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Integration Through Education? Limits and Possibilities of Education Policy Concerning Immigrants

The Symptoms

Among students with a Turkish background, many do not speak German. Such students are unable to integrate into German society and are often unable to finish school. As a result, they will end up unemployed and ostracized from the world around them. “This is a social bomb. One day this will explode if you don’t invest in their education,” said Özcan Mutlu, Berlin Parliament member and spokesperson for education policy in the Green Party.

The Question of Responsibility

Blame has been heaped upon Germany’s education system and its policy makers after the PISA (Program for International Student Assessment) study’s poor German results provoked a general education crisis with increased public criticism. Because Germany did not consider itself to be an immigration country for a long time, it did not address the problem of educating migrant children, according to Thomas Isensee, department head for education policy at the Teachers’ Union GEW Berlin. “School administration and politicians more or less refused to deal with the affairs of children who didn’t speak German as their primary language.”

The debate concerning this issue grows more complex as other immigrant groups seem to have more success within the system. André Schindler, president of the Berlin State Parents Association (Landeselternausschuss), blames parents. Schindler thinks the schools offer enough opportunities these days, and it is the Turkish and Arab parents, who are unwilling to integrate, that prevent their children from succeeding.

Beyond Blame?

At the heart of the problem, we found an entanglement of bad policy, cultural clashes, and class stratification. The state’s role in resolving these issues is unclear. However, what can be done should be done to aid and integrate children who continue to fail only due to language deficiencies.

Our Focus

In the interest of taking pragmatic steps toward the integration of non-German speaking students, we will focus on the limits and possibilities of education policy toward the largest immigrant community in Germany – the Turkish.

The problem is mainly with Turkish children, born in Germany, who speak neither proper Turkish nor German. The language barrier must be breached, and it must be done early when language acquisition occurs. For this reason, we will focus on primary school because, as the first step in the education system, it is the basis for learning and becoming “German”.  

We will focus on Berlin because education is a state, or Länder, issue in Germany and the Berlin Land, where some schools have over 90 percent non-German students, provides an ideal case study for these issues.

Short List of “The Problems”

The road to integration is littered with obstacles. The refusal to accept Germany as an immigration country for so long has imposed a mentality of inaction throughout the system. Policy makers are unwilling to fund programs to integrate students who are unable to communicate. Frustrated and aging teachers, who are working more and being paid less, are monolingual and mono-cultural, overloaded and untrained for the demands of a multiethnic class. Multicultural curricula are often unavailable in schools where the vast majority of students are not ethnically German. The general lack of communication between schools and parents in the school system is worsened in immigrant areas where parents cannot speak German and are afraid or unwilling to make contact.

At home, the students cannot speak German with their parents, who may be illiterate in both German and Turkish because many never received any proper education. Uninterested in education or relying blindly on schools, these parents cannot read to children, help them with their homework, or encourage them to succeed. Families do however worry about traditional social roles, which often times inhibits the education of daughters. These families often reside within parts of Berlin, which have been dubbed ghettos because middle class families of all backgrounds have left for “better” areas. In these ghettos, residents watch Turkish television, read Turkish newspapers, and live their lives entirely in Turkish. Staying at home with kids, “import wives” from arranged marriages in Turkey cannot speak let alone teach German, fostering a continuation of the first generation phenomenon.

So what is to be done?

Solutions Inside Schools

The 2001 PISA and 2003 IGLU (International Primary School Reading Survey) studies evaluated the comparative capability of students from various countries through standardized testing. The PISA results reflected poorly on Germany as its students ranked in the bottom third of all areas. They also indicated a close link between academic achievement and the pupils’ social backgrounds. The IGLU results indicated that students with a migration background are less likely to succeed than their German-German peers and this achievement gap is greater in Germany than in most other countries.

The Berlin Parliament recently passed a new school law in an attempt to deal with the public outcry concerning these results. “The new school law we have now is the first one, as far as Berlin is concerned, at least mentioning the problem [of non-German speaking pupils] and saying … that something has to be done,” Isensee from the teachers’ union said.  

These new school law measures, as well as many previous or unimplemented projects, concerning the integration of immigrants will be discussed and evaluated.

