Below we document an interview Professor Dr. Thorsten Bohl (University of Tuebingen, Germany), member of the GOETE consortium gave to the magazine ‘bildung & wissenschaft’.
bildung&wissenschaft: Dear Professor Bohl, you are involved in the results of educational research. What was your first impression reading the 15 theses of the Philologists’ Federation?
Prof. Dr. Thorsten Bohl: First of all, I appreciate that the findings of empiric educational studies are being discussed in detail, instead of addressing this difficult discussion about school structure from an experience-based or exclusively normative point of view.
b&w: And how do you assess the declaration that no convincing evidence for a longer joint learning has been found?
TB: The problem of the mentioned article of the PhV is not that the wrong studies are quoted or that all of the quoted studies are suspect. On the contrary, the studies, among others, by the Max-Planck-Institute in Berlin are reliable and it is important to consult these studies. However, the PhV’s contribution is problematic in three ways: important studies with considerably better results for comprehensive schools have been ignored, the interpretation of several studies is questionable – this becomes even more obvious in the website www.schulstrukturdebatte.de – and, moreover, numerous problems of selective (tracking) school systems have not been mentioned.
b&w: Could you please illustrate?
TB: I will name some examples. First, authors and surveys that reached other results are not mentioned, e. g. the colleague Wößmann from the University of Munich, who emphasis at another conclusion considering the efficiency of divided school systems, or the “Element-study” in Berlin, which proves advantages of an extended elementary school. 2. The international perspective is ignored completely. If integrated schools were as bad as depicted by the PhV, students’ performances in countries where the school structure is comprehensive-school-like would virtually collapse. Obviously, quite the contrary is the case. 3. While the current state of research concerning the field of students’ performances is controversial or at least complicated, it is unambiguous on the field of educational disadvantage: the more divided systems are, the more they intensify educational disadvantage. This is not surprising: with each transition to secondary education, each upgrade or descent, questions of disadvantage become evident. This happens for example when teachers consider in how far parents are able to support their children financially and intellectually in cases where the recommendation is unclear. When they doubt parents’ opportunities, they tend to recommend secondary schools with lower academic requirement. 4. The paper fails to give an answer to regional and municipal problems of schooling. Considering the descending numbers of students and the constantly diminishing transition rate to “Hauptschulen” (German secondary schools with the lowest academic requirement), it does not offer any help to mayors in situ. 5. – Which is extremely strange – there are central areas of concern typical for divided systems, not being mentioned at all. I can only refer to them shorthand, such as the scissor effect, didactic environment/setting, the overlapping of “specific” school type performances and the hope of advancing that leads to success at comprehensive schools.
b&w: Comprehensive schools’ work is especially criticized by the PhV. Deservedly?
TB: No. Comprehensive schools are contributing to an increasing educational justice. They can play an important integrative part for society. The situation in Nordrhein-Westfalen shows that significantly more students with migration background reach the A-level at comprehensive schools than they do at “Gymnasium”, the German secondary school with the highest academic requirement: it is 35 % compared to 14 %. Comprehensive schools enable especially those students with recommendations for secondary schools with lower academic requirements to keep their hope of advancing: 70% successfully complete the A-level, although only 30 % received a recommendation for the “Gymnasium”. Among comprehensive schools, there is a multitude of active schools to be found, which use their scope very intensively. Comprehensive schools are able to react much more flexibly to the plasticity of human development and contribute to more justice in educational careers. Furthermore low-achieving students can benefit from the presence of high-performing students. Exceeding the state of research it has to be considered that quality is strongly defined on the level of individual schools and individual teachers. Concretely: there are very efficient comprehensive schools, but also less efficient ones, as well as there are very efficient or less efficient other types of secondary schools with various academic requirement. And within the individual schools, due to individually organized teaching, a further, maybe different quality takes place in every classroom.
b&w: Are there scientific surveys dealing with the success of a longer joint learning? Which results do they lead to?
TB: It is surprising that the “Element”-survey and the resulting debate are not mentioned at all by the PhV. This survey proves a comparable or even higher efficiency of a longer joint learning, of primary schools up to grade 6, compared to grades 5 and 6 of Gymnasium schools. Even critics of comprehensive systems cannot avoid approving a significant effect of primary schools leading from grade 1 up to grade 6 (instead of grade 4) – not only for underperforming students. The comparison of top-level students shows that they do not always benefit more in Gymnasium schools than they do in primary schools with 6 grades.
b&w: Could you sum up the state of research for us?
TB: Overall, it has to be said that the state of research is not unambiguous. Therefore one has to make the effort of comparing the findings of single branches and draw conclusions cautiously. This of course is time-consuming and does not lead to spectacular headlines. I would like both sides to designate the weak points of “their” systems. Another example: it has to be honoured that by now most of the Hauptschule (secondary schools with the lowest academic requirement) and probably also Sonderschule (special schools) have a very high pedagogic competence and manage to have their students experience a positive psychosocial development. At the same time it has to be considered, though, that the cognitive level of performance is very low and students with similar capabilities have better chances of development at Realschule (secondary school with medium academic requirements) and Gymnasium (secondary school with high academic requirement). People in favour of comprehensive systems should therefore keep in mind, how underperforming students can be supported in psychosocial fields.
b&w: To go more into detail: Where do you see special problems of the three-tier school system?
TB: The special problems are to find generally in the area of low performance, in educational disadvantage, and in the recurrent question of transition, that is of progression or retention. We spend too much time on the question whether a pupil is at the right place – inevitably, it is the pupils with low performances who often are not. The transition from grade 4 to secondary schools drains resources from all parties concerned: children, parents, teachers; and is impossible to be organized in a just way. The instable tool of marks constantly receives an extremely high significance. Further one has to realize that divided systems always include the development of specific environments, no matter what the individual learning conditions of students are. Schooling and teacher activity for example depend on the teacher training – according to the specific school type – and didactic tradition. This learning environment has a significant impact on the development capabilities of students.
Another issue is the following: I as an educationalist am interested not only in the empiric state of facts, but also in how far a school system can be justified theoretically. All of the theoretic and historic reasons of the three-tier school system are nowadays out dated, as well as its talent-theoretic as its class-specific and profession-specific justification. The aspect of a more effective support in groups that are supposed to be more homogenous is not convincing, either: homogenisation works hardly effectively and only in a very limited measure and the rates of overlap of performances in mathematics, sciences and in reading competences are very high. The three-tier school system obviously has to deal with a theory-rooted problem of legitimacy.
b&w: What do you personally think: How should the school system be organized in order to offer an optimum of learning and developing possibilities to preferably all children?
TB: I imagine a comprehensive school system, in which heterogeneity is dealt with competently on all levels. This is definitely complex and extensive and should contain opportunities to reach degrees of all kinds, including higher education entrance qualification. It should also contain a high performance expectation, being closely watched and evaluated, a challenging learning environment and a varied school life. A quiet and stimulating atmosphere plays an important role. I deliberately avoid talking of comprehensive schools of the 1970s and 1980s, I am talking of smaller and more efficient school units, in which schooling takes explicitly place in heterogeneous groups, not in “Niveaukursen” (more or less homogeneous classes within a heterogeneous school). It is obvious that such systems would need systemic support, both intern and extern. This can only be the framework, though. The design of processes at schools is crucial. I incidentally do not think that this system can be changed overnight. However, I do not see any problems arising in allowing flexibly comprehensive systems already now – namely where protagonists and decision-makers on the ground are of the opinion that this would be the suitable system in order to cope with existing challenges. The state’s job should not be to control the standardization of a school system, but a systematic and support-related evaluation and quality assurance.
b&w: Thank you very much for the interview!