Since the turn of the 21st century, the German government has been focused on making the country’s education system more efficient and reducing the number of years children spend at the Gymnasium (high school that prepares students for university) from nine to eight (also known as the G8 reform). Since the amount of content students have to cover as part of the curriculum has not changed, this reform has led to an increase in learning intensity. This increased learning intensity has led to less equality of educational opportunity, that is, educational outcomes have become more dependent on factors over which students have no control, such as their socioeconomic background. In the long term, equality of educational opportunity decreased relatively by around 25 per cent over the observation period. These are the findings of a recent study carried out by the Centre for European Economic Research (ZEW) in Mannheim.

According to ZEW study, increased learning intensity leads to less equal opportunities
Germany’s G8 reform has led to increased inequality in terms of educational opportunity.

The ZEW study examines if – and if so, how – higher learning intensity affects equality of educational opportunity. The study uses data for the years 2003, 2006, 2009 and 2012 from the international school performance study PISA-I, which contains information on the competency of 14-to-15-year-old Gymnasium students from different German states in reading, mathematics and science.

The ZEW study measures equality of educational opportunity as the share of variance in the standardised PISA scores that can be solely attributed to external circumstances. External circumstance, such as gender, household income or parents’ education level – factors over which the individual has no control – are responsible for 20 to 30 per cent of the variance in the PISA test scores of German school students on the academic track.

The ZEW study also attempts to determine whether there is a connection between the increased learning intensity caused by the G8 reform and equality of opportunity. While in the short term, that is, in the school years shortly after the introduction of the reform, the higher learning intensity had no direct impact on equality of opportunity. In the medium term, that is, for the fourth year group affected by the reform onwards, however, equality of opportunity dropped in relative terms by at least 25 per cent.

“Support for students should be less dependent on family circumstances”

“Students from academic households have access to a wider range of resources provided by their parents to help them deal with the increased learning intensity. This includes both the willingness on the part of the parents to pay for tutoring and to spend time helping their children with their homework,” explains the author of the study Sebastian Camarero Garcia, a researcher in the ZEW Research Group “International Distribution and Redistribution”. “One way of increasing equality of opportunity in education would be for the government to invest more money in all-day schools in order to provide more equal access to additional individual support opportunities for all students. In general, we need to ensure that the level of support students receive is less dependent on the socioeconomic background in which they grow up. In trying to find the ideal level of learning intensity, it is important that we think not only in terms of improved efficiency but also in terms of fairness and equality when it comes to educational outcomes. Curricular content should therefore be adjusted to balance both concerns.”

Looking at the reduced equality of opportunity resulting from shortening the duration of the Gymnasium, there are certain subject-specific differences. Skills in mathematics and science have seen a more significant impact from the increased learning intensity than reading skills. “This could be due to the fact that the course content for mathematics and science usually needs to be taught by a teacher in school, whereas reading skills can to a large extent be developed in students’ everyday lives,” says Sebastian Camarero Garcia.

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