Quick! Somebody translate Tom Loveless’s latest Fordham study, Tracking and Detracking, into German. A recent education-reform proposal in Hamburg, Germany (one of two German city-states, which make their own education policy like the other German Länder), has sparked a heated debate about tracking. Today, Hamburg students attend Grundschule, or elementary school, until age 10, at which point they enter one of six different high school tracks based on their academic records and teacher recommendations. The state government’s proposal would extend elementary school from four to six years, meaning students would enter secondary education at 12 (equivalent to grade 6) instead of 10 (grade 4); reduce the number of high school tracks from six to two, both of which would offer the Abitur college entrance examination; and eliminate parents’ right to choose their children’s schools, since pushy middle-class parents often game the system. “Social distance is diminished when children learn longer together,” explains Hamburg’s education minister, Christa Goetsch. This view is compounded by the fact that a middle-class Hamburger is 4.5 times more likely than a working-class child with the same grades to get into the most academically-oriented high schools--and secondary-education tracks are highly predictive of socioeconomic status and future career path. The state of Berlin (the other city-state) has already extended Grundschule to age 12 with nominal effect, but minimizing tracks and eliminating choice are untried in the German system. Even supporters of American-style tracking, such as this fly, must admit that Germany’s ancient version is in need of some changes; deciding in fourth grade that a child will never go to an elite college is much too deterministic for our taste. But Hamburgers had better be careful not to toss the Käse out with the Brot; high achieving kids still deserve an opportunity for challenge.
“The angst in Hamburg,” The Economist, December 10, 2009