Is the German education good?

Criticism of the German education system : Permeable, but not fair

Aladin El-Mafaalani has a special eye for the paradox. The educational scientist and sociologist landed a bestseller with his first book “Das Integrationsparadox”, now he has taken on another topic that is also full of contradictions. “The myth of education. The unjust society, its educational system and its future ”is the title of his latest work, which will be published this Thursday. And where does he discover it this time, the paradox?

Successful integration, this was the basic thesis of his much-discussed title from 2018, is inevitably associated with an increase in conflicts. El-Mafaalani, professor of educational science with a focus on upbringing and education in the migration society at the University of Osnabrück, used the picture from the table where suddenly not only white men are sitting, but also women, migrants and other disadvantaged groups, which until now have symbolized had to squat on the floor.

Everyone wants to participate and participate, but that does not lead to general happiness, but on the contrary to distribution struggles. The “newcomers” don't just want a piece of the cake, after a short time they also want to have a say in the recipe for the cake to be distributed.

Paradoxically, successful integration is therefore associated with more friction and arguments, because: “You have come closer.” After all! Because the alternative - those at the table stay among themselves, those who never come up on the floor - you cannot seriously wish for.

Higher educational qualifications, but the gap remains

El-Mafaalani knows the German education system from many perspectives, as a pupil, student, vocational school teacher, university professor, ministerial official, educational researcher and as a father. For him, the core problem of the German education system is its injustice: it reproduces social inequality. Poor children - whether with or without a migration background, around 20 percent of all children in Germany - still have significantly worse chances, their talents are not recognized.

And lo and behold, a paradox: “The German education system is now generally much more permeable than it used to be. Paradoxically, more permeability does not lead to less educational inequality, but to new problems. "

According to El-Mafaalani's analysis, the educational expansions in the last 60 years have in part even exacerbated the social disadvantage: As more and more young people are graduating from high school and studying, simple and intermediate educational qualifications have lost their value and no longer guarantee a safe place in society.

At the same time, solidarity structures have dissolved in the social “below”: “Those who fail today are supposed to be their own fault.” But if 79 out of 100 university graduates are studying, but only 27 out of 100 non-university graduates and only twelve, if both parents have no vocational qualifications, then it cannot only have to do with individual preferences and talents.

Apart from that, he sees an “elevator effect”: If everyone goes up one floor from different starting points (acquire a higher education qualification), the distance between the groups remains the same.

Especially privileged people take advantage of additional offers

However one defines “education” - as an accumulation of economically usable skills or as comprehensive personal development - according to El-Mafaalani, both perspectives have one thing in common: They are largely blind to social inequalities. As long as this is the case, even well-intentioned measures such as expanding early childhood education could not have a compensatory effect. Because the additional offers are mainly accepted by privileged families, their children benefit more from them, so that the distance to the disadvantaged children even increases.

So much for a few paradoxes of the educational system, which the author describes clearly as usual. And where is the “myth” mentioned in the book title? Especially here: Education is overrated, writes El-Mafaalani, it is seen as a panacea. Wrongly: "I can't think of any relevant problem in Germany for which education could be a solution."

It is neither a solution for climate change - educated people, i.e. people who tend to be richer, consume more CO2 - nor does it work against the shift to the right: academics are overrepresented among populists and extremists.

But if education could not have any positive effects, or solve any social problem, then there would be no need to write books about it. El-Mafaalani strongly believes that a changed education system could reduce social inequality and better prepare all children for an uncertain future. And he has a number of suggestions that are not new, but seldom have been played through so consistently with regard to social inequality.

Invest massively in daycare centers and primary schools

The change should begin in the socially disadvantaged areas and where disadvantage can be combated most effectively because all children can be reached: at daycare centers and primary schools. Massive investments are required here. Day-care centers, elementary schools and lower secondary level in Germany are underfunded in an OECD comparison. In contrast, spending on upper secondary education - which no longer reaches all children - is well above the OECD average.

[Aladin El-Mafaalani: The Myth of Education - The Unjust Society, Its Education System and Its Future. Kiepenheuer & Witsch, 2020. 320 pages, 20 euros]

The expansion of all-day schools is central. Multi-professional teams from areas such as health, social affairs, psychology, art and culture are to develop a stimulating program so that all children can "experience everything the world has to offer", from botany, cooking and theater to learning to play a musical instrument. Because privileged and non-privileged children differ primarily in their living environments and experience horizons - teaching alone cannot even out these differences. This is one of the reasons why the involvement of parents and mentoring programs are so important.

The teachers, for their part, should be able to concentrate on the lessons and not be overwhelmed with tasks such as social work and constant reforms. Open teaching concepts in which the teacher acts as a "coach" are often not useful for disadvantaged children - because they have not learned to approach topics in a self-disciplined manner and with their own questions.

El-Mafaalani does not share the often sung ideal of a school in which "the children should discover the world freely and independently and the teachers are only companions on the path to self-development and appropriation of the world". This ideal, which does not take into account social contexts and privileges, is full of blind spots.

El-Mafaalani is not calling for a revolution

For him, however, “inequality-sensitive self-reflection” is indispensable: Teachers should be clear about how much their social background shapes themselves and the children. This is not easy, because in the decades since the Pisa shock, science has mainly focused on educational tests and comparability.

They give far too little help in discovering and developing the talents of disadvantaged children.

El-Mafaalani does not call for a revolution in teaching or the school system. He does not want to abolish the grammar school or educational federalism, but instead advocates a two-tier secondary school system in which every school enables every qualification, as is largely the case in Berlin.

More for educational insiders

His pragmatism in this regard is beneficial. "Ideological disputes do not lead to any further - the equipment of the individual school, the cooperation with parents and other actors are many times more decisive than abstract system questions."

Anyone who enjoyed reading “The Integration Paradox” may find “The Education Myth” a bit abstract in parts: El-Mafaalani is essentially based on studies and figures, concrete examples from people or schools or personal experiences are rare - the book is more for Insider of Education wrote about as for parents.

In the end, however, one thing is clear: if social inequality is reduced, that will not make us a harmonious society either. As soon as the opportunities for children from disadvantaged backgrounds to participate increase, there are even more people at the table, the potential for conflict increases - and with it the need to learn how to argue fairly. And there we have it again, the paradox that we have to live with.

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