I recently accepted a position as a professor at a German university. This is relatively unusual for an American, but several of the most prominent German universities are seeking to “internationalize” their faculties and student bodies in an effort to compete with their U.S. and British counterparts. I have been warmly welcomed and supported by my university. My son’s experience with the German school system could not be more different.
A bit of background is in order. He was an “A” student in California. And although he was 12 when we moved here, he had been learning German in school since age four and visited the country often. So, his German is very good, and he is proud to speak without the typical American accent. He also has minor learning challenges, which earlier in his school career required support in order to keep him organized and on track in school. His most obvious and enduring problem is dysgraphia. By the time we left California the only accommodation he still required was for his handwriting.
The public educational system in Germany is very different than that of the U.S. Children are tracked from grade five onwards into three streams, one of which is the college track. Traditionally these kids go the Gymnasium (grades 5-12 or 13). Future technical and office workers go the Realschule and go to an apprenticeship after 10th grade. Future tradespeople and laborers go to Hauptschule and go an apprenticeship after grade 9. The apprenticeship system seems very good at providing vocational skills. There was a reform in the 1970s that created unified comprehensive or Gesamtschule, where the tracking is internal.
After arriving in Germany we sent our son to the local public Gymnasium, which has a reputation for being one of the best. We now understand that part of what people seem to understand as "best" includes it being very traditional, with an incredibly narrow approach to the kind of learner that fits and an amazing amount of discretion in the hands of the teachers.
We were surprised to find that 50-65% of a student’s semester grade in each class depends upon class participation, defined mostly—but not only—as raising one’s hand. The best justification that we have heard of this grading practice is that it encourages important discursive abilities. But among my son’s many friends it is widely viewed as corrupt, allowing a wide field of arbitrary assessment in which teachers reward their favorite students and punish those whom they dislike.
Being somewhat reticent to speak in class when he was new, our son began to be perceived by his teachers—despite the obvious explanation of being in a foreign environment—as an inadequate student. His music teacher used the sophisticated pedagogical technique of pubic shaming to announce in front of the entire class that unless he participated more he would certainly fail her class. Incidences such as these, of course, did nothing to bolster his self-confidence.
The hostility to him has been distressingly widespread. We asked his German teacher if he could have some additional time for writing an upcoming test. She said that she had not heard of many cases of such handwriting difficulty and seemed a bit incredulous. Although she agreed to give him a little extra time, when the day came she did not honor the request. Given the conditions, we did not expect a high mark, but we were surprised when he received a nearly failing grade. So, we showed the test to a retired German teacher and a teacher of German as a second language, and both, independently, said that the grading made no accommodation for German not being his native language. Both noted too that it was evident that the arduous task of writing had interfered with the exposition.
We subsequently learned that there is no official legal recognition of dysgraphia here in Germany and people at Gymnasium seem never to have heard of it! Kids who have such difficulties either get pushed along another track or find a means of survival in the Gymnasium environment, which can be openly hostile to learning differences.
We formally requested that the school accommodate our son simply by allowing him to type his homework and by granting him more time to write his tests. Between the time of that request and the formal answer, our son’s history teacher announced to the entire class that even if our son had a learning disability, his main problem is laziness.
Because we did not see ourselves as requesting that heaven and earth be moved, we were dumbstruck when the teachers and the principal turned down the request. Not only was it rejected on grounds that the diagnosis providing its justification is from an American doctor, the teachers and the principal also opined that the real problem is that our son simply is not working hard enough. In reality, he works very hard just to perform the writing they demand of him.
Although dysgraphia is not legally recognized in Germany, schools are legally required to accommodate disabled students. EU member states, such as Germany, are signatories of the United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (UNCRPD). [Editor’s note: which the United States, incredibly, has not joined!] The EU Disability Strategy 2010-2020 was developed to implement the UNCRPD, and it calls for an inclusive education for children with disabilities. But, so far, the culture of elitism in the gymnasium system has not yielded much to the demands of human rights. And it seems that most German parents who do not want to foreclose the opportunity of their children going to college but whose children don't fit the narrow learning profile send their children to the Gesammtschule rather than having them go through the humiliation of the Gymnasium.
When we discussed the situation with our son’s pediatrician, she was not at all surprised. Her husband--who is a professor of education--wrote a book criticizing such practices in schools and it was considered very controversial. Apparently, many teachers see it as part of their professional prerogative to treat children in that manner. She said that in her experience, students who deviate even slightly from the standard learning profile are told by means of shame, humiliation, and hostility that they don’t belong in the Gymnasium. Eventually they leave, and the teachers have one less problem to deal with.
One important function of human rights is to protect those who are vulnerable to the arbitrary use of power. Children who are struggling to succeed in a hostile environment, made possible because of the wide latitude for arbitrary evaluation by adults, are especially vulnerable. If a socially privileged American kid with minor learning difficulties is made to suffer so at the hands of adult educators, the plight of children far less fortunate must be much worse. The message these kids are being sent is you’re different; you don’t belong here—get lost!
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