Determinants of Academic Attainment

generation ago the person least likely to attend a Gymnasium was a "catholic working class girl from the rural parts of Germany". Nowadays however the person least likely to attend a Gymnasium is a "minority youngster from the ghetto", who is "the son of immigrants"

The influence of social class on educational achievement is much greater in western Germany than it is in eastern Germany (former GDR). An analysis of PISA data on Gymnasium pupils for the year 2000 showed that, while in western Germany the child of an academic was 7.26 times as likely as that of a skilled worker to attend, in eastern Germany a child from an academic family was only 2.78 times as likely as a working class child to attend. The reasons for this were unclear. Some people believed that immigrants were responsible, because more uneducated immigrant families lived in western than in eastern Germany. This assumption however could not be confirmed. The difference between east and west was even stronger when only ethnic German children were studied.

Social class differences in educational achievement are much more marked in Germany's big cities than they are in the rural parts of Germany. In cities with more than 300,000 inhabitants, children of academics are 14.36 times as likely as children of skilled workers to attend Gymnasium.

Educational achievement varies more in German males than it does in German females: boys are more likely to attend special education schools but also more likely to be postgraduate students; 63% of pupils attending special education programs for the academically challenged are male. Males are less likely to meet the statewide performance targets, more likely to drop out of school and more likely to be classified emotionally disturbed. 86% of the pupils receiving special training because of emotional disturbance are male. Research shows a class-effect: native middle-class males perform as well as middle-class females in terms of educational achievement but lower-class males and immigrant males lag behind lower-class females and immigrant females. A lack of male role models contributes to a low academic achievement in the case of lower-class males. On the other hand, 58% of all postgraduate students and 84% of all German college professors were male in 2010.

Socioeconomic factors
Children from poor immigrant or working-class families are less likely to succeed in school than children from middle- or upper-class backgrounds. This disadvantage for the financially challenged of Germany is greater than in any other industrialized nation. However, the true reasons stretch beyond economic ones. The poor also tend to be less educated. After allowing for parental education, money does not play a major role in children's academic outcomes.

Immigrant children and youths, mostly of lower-class background, are the fastest-growing segment of the German population. So their prospects bear heavily on the well-being of the country. More than 30% of Germans aged 15 years and younger have at least one parent born abroad. In the big cities, 60% of children aged 5 years and younger have at least one parent born abroad. Immigrant children academically underperform their peers. Immigrants have tended to be less educated than native Germans. After controlling for parental education, ethnic group does not play a role in children's academic outcomes.

Immigrants from Pakistan, India, China and Vietnam perform exceptionally well. In eastern Germany, Vietnamese and Chinese of lower-class backgrounds outperform students from European backgrounds despite the fact that in most cases their parents are poorer and less educated than the parents of their European-born peers. Teachers in eastern Germany have also been shown to be more motivated than teachers in western Germany. That might be another reason for this Asian achievement.

ELEMENT-study Multiple Regression Analysis
Factors determinating mathematical performance in 6th-graders attending a Berlin primary school

Variable Beta (strength of influence)
general cognitive ability 0,236
German is spoken in the child's home no influence could be found
male gender no influence could be found
mathematical performance in 4th grade 0,540
Number of books present in the child's home 0,055
parents hold the Abitur (as compared to children of parents without school diploma) 0,144
parents hold the Hauptschulabschluss (as compared to children of parents without school diploma) no influence could be found
parents hold the Mittlere Reife (as compared to children of parents without school diploma) 0,096

The ELEMENT study dealt with determinants of academic achievement in Berlin. It was carried out in Berlin, where some of the pupils started at a Gymnasium after the 4th grade, while others stayed in primary school until 6th grade and started at different schools after the 6th grade. Factors correlated with academic achievement tend to be intercorrelated (that means that they are also correlated with other factors that determine academic achievement). The number of books owned by a pupil's parents, for example, is correlated with the parents' education. Because of this Multiple Regression Analysis was used. Multiple Regression allows us to understand the influence of one variable when the other variables are held fixed.

It was revealed by the study that the most important variable determining mathematical performance in the 6th grade was mathematical performance in the 4th grade. Children who have a head start in the 4th grade keep it until the 6th grade. It was also revealed by the study that some variables were immaterial. If a language other than German is spoken in the home that was correlated with poor mathematical performance in other studies. However correlation does not imply causation and the ELEMENT-study revealed that if other factors were taken into account for the language spoken at home, this had no effect on mathematical performance.

ELEMENT-long term study of the development of mathematical ability
Development in mathematical ability of children attending a Berlin primary school by parents' education

mathematical ability by 4th grade mathematical ability by 6th grade
Abitur 101,0 120,8
Hauptschulabschluss or similar diploma 91,1 108,2
Mittlere Reife or similar diploma 94,8 112,8
no school diploma 89,7 105,4

Development in mathematical ability of children attending a Berlin Gymnasium by parents education

mathematical ability by 4th grade (while still in primary school) mathematical ability by 6th grade (Gymnasium)
no school diploma 104,2 123,3
Hauptschulabschluss or similar diploma 111,0 128,8
Mittlere Reife or similar diploma 111,6 131,3
Abitur 114,5 135,2

The aim of another ELEMENT-study was to monitor the development of general mathematical ability. One finding is that those admitted to a Gymnasium after the fourth grade had showed better mathematical ability than those who stayed in primary school, ab initio. That was true for all social classes. Another finding was that children of all social classes did better in the sixth grade when they were at a Gymnasium. By the end of the sixth grade, those attending a Gymnasium were two years ahead of those attending a primary school.

