional Problems

“When I hear the word “Hauptschule,” which is not integrated with a Realschule like the Heinrich-von-Stephan Oberschule, I think of TV-coverage of bad schools and bad circumstances, like the Rütlischule for instance, where the pupils threw chairs at their teachers because they see no reason to learn if there’s no hope for the future.” 
– Josslien, former student at Heinrich-von-Stephan Oberschule

Violence, yet again, surfaces as the predominant image for schools that are exclusively Hauptschulen. Even for Josslien who attended a Hauptschule-Realschule hybrid school, the perception of this lowest tier of the secondary school is overwhelmingly negative. But why not at her own school?

It has to do with the Heinrich-von-Stephan Oberschule’s solution to one of the major problems in German school-system: the lack of upward mobility. Their solution? To counteract negative social behavior through peer mediation and structured discipline; to enhance student achievement outcomes through student-centered, dedicated teaching; to facilitate mobility through informal and formal support structures and mentorship; and to set high expectations and weekly goals. Simply put: to create hope for the future. 

Recommendations

The Heinrich-von-Stephan Oberschule is a model worthy of consideration for overcoming two institutional barriers in the German school-system that significantly hinder upward educational mobility for low-income students: 1) an impermeable tracking system; and 2) limited support structures for overworked teachers and students with low self-esteem.

The only effective way to combat unequal access to quality education for “first generation students” would be an overhaul reform of the system to end the early separation. As David Carey, a researcher from the OECD Economics Department, stresses, the model of a Hauptschule and Realschule hybrid school “reduces socio-economic segregation between schools and avoids the risk of very weak students being grouped together in a single school type (Hauptschule) with low achievement expectations,” (Carey, 29). Although public initiatives like the creation of more Gemeinschaftsschulen are a step in the right direction, such partnership schools might be overly ambitious, and underestimate the challenge from educated parents who would never consider sending their otherwise Gymnasium-bound children to an experimental school. 

Instead, we envision the reproduction of more schools with the structure of Heinrich-von-Stephan Oberschule, but with far more mentorship for students and teacher support. Mentorship both ignites and feeds a student’s fire of ambition, and is one of the most important factors in achieving educational success. A class-teacher, who takes interest in students’ academic development, a grandmother who supports “idealistic” dreams, or older friends, who walk younger kids through the challenges they have learned from—all are empowering examples. But mentoring can only work if there is a close relationship between mentor and mentee. 

Programs like Teach First Deutschland could provide an excellent platform, as it takes promising, young teachers who can positively influence students both in and outside of the classroom. For such programs, however, the most difficult step is to inform and involve the prospective mentees as Kaija Landsberg stresses.

Even a completely unstratified system will fail students if the teachers are not well supported, the school is not demanding of its students, and parental outreach is limited. Teachers must have high expectations that must be reflected in the curriculum and workload. Once the level of achievement at such schools is higher, the transition to schools like Gemeinschaftsschule will be much smoother and publicly accepted. Additionally, more campaigns like Arbeitskreis Neue Erziehung can help increase awareness for parents on important issues regarding their children’s educational opportunities.

We envision the creation of more model Hauptschule-Realschule schools that would provide all students with the opportunities and resources they need to pursue options of higher education. Specifically, within these types of schools there will exist a strong mentor-mentee program that matches mentors who come from similar backgrounds, are close in age to the students, and can relate to them in their daily lives. These prospective mentors could be alumni of the school or university students who have demonstrated an awareness and strong sense of educational inequality. The power of having student mentors who can relate through similar experiences and backgrounds, instead of older mentors who may not be able to connect on many levels with a student due to age differences, and varying socioeconomic or cultural backgrounds, can fundamentally change a young student’s perception of their own potential to succeed through educational opportunities. 

Walking out of the Heinrich-von-Stephan Oberschule with Josslien and Maria, we ran into Ms. Jaeger in the school yard. Rather than having to dodge flying chairs, she was met with two warm hugs. The pride on Ms. Jaeger’s face as she congratulated her former students on their academic successes epitomized the success stories of students who achieved educational upward mobility despite the rigid system. As we left the school that day, we saw the ideal components of an educational support system that could be—a teacher who works beyond just her role as an educator, students who achieved higher levels of education because of their unwavering motivation, and a pool of young students ready to be mentored and inspired toward achieving higher levels of education. 

References

Interviews

Free University Students, Free University, Berlin, Germany. June 24, 2008.

Government Official, Federal Ministry for Economic Collaboration and Development, Berlin, Germany. July 1, 2008

Humboldt University Students, Humboldt University, Berlin, Germany. June 24, 2008. 

Jens Großpietsch, Headmaster, Heinrich-von-Stephan Oberschule, Berlin, Germany. June 19, 2008. 

Kaija Landsberg, Founder, Teach First Deutschland, Berlin, Germany. June 27, 2008.

Karin Jaeger, Teacher, Heinrich-von-Stephan Oberschule, Berlin, Germany. June 19, 2008.

Maria Wiesemann and Josslien Sadtler, former students of Heinrich-von-Stephan Oberschule, Berlin, Germany. July 1, 2008.

Technical University Student, Free University Campus, Berlin, Germany. June 24, 2008.

Ulrich Raiser, Office of the Berlin Commissioner for Integration and Migration, Berlin, Germany. June 26, 2008.

Studies and Reports

“Bildung gegen Armut,” Der Spiegel, June 23, 2008.

Bruhn, Simon, and Henry Haaker. “Integrating Immigrants’ Children into Labor Markets: The Impact of Individual Social Capital,” Hertie School of Governance Berlin Master Thesis.

Carey, David. (2008), “Improving Education Outcomes in Germany,” OECD Economics Department Working Papers, No. 611, OECD Publishing.
 
“Coalition Treaty of the Berlin Senate.” Gemeinschaftsschuleberlin.de. 
http://www.Gemeinschaftsschule-berlin.de/article/33.koalitionsvereinbarung_zwischen_spd_und_linkspartei.html

Füller, Christian, and Wolf Schmidt. “Unsere Schule ist definitiv ungerecht,” Taz.de, December 4, 2007, 
http://www.taz.de/1/zukunft/wissen/artikel/1/unsere-schule-ist-definitiv-ungerecht/?src=MT&cHash=82288c53f8
 
Raiser, Ulrich. Erfolgreiche Migranten im deutschen Bildungssystem - es gibt sie doch, Lebensläufe von 
Bildungsaufsteigern türkischer und griechischer Herkunft, Berlin, 2007.

Reichardt, Lars. “Auf den Hund gekommen?“ Süddeutsche Zeitung Magazin, June 27, 2008.

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