Camilla Borgna (Collegio Carlo Alberto)

"Old habits die hard? Educational inequalities in Germany after the rise of comprehensive schools"

24 May 2018, 2:00 pm


Comparative research has shown that in Germany the level of intergenerational mobility in educational attainment is one of the lowest of the industrialized world. This negative record has often been attributed to the country’s rigidly tracked secondary school system. At the age of ten, students have traditionally been channeled into one of three distinct tracks that largely determine the boundaries of their future educational pathways. While in the post-war period several European countries implemented major de-tracking reforms, in Germany – due to a strong opposition from the public opinion – comprehensive schools were only introduced at the margins of the traditional tripartite system and for a long time they remained a residual school type.

In the 2000s, as a consequence of the “PISA shock”, the efficiency and equity of the German tracking system became an issue beyond the academic debate. In response to such public concerns, but also under the pressure of demographic developments and of the increasing aspirations of middle-class parents for their children’s educational careers, during the last decade several federal states increased the supply of comprehensive schools as an alternative route towards university.

The rise of comprehensive schools could open up new educational chances for students from disadvantaged backgrounds. However, since the traditional tracks – especially the Gymnasium – are still in place, there are reasons to suspect that secondary schooling remains strongly socially segregated.

This talk presents two ongoing projects on inequality of educational opportunity under the reformed tracking system. The first one, analyzing data from the fifth-grader cohort of the German National Educational Panel Study (NEPS), investigates patterns of transition from primary to lower-secondary schooling with a focus on previous achievement, parental resources, and teachers’ recommendations, and discusses implications for current theories of educational decision making. The second one, exploiting regional variation in the introduction of comprehensive schools and based on county-level administrative data for the period 1995-2015, proposes a difference-in-differences (DiD) framework to study whether the rise of comprehensive schools increased the share of students attaining a university-entrance certificate (Abitur).