How does the school system work in Germany?
The transition from primary to secondary school plays an important role in determining educational biographies. Compared with those of other countries, the German school system separates children into different academic tracks fairly early – typically around the age of ten. While most states leave the secondary school track decision to parents, Bavaria, Brandenburg, and Thuringia have binding track recommendations. In Baden-Württemberg, which abolished binding track recommendations in 2012, politicians are currently discussing whether to reinstate them.
What are the pros and cons of binding recommendations?
For years now, researchers and policymakers have been debating their effects. Critics argue that they curtail parents’ freedom. Moreover, they point out that most recommendations are generally not based on standardised performance criteria and but instead on subjective evaluations, which may be subject to systematic distortions. For instance, children whose parents have a lower educational level are less likely to receive a recommendation for the Gymnasium, the most advanced secondary school track in the German educational system, than children of more educated parents with similar competences. By contrast, proponents of binding recommendations maintain that leaving the decision to parents can increase educational inequality because more educated parents are more likely to enrol their children in the Gymnasium even without a recommendation for the highest track. This, they argue, can amplify social segregation at the secondary school level.
You carried out a study examining the effects of binding school recommendations on pupils. What did you find?
Our study was the first to show that binding recommendations can affect performance and well-being at the primary school level. They act as incentives that lead to higher achievement. Without binding recommendations, pupils performed worse in all tested domains: by 12.5 to 17.5 per cent in maths, and by 10 to 20 per cent in reading, comprehension, and spelling. In states with binding recommendations, pupils also spent more time on self-study. These effects do not appear to be driven by parental behaviour such as checking homework or arranging for a private tutor.
But the improved performance has a downside, doesn’t it?
Yes. Though the pressure improved performance in all tested domains, it lowered the well-being of pupils. We found that pupils in the fourth year are more anxious about their school performance and their future, and took less pleasure in learning with binding recommendations. In the end it is up to parents and policymakers to decide whether track recommendations should be binding. The decision depends on whether one is willing to accept increased pressure on pupils and the associated detrimental effects on well-being in return for higher pupil achievement.