Tuesday, May 17, 2016

More German parents sue their kids' schools for better grades

Periodically, the German media run articles that report an increase in the number of parents who sue schools in court to get better grades for their offspring. This article from 2012 is one of many.

While we do not have comprehensive statistics, the single legal office in Hamburg quoted in the above article said that they handle at least 100 cases per year. The city and state of Hamburg has fewer than two million residents in this country of just over 80, so the number of legal cases against schools will be many thousand a year.

The issues before courts are varied, from bullying to injuries to grades.

What fascinates the blogster is the effort to up a students grade via a court decision and the fact that some states see more of these cases than others.

Der Spiegel ran a story on 16 May about the southern state of Bavaria. The piece includes one eye catching right at the start. In the past twenty years, the legal defense office of the Bavarian teachers' association has seen the number of lawyers providing assistance to teachers go from three to 17.  Their busiest month is May, the month that marks the beginning of the finals for the school year.

Taken together, these two facts clearly show Bavarian parents are putting up a fight for their children.

The school system in Germany is a state function, and states tend to closely guard their power over the education of their children. For this reason, the German K through 12 (or 13) system is markedly different between states.  While they all started out with a similar three tiered system of "basic school" to K8, "middle school" to K10, and "highschool" to K12, politicians have added or subtracted years, and a number of states set up an integrated system of "comprehensive schools".

Conservatives have often fought comprehensive schools with a degree of viciousness normally reserved to spats between religions, and, as a result, states with a long tradition of conservative governments since the end of World War II have the lowest number of comprehensive schools. The number of students attending a comprehensive school in Bavaria is at around 1% as opposed, for example, to the state of Brandenburg in the former East Germany with a rate of about 50%.

The three tier system has had one other characteristic, the one that explains almost all of the big differences in court cases for better grades.

That characteristic was selection.

At the end of the fourth grade, teachers would decide which students could move on to the "highschool" track, which was the only track that ended with a degree allowing students to then continue on to college/university.

Stripping teachers of this power was one of the big political fights in the German education system. Given that the states decide, the fight was fought in every single state.

As a result, most states nowadays let parents choose which of the three tracks of the three tiered system they want their kids to take. In some of these states, teachers can issue non-binding recommendations, in others, teachers are out of the loop altogether.

Not so in Bavaria. There, the "recommendation" is binding, and more and more parents go to court to overturn a negative one because the whole future of their children depends on the decision of one teacher when the child is about 10 years old.

Teachers don't always make the right call, and some are more aware of this than others. The blogster read a story of a Bavarian teacher who, sure of his expertise, had barred a student from taking the track to college.

That student later moved to a different state, attended evening school, went to college, and ended up as reporter for one of the two or three most respected German papers.

Once kids get to the finals before college, some parents go to court, too, because the grade point average - once again - can make the difference between the career of choice or not.

Increasing competitiveness in this previously strictly ordered society indicates that there will be more lawsuits about GPAs in the future.

[Update 3/20/2017] It is school choice season in Germany, and the headlines are not getting less alarming. Die Welt, for example, runs with "the bitter fight for the perfect school", which the blogsters initially thought meant fierce fighting about the best education system. No, it is about getting your own kids into the preferred school.

Lawyers are busy, and the blogster learned something new about the lottery which is part of most school's admission process these days.

The lottery draw can be performed by the school principal in his or her office without anybody present.

Even if you assume, as German courts have done, that all civil servants around here are models of honesty and integrity, this sounds like a bad idea. No wonder parents complain about the lack of transparency in admissions.

And, of course, not all German school chiefs are as pure as the courts see them. According to the article, education experts are well aware that some educators "ensure that the child of the mayor or other desirable students" get into the school of their choice.

Add to this that there are plenty of religiously affiliated schools which pick students of their denomination even if they live further away than other applicants, and some parental complaints appear more rational.

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