Public School Systems: Germany vs. United States

Authored by:
Lily A.

Lily A.

My experience as a student coming from a large, public high school in a Boston suburb didn’t really prepare me for the transition to a Berlin Gymnasium, but it didn’t take long for me to begin to feel integrated into the school system here in Germany and understand how academic life flowed. As I mark the halfway point in my year as an exchange student in Berlin, there are some interesting differences to point out.

A Gymnasium refers to a public school with grades seven through twelve, educating students who are on track to go to college afterwards. Before Gymnasium comes Grundschule, which has grades one through six. After Grundschule, people who have good enough grades will be placed into a Gymnasium, whereas the people with less good grades will go a different type of German 'high school' that provides vocational training as an alternative to a university education. In the US the public-school system consists of elementary school with Kindergarten through fifth or sixth grade, middle school with fifth/sixth through eighth grade, and then high school for ninth through twelfth grade. Also, all students have the opportunity to go to college after graduating, whereas in Germany only students in a Gymnasium can go. When I explained that concept to my German classmates in Berlin it was difficult for them to grasp that anyone could go to college, regardless of the rigor of their high school preparation, because there is wide range of selectivity among US colleges and universities, as that is unheard of here. There are many different universities in Berlin and Germany, but not nearly to the same extent as in the United States, and admission is restricted to students who have been on a path to a university education since seventh grade. The way the public-school system is designed in the US seems, to Americans, practically flawless because there is an opportunity for everyone, but in Germany it is a completely foreign idea.

My first day of school in Berlin was exciting, stressful, and completely unexpected. I walked into the classroom on the first day and sat next to a girl, who is now one of my best friends. She was also new to the school, but I depended on her to help me with the language that day. In my classroom there are 24 students, and those are the students I am with for every class period. This surprised me because in most American high schools, classes and classmates change for every period, with students walking around the school to get to the room the teacher is in. In Germany, a class of anywhere from 16-26 students stay together in the same classroom for most periods with each subject teacher coming to our classroom to teach. At the beginning of the school year this hindered the number of people I got to know, as I really only knew the other students in my class. I was soon able to reach out to people in other classes and I made more friends. The big difference for me now between my public high school outside of Boston and my Gymnasium in Berlin is not the number of friends I have, but the total number of people I know in general. My school in the US teaches grades 9-12 and there are about 2,000 students total, whereas and in my school here (which has two more grades) there are only about 700 students. For a public school it is much smaller than what I am used to, but in Germany it is the typical amount for a Gymnasium.

What surprised me the most about the German school system is the number of subjects that are taken and how the rotation of the schedule is set up. My class takes twelve subjects, each meeting three or four times per week. At my high school in the US we only take seven classes, with the schedule rotating each day and each week being different that the last. In Berlin subjects are taught on the same day each day of the week. For example, every Monday my class starts with math, then has music, then French, physics, etc. Every Tuesday then begins with English for two periods, followed by history, and so on. My class has seven periods each day, and six on Friday, each being 45 minutes, so the school day goes from about 8am until between 1:30-2:30pm. There is also no designated lunch period. After every two 45-minute classes there is a 20-minute break, when students can buy food from a small cafeteria (including chocolate croissants, sandwiches, pizza, juice, etc.) or sit and chat with friends. Instead of eating one big lunch period in school, such as I was used to in the US, students have multiple opportunities to eat throughout the day during the breaks. I had to adapt to the flow of classes and the school schedule, buy by now, after one full semester, it feels just as normal as towhat I was used to in Boston.

In most American public schools, sports teams and other extracurricular activities are a big part of how students make friends and spend their time after the school day is over, with students forming a strong connection to their school. In Germany there are fewer extracurricular options, and no school sports teams, spirit wear, or mascots. In Berlin, I am in the debating club, which debates in English and goes to two competitions in the year. I have made friends through that club and enjoy going for the 45 minutes every Monday. Most other days, I do what the majority of the other German students do after the school day is over - go home or hang out with friends. In my hometown I played two sports and played saxophone in the jazz band, taking up my afternoon and evening every weeknight. Sometimes I would go directly from playing a game to 7-8:30pm, jazz band, and then get home at 9pm and start my homework. That caused for some stress during the two seasons I played sports (fall-volleyball, winter-basketball) but it was worth it because I was doing what I loved. In Berlin I have much more free time after school because there are no extracurricular activities, besides debate, or sports to participate in. I also do not get much homework, so after school I either hang out with friends or go home and find things to do.

The last major difference between school in Germany versus in the United States is how people get to school. In my hometown outside of Boston almost every high school student drives themselves, gets a ride from a parent or friend, or walks a short distance. In Berlin everyone gets to school by public transportation, including most of the teachers. There is a U-Bahn (similar to a subway) station three minutes from the front doors of my school, so every morning between 7:40 and 8 students are pouring out of the U-Bahn to get to their classrooms. From my apartment I take the bus with my host sister for eight minutes to the U-Bahn station, and then the U-Bahn for four stops (six minutes) until the stop for my school, which is only a few minutes’ walk from the building. That is a much longer commute than what I am used to, so every day I have to get up early, at 6 or 6:30, to eat breakfast with my host family and then leave the apartment no later than 7:20. The whole journey from stepping out of my apartment building to walking up the steps to the school takes about half an hour, with a little extra time in case the public transportation is running late. In the United States it takes less than five minutes to drive to the high school from my house, but with traffic getting into the student parking lot it usually takes fifteen minutes. Again, it took some time to get used to how the public transportation works and what gets me to school the fastest, but I really enjoy talking to my friends on the U-Bahn and seeing other students.

Overall, the school experience is really not that much different in Germany than in the United States, but there are the little things that surprised me about how the school and day were run. Having different types of secondary schools to go to depending on one's grades, being in the same class with the same students all day, having many more subjects and a class schedule dissimilar to the one I was used to, having fewer extracurricular activities, and taking public transportation to school are just some of the differences in my experience as a high school student in German versus in the American public school systems. Most of them did not take long to get used to, but were particularly noticeable in my first few weeks here, and still are even after the first semester. I love getting the opportunity to experience a different culture and see the ways that people my age learn and spend their free time, and the half of my time here has been so great in getting to do that!

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