The American and German educational Systems: A comparison

Presentation / Essay (Pre-University), 2002

16 Pages, Grade: 12 Points



Table of contents

1. Introduction

2. Summary
2.1. The German educational system
2.1.1. Kindergarten
2.1.2. Grundschule
2.1.3. German secondary education Sonderschule Hauptschule Realschule Gesamtschule Gymnasium Berufsschule
2.2. The United States educational system
2.2.1. Kindergarten
2.2.2. Elementary school
2.2.3. United States secondary education Junior and Senior high school after school activities
2.2.4. Universities and colleges

3. Conclusion
3.1. General Differences
3.2. Accessibility
3.3. Impact on secondary education

1. Introduction

In the beginning of the year 2002 the so called PISA (program for international school assessment) - study was published and created substantial discussions among the German educational professionals. This was related to a disappointing result of German students who marked below average.

PISA is a survey by the OECD (Organization for Economic Cooperation Development) that is done every three years. It is supposed to show the academic abilities of fifteen-year old students of 32 different industrial nations. All different school forms that exist for this level of age are part of the survey. This year PISA primarily focused on reading comprehensive skills with a 66% weight factor and the other 34% were related to mathematics - and natural science.

German students performed poorly, ranking between 20 and 23 in reading literacy among the 32 participating nations. American students generally did better. In comprehensive reading skills they ranked 15, in mathematics 20 and in natural science 15.

After personally having experienced the American and the German educational system, it was of my interest to structure, compare, and interpret the two different systems and to define strength and weakness.

2. Summary

Every national educational system focuses on defined targets. Some countries rather focus on criteria’s such as social skills some more on fine arts and some on academics. All nations, however, have one thing in common: After completing the educational curriculum every student should be able to have knowledge of basic reading, writing and mathematics. I will now point out similarities and differences of the American and German educational system and try to explain the general structure of the these two different educational systems related to the criteria’s mentioned above.

2.1. German educational system

Germany being one the leading industrial nations in Europe, has the reputation of being one of the leading edges in technological progress in the world and has played a very important roll of the economic development of the western hemisphere. Germany is also said to be the nation of thinkers and musicians.

Assuming the reader of this essay already has at least superficial knowledge of the educational system, I now will shortly explain the most important structural elements of the German educational system beginning with the Kindergarten.

2.1.1. Kindergarten

The German educational system starts of with the so called Kindergarten. Parents may decide whether their children should attend this institution and for how long before attending primary school at the age of six. At this level of education children are rather to mature socially than academically.

2.1.2. Grundschule

Starting at age six German kids are enrolled to the Grundschule. Similar to the American elementary school Grundschule consists of four years. The children usually have one class teacher that teaches all subjects except for physical education, religious education, music and common art.

After completing elementary school children usually get a recommendation of their teacher which school-form to attend after Grundschule depending on their overall academic performance.

2.1.3. German secondary education

After elementary school the German school system differs enormously from the American education. Secondary education is what makes the German school system so complicated compared the educational systems of other countries. German parents now have the opportunity of choosing between four different progressing schools, depending on the children’s level of academic ability. This decision determines the further vocation in life. Sonderschule

Sonderschule is a special school created to help mentally and physically disabled children who did not show sufficient progress in elementary school. All of these children get special attention from specially trained teachers. Hauptschule:

Children with average abilities attend Hauptschule. Hauptschule was created for children who have already shown difficulties with the curriculum during elementary school. children attending this school learn the same things as pupils of other school types, but on a lower level.

After having successfully completed 10th grade children receive the so called Hauptschulabschluss, which enables them to progress with a vocational education or a apprenticeship. Realschule

German students attending Realschule receive a higher level of education. After successfully completing 10th grade these students receive the Mittlere Reife/Fachhochschulreife, which is an essential certificate to progress to a vocational school, a technical school, a apprenticeship or to attend a Gymnasium. Gesamtschule

This type of comprehensive school has established itself in the last 25 years of the German educational system because of political reforms.

These schools try to compromise between the three traditional school types.

