Schooling in Germany

My child’s kindergarten has three groups of children: the mouse group, the mole group, and the eagle group. I often wonder about the phase transition between the first two and the third groups, and what makes a kid an eagle versus a mole. “The little kids go to mouse group, the talented ones to eagle group, the stinky ones to mole group,” I’d imagine. But it turns out, rather uninterestingly, that the sorting is based on age. And I’m not saying this because my kid’s in the mole group.

But schools in Germany do quite an early selection into different streams. By the 5th grade, kids are sorted into “academic”, “vocational”, and “sporty” (I broadly paraphrase here, and might be missing a few other classifications: “artsy”, “jailbird”). The teachers have a strong, sometimes absolute, influence on the categorization. And it is quite tricky to shift from one sort to another down the line.

Which leads to interesting problems, as a recent conversation with a colleague revealed. Turns out, my colleague spent a sabbatical year outside of Germany when his daughter was in the 4th grade. When he comes back, his kid is uncategorized, because she wasn’t observed in the 4th grade. Moreover, this is in a state where the teachers’ categorization is absolute. So without the categorization there is no school ready to accept the kid! Suggested solution: have the child repeat fourth grade. Ouch. Ain’t he glad he wasn’t away for 5 years?

A loophole exists. Move to a state where the parents can decide on the sorting, get the kid in school, and move back. (Transfers between schools of the same sort are allowed.) But curricula vary widely across states. So for example in Bavaria, the kids learn German and Latin (!) in school, in other states, they learn German and English, German and French, German and Russian. So moving across states effectively involves “repeating” a grade.

It turned out ok for my friend, because the teachers decided to accept the kid with only a preliminary evaluation. But I think it is a bad thing overall to make moving such a hassle. There must be an economic theory correlating fluidity of the workforce to the output of the economy. Intuitively, it seems an economy should do better if the workforce can move, in zero time, where labor is most required. Specifically, for highly skilled people such as researchers, the hassle or impossibility of a move due to external constraints such as schooling can mean sub-optimal allocations of resources across the country.

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