Why does nobody change the education system

Long ways of German unity

Bernd Martens

Dr. habil. Bernd Martens, studied sociology, computer science, social history and economics in Hamburg. From 2001-12 he worked at the Collaborative Research Center 580 "Social developments after the system upheaval" at the University of Jena in a research project on economic elites in enlarged Europe and as a scientific director. From 2013 to 2017 he worked at the Center for Social Research at the University of Halle in various research and evaluation projects. From 2018 to 2019 he worked at the DZHW (German Center for University and Science Research) Berlin in the Nacaps project. Since 2020 he has been working in the Leipzig branch of the DZHW. (Nacaps stands for National Academics Panel Study and is a longitudinal study by the DZHW on doctoral candidates and doctoral candidates in Germany. Nacaps regularly surveys doctoral candidates nationwide about their doctoral requirements, career intentions and career paths, as well as their general living conditions.)

The transfer of the school as an institution in East Germany was successful. The old school system was abolished and something new was introduced without any problems. However, the intensified discussions on education policy in recent years make clear that pressure to change is affecting the school system throughout Germany.

Photo of the French lessons of a 7th grade at the Bernauer Gymnasium from 1994. (& copy picture-alliance, ZB)

Job satisfaction of East and West German teachers between 1994 and 1999 (in%) (graphic for download) License: cc by-nc-nd / 3.0 / de / (Gehrmann (2002, p. 71))

The introduction of federal German school forms: an example of a successful transfer of institutions

The introduction of federal German school forms in the wake of the unification is an example of the successful transfer of institutions from West to East. The old school system was abolished and something new was introduced with surprisingly no problems. This is also noteworthy because the majority of the GDR teaching staff has been taken over. In the course of the reorganization of the school system, however, no simple copies of West German school systems were made. Rather, the individual East German federal states used the opportunity granted to them within the framework of the state responsibility for the education sector to develop their own solutions and reform models. However, the successful transfer of institutions has not resulted in the new education system being rated positively by pupils, teachers and parents without exception.

Stations and Actors in Institutional Transfer in the 1990s

The transfer of institutions in the 1990s can be briefly traced for the content of education policy, for teachers and pupils as follows: In May 1990 the "Joint Education Commission BRD / GDR" was established as an advisory and coordinating body for cooperation and Establish a merger of the two education systems. Based on the deliberations of this commission, it can be shown that no "colonization" of the GDR by the Federal Republic took place during the transfer of the school as an institution. Rather, "the alignment of the school systems with the Länder of the Federal Republic" was the negotiating goal for the GDR negotiators from an early stage (Köhler 2002, p. 24). Between 1991 and 1993 the education and school laws were drawn up by the new federal states. They used the freedom of federalism to "incorporate those elements of the GDR education system that are considered worth preserving into the new framework", according to educational researcher Gabriele Köhler (2002, p. 25). Examples for this are:
  • the "right to education" enshrined in numerous school laws;
  • "inner renewal" as the overarching goal of curriculum reform and teacher training;
  • increasing the design leeway for schools;
  • the introduction of pilot schemes to accommodate local interests; and
  • the adherence to the 12-year high school diploma through almost all of the new federal states.
In this way, "very different school systems were created in East Germany, adapted to regional conditions, which can only be compared with one another with regard to the abandonment of the standard school" (Gehrmann 2002, p. 64). The state legislators established the legal framework. But the actual implementation of the renewal of the education system had to take place in the schools. Here, there was initially a pronounced uncertainty among teachers (Döbert 2002, p. 40; Riedel et al. 1994, p. 38ff.), Which increased with the seniority and was established in the juxtaposition of positive and negative impressions that were then within the framework of Surveys were collected (see table "Statements by East Berlin teachers"). In the course of the three school years 1989-92, the positive experiences with the new possibilities to organize the lessons more freely dominated. This corresponded to a relatively high level of dissatisfaction among teachers with the rigid and politicized GDR school system. The negative evaluations were more diverse and pointed to difficulties that arose parallel to the change in school structures: At first it was about "confusion, chaos", "loss of values" and "uncertainties among students and teachers". The "far too fast transition" was lamented, and even in 1991/92 the "slipping on, imitating everything from the West" was criticized. But as a result, "deficiencies in the [new] organization" of the school became the most common cause of complaint.