They are considered experimental schools. Many federal ministries are thinking of reducing the number of Gesamtschulen to a minimum, because of the enormously high number of students applying for Gesamtschule. According to a complicated credit system students finish the Gesamtschule with certificates corresponding to levels of the tenth grade of the three traditional schools or attain the Abitur. Gymnasium

Students who are to be over perform more than average and intend to study at university usually choose Gymnasium after Grundschule. These education a minimum of two foreign languages, Latin is still very popular. It strictly focuses on improving academic knowledge. After successfully passing several written and oral exams during 12th and 13th grade students who pass all exams successfully are rewarded with the Abitur . Berufsschule

These schools are typically German and can not be found the in American school system. This school teaches apprentices the basic skills needed for their future job. This education generally includes a part-time practical and theoretical education.

2.2. American educational system

Just like in Germany education is a federal issue in the US. Each state has its own specific standards and guidelines. All in all they are based on a common foundation. The school-system of every state is divided up into several school districts which are generally controlled by a school board. The education is financed by fees of these 50 federal communities. In contrast to Germany teachers can be hired or fired at any time (except for professors of higher education who earn tuition after having shown an overall good record for a couple of years).

US degrees are automatically granted if the student has passed a sufficient number of classes without always having to surpass an examination. Students in the United States are expected to begin school at the age of six and enrollment is mandatory in most states until the age of 16. The remaining states require students to attend school until they are 17 or 18.

“There is no uniform configuration throughout the country in the organization of primary and secondary education. Elementary school begins with kindergarten, but may continue through grades 5, 6, or 8, depending on decisions made at the local federal level. High school typically begins at grade 9 or 10, with middle or junior high schools usually covering the intervening years between elementary school and high school. Students graduate from high school following grade 12. In some locations a single school may enroll students from kindergarten through grade 12.” (To Sum It Up: Case Studies of Education in Germany, Japan, and the United States:, 12.03.02).

2.2.1. US Kindergarten

In America enrolling their kids go to Kindergarten is a parental decision. More than 80 percent of the children in the US attend kindergarten. The educational system also provides the opportunity of sending their kids to a private pre-school (similar to kindergarten) before kindergarten. These two institutions are not financed by the government. This forces the parents to finance these institutions of learning privately and about 20% of the population can’t afford this. These kids have a huge disadvantage in abilities, when entering elementary school compared to other children. So already before elementary school the American school-system shows that money plays an important role in a children’s academic development.

In the United States kindergarten is usually a half day activity for kids who are at the age of six or seven. Here they learn the alphabet, colors and the elementary basics of every day life. After finishing kindergarten the pupils progress to elementary school.

2.2.2. US Elementary School

US elementary school consists of six grades. In these six years the children are taught the basics of reading and writing. The children start getting into basic mathematics and are confronted with a little bit of science.

In addition to these subjects , many elementary schools offer courses in typing and computing.

Pupils at this level of education are only taught by a single class room teacher and always stay in the same classroom for all of the subjects. In some schools (for example in my former elementary public school) you can find a bilingual education in Spanish speaking children and to have them keep up with English speaking population.

About 98 % of all us children complete elementary school.

2.2.3. US secondary education

The US secondary educational structure is very simple. All children regardless of talent and ability attend the same school type up to 12th grade. US Junior and Senior High School

After having reached the 6th grade children usually proceed to junior High School which covers grades 7 to 9. The adolescents further attend Senior High School till the 12th grade. Students attending the 9th grade are called freshmen, 10th grade sophomores, the 11th grade juniors and finally students who attend the 12th grade are called seniors. Most students (88 %) attend public high schools; a minority is enrolled in private schools or in church-related High Schools.

High School starts at eight a.m. and usually ends at 3 p.m. During this time students attend 6 to 8 classes. The chosen classes are always every weekday and only vary every half year.

In junior and senior high school the variety of different subjects is enormous. In many larger high schools students have the opportunity of choosing out of a bowl of 90 different classes ranging from repairing cars to baby sitting and gardening. Other classes given are for example jazz band, drama, nutrition and food, journalism, dance choreography, child development, psychology, drivers education and typing. Depending on what state you live in, only few courses are mandatory like science, math, reading or language, arts, history. (vgl. Reise Know-How Als Gastschüler in den USA, Page 23) One of the main problems of US High School education is whether it should provide vocational or general education. Therefore all larger high schools offer a number of different programs:

- “The academic curriculum prepares children for college; the basics for High School graduation requirements are English, mathematics, science , social studies, computer, science and a foreign language if students go on to college.