German as a Second Language

In addition to their normal classes, non-German speaking children receive extra German language instruction in the form of DaZ (German as a second language), which varies in structure between schools. Despite the Berlin Parliament website’s claim that DaZ training is occurring, DaZ class, if conducted at all, are usually taught by untrained teachers and have only recently developed established curricula, according to Havva Engin, researcher of intercultural pedagogy at the Berlin Technical University.

Another method of teaching German to those with immigrant background is bilingual education. “It’s always good to have a mother tongue and to build something else on the mother tongue,” said Claudia Buchert, teacher at a Berlin primary school and teacher trainer. “Children raised with Turkish […]are told not to speak Turkish and it is bad to speak Turkish.  It’s bad for their self-confidence.”

Irfan Kizgin, employee for the Turkish Parents Association, felt that ignoring the Turkish language is a waste of human resources and of bilingual people’s potential. “When you teach their mother tongue, students feel more accepted and integrated.” He described two models of bilingual education – one with parallel Turkish and German instruction and another in which proper Turkish is taught first. “Both have been successful when you ask teachers.” However, because the state campaigned for immigrants to learn German as fast as possible, Kizgin has experienced that many Turkish parents don’t want bilingual education.

As the bilingual program spread to more schools, the education administration refused to provide additional funding, and schools could not find enough qualified teachers. As a result, the program was dropped from all but eight schools. “All these good projects are stopped even if they make good progress even if they make good experiences,” Mutlu, member of the Berlin parliament, said. “And the reason they stop it is because they don’t want to finance it anymore. It’s crazy. It’s stupid.”

One successful effort to institutionalize bilingual education is the German-Turkish European School, which was established in 1996. The school is funded by the state and due to its continual success, it has many more applicants than available spaces. However, the Turkish students at the school are, for the most part, fluent in German, and their parents send them to the school to retain the Turkish language, according to Ayse Bardak, teacher at the school.

As previously mentioned, the new school law has begun to address the issue of language in schools. It has emphasized the importance of learning German early on in kindergarten (for ages 3-6), which is normally not part of the school system although they are usually subsidized by the state.

There is some discussion of making kindergartens free and mandatory for all children. “If they don’t speak the language when they enter primary school, they don’t get nearly half of what has been said in class so they miss all that is taught in the beginning and it is hard to compensate in later years because you miss too much – they get a really bad start,” Schindler from the Berlin State Parents’ Association said.

Others are not as enthusiastic about learning German in kindergarten. “It’s a good idea […], but the problem is our kindergarten teachers are not trained to offer language education,” education expert Engin said. “Despite kindergarten, the children still go into primary school with language problems.” She also believes that since 92 percent of Berlin immigrants already attend kindergarten, it is unnecessary to make them mandatory.

The new school law also stipulates that a test should be administered to judge German language ability when enrolling in primary school. Children, who do not meet the requirements and are not enrolled in kindergarten, will be enrolled in a six-month German language program prior to primary school. Mutlu doubts the success of the program because it lacks funding, curriculum with sufficient hours, and trained teachers. Despite these shortfalls, the program is scheduled to begin on February 2005.


New teachers are in short supply due to surplus of teachers hired in the 1970s. These teachers are approaching sixty and their teaching methods have remained much the same throughout their careers. No additional training is mandatory so most are ill equipped to deal with emerging immigrant student needs. “As I do training courses, I know how difficult it is to change their teaching,” Buchert said. “We need a new generation of teachers with new ideas.” Marion Berning, principal of the Rixdorfer Grundschule in Neukoelln, agreed but added that new teachers must be gradually incorporated so they can benefit from the experience of older teachers.

To make a difference, these new teachers must be properly trained to deal with non-German speaking students and all teachers should receive similar training on a regular basis. Isensee from the teachers’ union criticizes the New School Law because it changes teacher training structurally but does not reform training contents to deal with emerging issues.

Furthermore, the recruitment of qualified bilingual teachers with a migrant background is essential. Such teachers could serve as positive role models. “These bilingual teachers will be like a bridge […] to the kids so the kids can cross and come to the German language, come to the German culture,” Mutlu said. He mentioned that ads on Turkish television and print media encourage teaching as a career for Turkish youth. Currently, there are only a handful of qualified bilingual teachers because jobs in the public service are restricted to those with German nationality and the German authorities are extremely critical of teacher training done abroad.

Structural Changes

Calls for structural change in the German education system increased with PISA comparison results, which revealed the success of other nations’ structural reforms. The new school law attempts to deal with some reform, continuing smaller classes in schools with over 40 percent migrants.  Policy makers hope that this will improve teachers’ ability to deal with students with special needs, such as those with language problems.