A feature by Deutschlandfunk from 2019 provides an impression of the situation at that time from the perspective of the teachers concerned. The memories described there relate, for example, to:
  • The speed of change. "The school law of West Berlin came into effect overnight from August 1st, 1990. None of us really knew how to handle school on September 1st. And the older students were just as confused."
  • Personal impositions: “I was also outraged. I've been in school for 25 years or how long and now someone comes up and wants to know if I can. Hm! If I chose a ninth grade story, Rosa Luxemburg was just on schedule. Rosa Luxemburg, Freiheit […] I couldn't finish because the discussion was so heated. That's fine. The [examiners] thought that was okay too. "
  • And educational success: “I got this class as a class leader and I had 22 students in the class, and 17 of them graduated from secondary school. And sometimes it was stressful, but… was nice ”(DLF-Feature 2019).
In the further course of the 1990s, the level of job satisfaction, especially among East German teachers, rose sharply (see diagram "Job satisfaction"), so that a positive conclusion can be drawn from the perspective of these actors in the transfer of institutions.

And how did the students at the time feel about the turnaround in schools? The profound changes, the insecurity and uncertainty often led to provocative behavior (Riedel et al. 1994, p. 58f.) (Cf. "Quotes from conversations with East Berlin teachers"). In student surveys during the period of upheaval, this is reflected in the frequent mentions of "chaos in the classroom".
  • Quotes from conversations with (East) Berlin teachers in March 1991

    Some students are regularly late with a previously unaccustomed matter of course. If you ask them about it, they often get justifications like, 'Well, what's this jail for? Do you want to educate me? '

    Teacher 1 Source: Riedel et al. (1994, p. 58f.).
  • Quotes from conversations with (East) Berlin teachers in March 1991

    Two 10th grade students have so far completely ignored me as a teacher, but have remained calm. When I spoke to them, they said, 'Whether I learn is my business. We finally have freedom now '

    Teacher 2 Source: Riedel et al. (1994, p. 58f.).
  • Quotes from conversations with (East) Berlin teachers in March 1991

    When I came to my class at secondary school, the students said to me straight away: 'You can save yourself homework, nobody does that here anyway.' So the students want to determine what is done.

    Teacher 3 Source: Riedel et al. (1994, p. 58f.).
According to a survey of 684 (East) Berlin students in the 1991/92 school year, 79.9 percent of secondary school students and 51.6 percent of junior high school students agreed with the statement that "lessons are often haywire" (Riedel et al. 1994, p . 65). Only the grammar schools offered a different picture, with only 12.3 percent agreeing with this sentence.

The above-mentioned student survey provides a differentiated picture of the changes in the schools (see diagram "Pupils' perception of the new school"). Accordingly, the new diversity of school forms met with approval from the pupils. But the upheaval had not immediately led to greater opportunities for participation in the student's perception. In addition, there was a lack of more leisure activities at the school, which were common in the GDR. Often there were conflicts with teachers, which were also addressed as discipline problems in surveys from this period. In the end, the pupils were rather skeptical that there had been a general improvement in the schools. The educator Klaus-Jürgen Tillmann summed up the pupil's point of view at the time very sharply: "Basically nothing has changed, the lessons are the same, the teachers are the same, only the books are new" (Tillmann 1994, p. 266).

Excursus: The Feminization of Education

It must be assumed that the changes in schools in the GDR and East Germany affected more women than men because the teaching staff was predominantly female. The whole of the 20th century in Germany is characterized by a growing percentage of women in occupations in the educational system, although the proportion for secondary schools is still smaller than that for primary schools. One also speaks of a "feminization of the teaching profession" (National Atlas 2005). [1]

In contrast to the Federal Republic of Germany, there was no official statistical survey of the gender distribution of teachers in the GDR. Based on the number of students, however, it can be estimated that there were more female teachers than teachers in the final phase of the GDR. This is supported by data from the period 1992-2002 (National Atlas 2005). During this period, the proportion of women in primary schools in all of the eastern German federal states was always over 80 percent, and for some states even significantly more than 90 percent; while a catching-up development can be observed for all western German federal states, but with the exception of North Rhine-Westphalia it never exceeded 80 percent of women until 2002.