Did the Gymnasium boost students ability? There are different opinions about this. Some argue that this is the cases and even after testing performance in grade four, those who were admitted to a Gymnasium outperformed their peers who were not at grade six. That was also the interpretation of Prof. Dr. Dr. Lehman, who did the study. He stated: The findings indicate that the Gymnasium help students of all social classes reach their full mathematical potential.

Others however, who have reanalized the data, claimed that those attending a Gymnasium were different ab initio and could not properly be compared to those attending a primary school. The data is of high political relevance as those who are in favour of the tripartite system and those who are in favour of comprehensive schools both use it to prove their point. Those, who are in favour of comprehensive schools, claim that the data shows that the primary schools which resembles a comprehensive schools boost children's ability, while those in favour of the tripartite system argue that the data shows the Gymnasium boost students ability.

Children whose families receive welfare, children whose parents dropped out of school, children of teenage parents, children raised by a lone parent, children raised in crime-ridden inner-city neighbourhoods, children who have multiple young siblings, and children who live in overcrowded substandard apartments are at risk of poor educational achievement in Germany. Often these factors go together, making it very hard for children to overcome the odds. A number of measures have been assessed to help those children reach their full potential.

Kindergarten has been shown to improve school readiness in children at risk. Children attending a kindergarten were less likely to have impaired speech or impaired motor development. Only 50% of children whose parents did not graduate from school are ready for school at age six. If such children were enrolled in a high-quality three-year Kindergarten programme, 87% were ready for school at age six. Thus Kindergarten helps to overcome unequal opportunities.

Families whose children are at risk for low academic achievement may be visited by trained professionals. They offer a wide variety of services that relate to each child's and each family's background and needs. Such professionals may visit pregnant low-income women and talk with them about positive health-related behaviors, such as following a healthy diet or refraining from the use of alcohol or tobacco while pregnant. Positive health-related behavior may have a major impact on children's school performance.

Home visitors may provide information on childcare and social services, help parents in crisis and model problem-solving skills. They may help implement the preschool/school curriculum at home or provide a curriculum of educational games designed to improve language, development and cognitive skills. In most cases, such support is offered to families on a voluntary basis. Families who are eligible for the program may decide for themselves whether or not they want to participate. There are no penalties if they decide against it or against continuing with the program.

Working class pupils
In Germany most children are streamed by ability into different schools after fourth grade. The Progress in International Reading Literacy Study revealed that working class children needed better reading abilities than middle-class children to be nominated for the Gymnasium. After allowing for reading abilities, odds to be nominated to Gymnasium for upper-middle-class children were still 2.63 times better than for working-class children.

Points needed to be nominated for Gymnasium

Teachers nominating
child for Gymnasium Parents wanting child
to attend Gymnasium
children from upper-middle-class backgrounds 537 498
children from lower-middle-class backgrounds 569 559
children of parents holding pink-collar jobs 582 578
children of self-employed parents 580 556
children from upper-working-class backgrounds 592 583
children from lower-working-class backgrounds 614 606

Germany's Left Party brought up the discussion about affirmative action. According to Stefan Zillich, quotas should be "a possibility" to help working class children who did not do well in school gain access to a Gymnasium. Headmasters of Gymnasien have objected, saying that this type of policy would "be a disservice" to poor children, that they would not be able to academically keep up with their classmates and that they would not feel welcome at a Gymnasium. Wolfgang Harnischfeger, headmaster of a well known Berlin Gymnasium, stated: "It can be noticed in children as young as kindergarten-age, that children take after their parents. They emulate their language, their way of dressing, their way of spending their freetime. Children from Neukölln (a poor neighbourhood) would not feel good about themselves if they had to attend that type of school that mainly serves pupils from social classes different from their own. They will not be able to integrate. Every field-day, every school party will show that very soon." He also said that "this kind of policy would weaken the Gymnasium" and that this would be dangerous, because "German society could not afford to do without the truly educated adults the Gymnasium produces". Stefan Zillich has answered to this, saying that "German society can not afford having only so few adults who were truly educated". While affirmative action laws were not passed (status: January 2010) sought after schools have been guaranteed the right to employ their own quotas since the 1970s.

Contemporary issues
There is a constant public debate about tracking students by ability into several types of secondary school (i.e. Gymnasium, Realschule and Hauptschule). Opponents of streaming by ability claim that streaming is unfair, that parents from higher socio-economic groups are more effective in sending children of similar aptitude to higher-level schools (Gymnasium). Proponents of streaming claim that it limits income segregation between rich and poor areas, as wealthier parents in poor neighborhoods may still send their gifted children to a fairly good public school due to streaming, giving them less motivation to move to a wealthier area. They also say that potential access to a Selective school would allow gifted children of lower-class parents living in poor neighborhoods better educational opportunities than if they were confined to schools with the average pupil population of their neighborhoods.
Opponents of streaming have pointed out that countries that performed very well in PISA, such as Finland, do not stream by ability. Proponents have pointed out that German comprehensive schools ranked below other German schools on PISA and that children from the lower socio-economic groups attending comprehensive schools fare worse in PISA than middle-class students attending the same schools.