The new school law calls for an increase in all-day schools. The hope is that they will give greater equality of opportunity to children with disadvantaged backgrounds, who are given little encouragement to learn at home.

The new school law also lowers the school entrance age from six years to five and a half in an attempt to level the playing field for socially disadvantaged youths earlier. “They’re starting earlier but that doesn’t mean it’s better for migrant children,” education researcher Engin said. The younger students will now enter a “flexible entrance phase” under the new school law, which allows the first two years of instruction to be taught in one to three years, individualizing the early education process.  “The question is what happens after the three years,” Engin said. “I fear that the children from lower social classes will be the losers of the system because they will take three years, but after three years, they will have to go to the next grade even if they still have problems. The system, overall, is middle-class-oriented.”


“That’s one of the things [about] the German education administration. They’re living [in] a spaceship outside the real society,” Isensee from the teachers’ union said. “They don’t even understand what happens in the school because they are so far away.”

A serious lack of communication exists between educators and policy makers and administrators. With the growing complexity of teaching multi-cultural students and the lack of research on the topic, the need for dialogue is pressing.

“The new school law won’t work because it was made without people with practical experience”, Berning said. Programs to deal with integration face added difficulties as those who are forced to implement them do not feel their experiences are considered and as a result do not believe in them.

When constructing new laws, policy makers rarely consult educators on the ground. Reforming the law-making process to include such views would not only provide a valuable perspective, especially in integration, but would also provide support to such policies by those who implement them.

Intercultural Curriculum and Teaching Materials

Intercultural curricula and minority representation in teaching materials is also a concern in multi-ethnic classrooms. Teaching the history of the crusades is difficult in a class where the vast majority is Muslim, Mutlu said. He mentioned a textbook story about a playground. “Within this story, you read names like Franz, Hans, Antje, but you don’t read names like Fatmah, Ali, or Ayse,” he said. “When you look around, these names are everywhere, but they are invisible in textbooks and invisible in curricula, and unfortunately, almost invisible in teacher training.” Mutlu feels that education needs to reflect reality.


But inclusion of minorities in class material may not be sufficient. “Only a black girl in a textbook is not enough. It is what’s in the heads of the teachers that needs to change,” teacher Buchert said. “They must not focus on the children as problems, but as an addition to what we have and see that we can learn from each other.”

And perhaps it is not just the heads of the teachers, which must change, but the heads of everyone involved. Isensee sees the failure to respond as an issue of leadership. With the political leadership split on the issue of Germany as an immigration country, the heads of the parents, teachers, and students are still caught up in the mentality that it is unusual for so many foreigners to be here, Isensee said.

Lack of Funding

A little good will can go a long way, but proper financial support must be available as well. “It’s always an issue of money,” Buchert said. “Berlin should invest more money in education.” Yet, Engin thought improving schools is not a matter of more money, but more quality – efficiency and mentality. She said that putting the money already available to good use by shifting funds to primary schools is a priority. Berning also felt that more should be invested in primary school. “If you do it here, you have no problems later.  Sure it’s expensive but less than if you have to deal with the problems later on.”

While Berlin is currently experiencing a financial crisis, Mutlu does not think this should prevent spending on education. “It’s a question of priorities.  What is important to you within the future of the society?  For the future of our kids, you have to concentrate on education,” he said.

Solutions Outside Schools

Yet while the problems outside the schoolyard are perhaps more important, they are problems that fester outside the reach of education policy.

Entire neighborhoods of Berlin have turned into low-income minority areas or “ghettos”. These so-called ghettos play a major role in inhibiting the development of the German language in youth. Schools are often overwhelmingly non-German speaking in composition due to middle-class flight and an influx of Turkish peoples into “ghettos.”

Johannes Moes, a parent in the immigrant heavy neighborhood of Kreuzberg, moved his child from a school where 90 percent of the students were non-German. Most of the kids spoke Turkish to each other so he feared that his child would be unable to communicate and socialize with the other children. He felt that the abandonment of such schools is a class issue. “It’s not only the Germans, but also the Turkish middle-class taking children from Kreuzberg and moving somewhere else.” Choosing a middle ground, Moes chose to change schools but stay within the Kreuzberg district.