The author is not aware of any social science studies that systematically addressed the situation of female teachers during the transformation of the GDR school system. This research gap is probably due to the fact that gender issues were not yet as important in the 1990s as they are today.

Structural constancy and structural breakdown

In historical retrospect, "normality" returned very quickly to schools. At an early stage, observers of the changes such as Klaus-Jürgen Tillmann noted "that the school changeover processes are taking place in a very stable organizational and staffing framework", which is set by "the common tradition of the German-Prussian state school" (1994, p. 266 ). Although central responsibilities were delegated to the new federal states with the political upheaval and federalism, this did not change the state compulsory school system. "It is more the case in Germany that even in the event of a revolution, the school is passed on from one employer to another" (Tillmann 1996, p. 17).

There are two other reasons for the astonishing continuity in schools: Around 89-90 percent of the teaching staff in the GDR continued to work in the school system after 1990. The school system has thus probably been the state sector with the greatest employment continuity. And the ideological influence of the 'partisan' school on the pupils has been greatly overestimated in both the GDR and the FRG. The elimination of the pronounced ideological superstructure was comparatively inconsequential; it "only marginally changed the educational practice of the school" (Tillmann 1993, p. 32). One can assume that the school system follows its own logic, "secret curricula", for example the teaching of secondary virtues, "and this contribution is gladly taken up and used in all societies. [...] This is possibly the point at which the functional performance of the school is named can pass from one political system to the other relatively seamlessly "(Tillmann 1993, p. 33).

Accordingly, in the transformation of the popular education system in the GDR, the continuities predominated, which are essentially based on general functions of the school system and on structures that go back to the 19th century. School education thus stands in an interesting contrast to the structural break in the restructuring of the GDR science and university system (see also the topic "The change at the universities"), which was redesigned after 1945 according to the Soviet model.

Limits of a successful institution transfer

The East German schools have now become an integral part of an all-German educational landscape - some of which, however, has been under criticism for a long time. The most visible expression of this are the discussions on education policy following Germany's performance in the international comparative educational studies (PISA). In East Germany, this is also noticeable in a regionally specific way, because positive assessments of the abolished GDR school system appear more strongly again in the school policy discourse - among the older generation.

A growing skepticism towards the German school system becomes very clear in a group of people who went to school in the GDR, but whose children are now students. It is a sample of East Germans born in 1973 whose changes in attitudes and personal and professional development are documented by a series of repeat surveys over a period of now more than 30 years (Berth et al. 2015). 313 people took part in the 2017/18 survey wave.

If one looks at the time series of evaluations made by this group of people with regard to schooling, one notices the decreasing trend of positive assessments of the new school situation compared to the increasing evaluation of their own GDR school days (see diagram "Judgments on schooling in the GDR and in the Federal Republic "). As in other policy areas, a basic mood is evidently noticeable in the school sector as well, which feeds on the problems of the present and lets the GDR past appear in a more positive light, without, however, fundamentally calling into question reunification.

So there was a successful transfer of the school as an institution in East Germany. At the same time, the intensified discussions on education policy in recent years highlight the pressure to change that is affecting the school system throughout Germany.
Perception of the new school by the pupils (in%) (graphic for download) License: cc by-nc-nd / 3.0 / de / (Riedel et al. (1994, p. 45))

Judgments on school education in the GDR and in the Federal Republic of East Germans born in 1973 in the period 1996-2012 (in%) (graphic for download) License: cc by-nc-nd / 3.0 / de / (Förster et al. (2009, p. 24) and communication from H. Berth (August 2019). Another survey is planned for 2020.)


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