- Commercial classes, which include typing, shorthand and bookkeeping.

- Vocational programs, which offer courses in auto mechanics, printing, agriculture, homemaking, cosmetology, marketing and sales skills.” (FHund, Education in the USA:, 10.03.02)

Tests and exams are written once a week in every subject in every class and not only twice or three times in a half-year. After finishing the 12th grade the high school automatically grants you your high school diploma. Almost 75% of all students who graduate from elementary school eventually graduate from High school. 60% of these graduates go on to an institution of higher learning by enrolling in universities or colleges.

A major problem of American high school is crime. It sounds odd, but many American high schools require students walking through a metal detector at the entrance. After-school activities

A very important part of high school is not only academic education, but also social education. Therefore high school gives the opportunity to participate in a variety of after school activities. Primarily a lot of students join diverse sport teams such as football teams, basketball teams, soccer teams etc… This cannot only grant you a good reputation at school, it can also help you get a scholarship for college. Students who show a professional attitude towards sports can easily have the opportunity of earning some extra money for joining a team and are able to finance their everyday life that way. 75 % of the students in the US who are not as lucky have part-time jobs. Almost all rookies that join professional US sport leagues, like the NBA (National Basketball Association), or the MLB (Major League Baseball) are drafted out of college. This is one of the reasons why American students are encouraged to be excellent in sports. Other after-school activities are dancing, arts, choir, etc...

Every student also has a personal guidance counselor that helps the student to manage their personal and academic problems and also gives advice which courses to take, or where to get a part time job… Another important part of high-school life is the so called school spirit. Many schools have many special occasions a week in which this ideology is expressed. For instance for one day of the week every student wears the school colors.

2.2.4) Universities/Colleges

After having successfully received their high school diploma, students have the prospect of being enrolled in a college/university. About half of all the institutions of higher learning are public. Most of them are co-educational. All students who proceed to college have to complete an admission requirement called SAT (Scholastic aptitude test).

Many different types of programs of higher learning are offered in more than 3000 colleges and universities.

One option is to enroll to the two-year Junior or Community College. Further on there are also the two-year Technical College and the fouryear undergraduate institutions. Most of the high school students seek a college or university education. Here students have the ability to seek a bachelor, master or doctoral degree.

The US offers a variety of different colleges, some are state universities, some are private institutions. Costs vary from about 1.750.- $ paid in annual fees for a state university, and 8.770.- $ for a private college. Many of these private colleges have an excellent international reputation such as Harvard , Princeton, North Carolina…Therefore the US university system is much more prestige orientated, and sometimes in the job market it is not important how well you did during college , but where you went to college.

About 15% of the country’s people complete the last four years of their education.

3. Conclusion

In America many children of the upper class avoid being integrated in the public school system and choose private schools. About 12% of the American students are sent to excellent private schools. Just like in higher education only rich Americans can afford above average education. In Germany everyone, rich or poor, has equal opportunities, because superior primary, secondary, and higher education is almost entirely subsidized by the government.

3.1.General Differences

In general the German school system places much more emphasis on examinations, while the American school system gradually has guidelines which have tests written on an every week basis.

The grading also shows a general difference in these two compared systems; In Germany grades range from a 6 (being the worst grade) to a 1 (being the best). After 12th grade students receive grades from zero - to 15 points. In the US grades range from a (being the best) to f (being the worst).

3.2. Accessibility of higher education

There is a big difference in the accessibility of colleges or universities in these two different countries. In the US almost one half of the population acquires a college degree in their lifetime, in Germany only about one third of the population. This is partially caused by the fact that attendance of German university is free of charge, the only requirement for studying at a university is the Abitur (in some very popular fields a special mark in the Abitur called the NC is also required). The German government even provides a loan for the essentials of everyday life to every student without affluent parents. In the US, many parents spend all their life (even with second jobs) saving enough money to finance higher education for their children.