Such decisions resulted in a voluntary segregation of Berlin schools, prompting calls for action. A policy of busing students from school to school to diversify the students was implemented but has since been halted.

Despite public disdain for residential segregation, some believe that minority-heavy neighborhoods are not necessarily the problem. Engin believes that if such areas include primary schools with proper instruction and high levels of education with support for the pupils, they can succeed.

Engin cites two successful models for improving migrant-heavy schools, which brought back the middle-class students who left. Through volunteer projects involving innovative teaching methods, aesthetic improvements for facilities, and community involvement, two primary schools in Schoeneberg and Wedding, Spreewald-Grundschule and Erika-Mann-Grundschule, were able to improve integration despite poverty and high unemployment in the area.

The most difficult and perhaps most important issue is that of culture: A combination of factors such as poverty, class stratification, gender roles, and traditional attitudes toward education has developed into a formidable affront to education in neighborhoods where German language skills of so-called third generation immigrants are worse than that of the second generation.  The state’s role in dealing with such issues is heavily debated, but some steps have been taken by individual schools and policy makers to improve the situation.  

To help families, unable or unwilling to communicate with schools, principal Berning implemented programs to integrate migrant families into school life. Her Rixdorfer Grundschule in the district of Reinickendorf throws a school party for the families and faculty. Such social events as well as voluntary work for the school foster a sense of community and identification with the school, which allows parents to play a more active role in their child’s education.

Berning instructed her teachers to visit and speak with these parents, convincing them that it is important to have an education to work and earn money. Similar efforts are taking place among immigrant organizations such as the Turkish Parents Association, which offers consulting and classes for the Turkish community.

Principal Berning is also the founder of a program to teach German to parents in the mornings. Since 1999, the program has been implemented in five districts of Berlin in cooperation with the Volkshochschule, an adult education institution.

Hella Joanni has been a German teacher for parents at the Hunsrük Grundschule since 1999. She sees educating children as the goal of the program: “If you want to improve the children’s performance in school in German, you have to start with the parents too."

She feels that the education of the children depends a great deal on the attitude of the parents. “Children are happy that their mothers are learning German. Children want to integrate,” Joanni said. “If they have a mother at home who doesn’t have anything to do with the life they live everyday, it’s really hard for them.”  

However, learning German is often not easy for these women. “The husbands feel threatened because women have a specific position in their society. When their wives know German too, they lose power and they are afraid of emancipation,” Joanni said.

Conclusion – Our Hope

A number of programs have been listed to deal with the issue of integration in primary schools. They have experienced limited success but have floundered upon expansion for the many reasons discussed above. What remains necessary is a change in attitude, a change in mentality on both sides of the fence – of the German society and the Turkish minority. While grassroots organizations and individuals are making progress, their effect will not be sufficient to stem the tide of uneducated residents. Educational failures around ethnic lines will be disastrous in the long term. As a result, leadership must step up to the plate. A rise in right-wing politicians under the flag of populism must be countered with statesmanship – not with the election term in mind, but with the future of modern society and democratic ideals in mind. Leaders must herald the call for integration because Germany does not need to decide if it will be an immigration country. It is an immigration country – with all the responsibilities entailed.



Bardak, Ayse, teacher at the German-Turkish European School in Kreuzberg, Interview 23 June 2004.

Berning, Marion, principal of Rixdorfer Grundschule in Neukoelln, Interview 25 June 2004.

Buchert, Claudia, teacher at The Reineke-Fuchs-Grundschule in Reinickendorf, Interview 24 June 2004.

Engin, Havva, researcher of Intercultural Pedagogy at the Technical University of Berlin, Interview 29 June 2004.

Isensee, Thomas, department head for Education Policy at the Teachers’ Union GEW Berlin, 29 June 2004.

Joanni, Hella, German instructor for parents at the Volkshochschule, Telephone Interview 23 June 2004.

Kizgin, Irfan, employee at the Turkish Parents’ Association, Interview 29 June 2004.

Moes, Johannes, parent, Telephone Interview 24 June 2004.

Mutlu, Özcan, member of the Berlin Parliament and Spokesperson for Education Policy of the Green Party, Interview 30 June 2004.

Schindler, André, president of the Berlin State Parents’ Association, 29 June 2004.


http://www.germanistik.fu-berlin.de/studierende/DAZ Page/Texte/SoSe03/Pekic_Schultze.htm



















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Germany Germany 2004


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