The low, the middle and the high achievers: The danger of sorting!

The last #edchat got me thinking a lot about sorting, streaming, and labeling in our schools. So often you read about “the top set” or the “bottom set”. Admittedly, I have found myself thinking in these groups as well, even in my small class of 10 students last year.

I think there might be a difference between class/homeroom teachers in primary/elementary schools and subject teachers in high schools. Moreover, it surely differs according to country, curriculum and school type.

Throughout the discussion it hit me: The link between the “sorting” and the German school system. I recently blogged about it here. This morning, the paper dedicated a whole page to the school system in Northrhine-Westphalia. Recently, a referendum failed in Hamburg. A very important referendum: The extension of primary schools from four to six grades. Currently in Germany, students attend the same primary school for only four years, apart from students in Berlin and Brandenburg, they attend primary school for six years. In Europe, and (as the paper claimed) worldwide, Germany and Austria are the only countries to run primary schools for only four years. In fact, German students will then go on to one of three or four secondary school types, either depending on their grades (some states) or their parents’ choice (other states).

After fourth grade, students in Northrhine-Westphalia are an average of ten years old. And they are then being sorted: The Hauptschule for the “low achievers”, Realschule for the average and Gymnasium for the “high achievers. (Check my previous blog post for more information about these schools). Of course, politicians and educational reform supporters in Germany know that this is problematic. But the traditional system seems to sustain for the time being.

How do we justify sorting children into “success categories” at this age? How can we know that Paul will not at one point find his passion for Mathematics and go on to study astrophysics at Harvard, just because he had trouble in Maths when he was 9 and 10 years old?


5 thoughts on “The low, the middle and the high achievers: The danger of sorting!

  1. It may be particular to certain cultures. One never know if peers could have positive or negative influence. I rather make my future than have it handed.

  2. Yeah this is a really, really good point. If I had been sorted when I was 10, there’s no way I would have even reached university as my grades (one of the sole criteria generally used to sort students) were abysmal. I didn’t start focusing in school until about 7th grade.

  3. Thank you for the view from Germany.

    While one huge problem is what happens to the kids, the other problem I would think is the huge waste of social capital. The idea that one can predict a kids future activity at the age of 10 is on the face silly. How many inventors, artists and entreprenuers does Germany lose with such a system?

    What I think I see in the States is something a bit similar but with a particular American twist. It seems to me that the obama administration is pushing through reforms that will allow a student to test out of high school at around the tenth grade. It mitigates the filtering problem because the student and her parents will then have the right to choose the path that they think is best for them.

    As I understand it, One path is college prep in grades 11 and 12. Another path is career training. Another is to go directly to college.

    I’m still searching around for details and will be happy to tweet them as I find them.

    • Thanks for all your comments. I was also sorted into a school when I was 10. My teacher recommended me for the Gymnasium, the “academic” type of school. But I found it difficult for a long time and just got by.

      I don’t teach in Germany, but as I’m on holiday here right now, these things are becoming so apparent. One school for all, I say, with the chance to leave after Grade 10, or to stay on.

  4. Sorting is a dangerous thing to do – and the earlier you do it, the more you tend to risk.

    I enjoyed the info on how Germany and some of Europe structures their schooling. Very informative.


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