Another difference is that a lot of American citizens between the age of 30 or 40 go back to college to upgrade their degree. In Germany, people are also allowed to attend night schools to get their Abitur, but only very few do. So once you have chosen your career in Germany you usually stick to it.. Commonly the German University Diploma is regarded as a degree of higher standard compared to the American Bachelor degree. The Diploma is rather equivalent to the American master’s degree. This is a reason why many German students sometimes have a better chance of finding a job on the international job-market than the Americans. However with the longer time span of education in Germany this advantage can quickly turn into a disadvantage, because many companies nowadays have the tendency of looking for younger professionals with superficial professional knowledge, rather than older professionals (at the age of 30) with very deeply rooted theoretical skills, but without practical experiences in a certain profession.

Another difference between the two compared systems is the accessibility of higher education to foreigners. In America you have an enormous variety of foreigners of many different countries, that not only attend but also teach at American colleges /universities compared to the German system of higher education. This is mainly caused by the language barrier, but partially also because of the stricter immigration laws in Germany; this may be one of the reasons why America is considered a country of “thousands of different faces”.

3.3. Impact on secondary education

One main difference in the compared educational systems, and maybe a reason for the under-average German ranking is the structure of German secondary education. The PISA study has shown that Germany is the country with the biggest difference of ability between the lowest form of education (Hauptschule) and the highest level (Gymnasium). The study has also shown that “students attending Hauptschule only reached 394 points in reading literacy, students of Realschule were able to gain 494 points, students attending the gymnasium attained 582 points.”( The OECD average was 500 points, which shows that Germany has many students who don’t have any problems keeping international standards and are able to compete with the superlative students of every country. But the study also shows that Germany has many students who are just way behind in performance. In the US the performance spread was by far less differentiated, which might be related to the fact that all students regardless of talent go to the same secondary form of education for 12 years. Also interesting is, that German comprehensive schools /Gesamtschulen) ,which basically follow the American system of high school education (kids of different abilities all go to the same school-type for 12 years) achieved an overall score of 494 points, which is only six points under the OECD average of 500, and 10 points under the score of the American students (504). Maybe German officials should start thinking about developing a more egalitarian school-system where all students go to the same school-type for 12 years. This would also help to get rid of a caste system that divides students according to performance in Germany. This could also help to provide more equal opportunities to all students. Although German education follows the general principle of equality, children at a young age are intensely influenced by their parents in choosing the form of secondary education, which is not always an advantage… Mention of sources used

-CBE Basic Education- concerned about quality in Germany (

-Problems of German Education - (http://www.ww.uni-

-Organisation of the German School system -


- American Adults Are Becoming Better Educated


- Students Diversity and the Educational System


- General Background and Administrative Structure


- Grades and Credits in U.S. Higher Education (

- The structure of the German school system- (

- A diverse educational system


- School enrollment in the United States -


- Basic K-12 Information - (

- The Benefits Of A Racially-Diverse Student Body In

Elementary/Secondary Education


- Primary and Secondary Education -

- - American Highschool, education in the US (



- - Zusammenfassung zentraler Befunde


- Reise Know-How Als Gastschüler in den USA

Ich erkläre hiermit, dass ich die Facharbeit ohne fremde Hilfe angefertigt habe und nur die im Literatur- und Quellenverzeichnis angeführten Quellen und Hilfsmittel benutzt habe.

Ich habe die Arbeit nach der Rückgabe des Fachlehrers, ein

weiteres Mal durchgearbeitet, die angestrichenen Fehler korrigiert, und alle Zitate (an die ich mich noch erinnern konnte) nachträglich gekennzeichnet. Wie schon erwähnt, versichere ich jedoch, dass alle benutzten Quellen angegeben sind. (Sorry!) Ort, Datum Unterschrift

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The American and German educational Systems: A comparison
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American, German, Systems
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Jan Gansow (Author), 2002, The American and German educational Systems: A comparison, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


  • guest on 10/31/2015

    This essay needs to be edited. There are grammatical errors, and some words are outright wrong: [Qualified college teachers get] TENURE, not tuition. A much more serious error is the following sentence: "Just like in higher education only rich Americans can afford above average education." Something like the following 3 sentences would be much less misleading: "Only wealthy students or students from wealthy families pay the full tuition. Poor students can apply for a full scholarship covering both tuition and living expenses. Partial tuition scholarships and low-interest loans are readily available to all other students."

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