The western education system fails

Bad German? Why the education system fails here

The Foreign Ministry's new integration report appeared a few days ago and there was great excitement. The reason for the excitement was the finding that in an OECD comparison the proportion of schoolchildren who speak a language other than German at home is disproportionately high. The differences are particularly clear in the second generation of immigrants: In the EU and OECD, 40 percent speak a different colloquial language than the language of instruction at home, compared to 73 percent in our country. That has put the tabloid media, but not only this, in an alarmist mood, which could be summarized as follows: In our school classes, especially in Vienna, there are only foreign children who cannot and do not speak German and who drag our children down.

No German at home doesn't mean bad German

But how are these numbers to be classified and what does it actually look like in our school classes, which are increasingly characterized by a heterogeneous student body? What is it really about? What it is not about is easy to say and was already emphasized during the presentation of the report by the chairman of the expert advisory board, Katharina Pabel from the Johannes Kepler University in Linz: Another family language at home does not mean poor knowledge of German. This equation doesn't work. Some of the children in question speak German very well, some very poorly; many speak German at school, others don't. Some have only recently been in Austria and have made rapid progress in acquiring the German language, others were born here and still have major deficits in their command of German. Others, on the other hand, have no good command of either the first or second language. Still others come from German-speaking but socially disadvantaged parents and also have a poor command of their first language, German. So the numbers don't tell us anything about all of this.

What the numbers tell us, however, is that the second generation of migrants is arriving more slowly than in comparable countries, at least in the current context of learning the German language. So it is high time we finally took a closer look at what is going wrong in this country in connection with migration and education / school and why we are particularly socially disadvantaged in and through the school system in an international comparison. We have known that this is the case for around 20 years since there were international comparative educational studies. In any case, it is not only the so-called migration background or the other first language that lead to disadvantages. Rather, it is the combination of these two factors with a third, namely the economic background of the parental home and its educational background. If the three factors come together, a child in Austria has a much more difficult start in life.

We have known this for two decades, and yet little has been done to counteract it in the long term. Just as serious is the fact that Austria has been a country of immigration for half a century and has long since arrived in the migration society, long before 2015, when we had to cope with the great refugee movement. Since the first guest workers came to us, we have had children with so-called migrant backgrounds in our schools, but for a long time no one has been interested in how they are, at least not in politics. For a long time, whether and how they learn German was just as little an issue as the fact that a disproportionately high proportion of many of these children and adolescents were represented in special schools.

Core problem: catching up on development lag

Unfortunately, nothing changed in the basic problem in 2019. There is still a high correlation between origin and educational attainment. There is still a disproportionately high number of "early school leavers", i.e. young people who leave school without a qualification, from socially disadvantaged, often also immigrant families. And school in our country is still particularly difficult to compensate for deficits that children bring with them from home. No wonder, because we are still waiting for an overall concept for school reform that also takes account of the changes caused by migration and globalization. We are still waiting for the handling of heterogeneity, cultural diversity and multilingualism to become a compulsory part of teacher training. In any case, this is not the case with the new education for teachers that was decided only a few years ago. It was only enough for a voluntary module.

We not only know what is going wrong, but also how to counter it. One of the main problems is that many children have significant developmental deficits at the beginning of the compulsory kindergarten year, and not only in the area of ​​the second language. Due to the organization of our school system, these backlogs can often no longer be made up. There are many reasons for this: the group sizes in kindergartens are far too large by international standards and there is usually a lack of appropriately trained staff. In elementary schools, teachers are often not in a position to compensate for the deficits they have brought with them, partly because there is a lack of human resources, partly because the lessons are not geared towards correcting deficits in a targeted manner. In this way, these deficits are carried over to the lower secondary level (NMS), with the known consequences.

What it takes

In order to sustainably improve this situation, which is shameful for Austria, many levers would have to be used, starting with visiting parents soon after the birth, as is common practice in Scandinavian countries, for example. A second compulsory year of kindergarten would be urgently needed for everyone, and the framework conditions in these facilities must finally be adapted to international standards. In school, lessons must be geared towards individual support, with multi-professional teams being able to use diagnostic instruments professionally. Continuous language support with specially trained teachers would be another important factor. The greater and more diverse the challenges faced by schools, the more resources these schools need, which means that in Austria too it is time to abandon the watering can principle and introduce an index of opportunities for a fair allocation of funds. The objective would be a fair, all-day joint, inclusive school that leaves no child behind. And a school that brings parents on board - meeting eye-to-eye is more successful than sanctions, as we know from international examples of good practice. But more about dealing with parents at this point. (Heidi Schrodt, October 15, 2019)

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