Sunday, September 10, 2006

Europe's Failing Schools

Newsweek, Vol. CXLVII, No. 24, June 12, 2006.

Cover story:
The Continent’s Education Systems Are Crumbling

Top of the Week. Newsweek.
Dead-End Schools
Compared with the rest of the developed world, Europe’s schools are underfunded, antiquated and failing to prepare kids for the knowledge base economy. …

NO FUTURE: Many graduates head straight for welfare rolls.

NO PROSPECTS: Too many students are going from school to the dole.

Where the Future Is a Dead End (excerpts)
by Stefan Theil
with Barbie Nadeau in Rome and Tracy Mcnicoll in Paris.

From grade schools to universities, Europe’s underfunded, antiquated education systems are failing a new generation.

… these are windows on a Europe that is failing its young generation. As the world rapidly shifts from an economy based on labor and industry to one driven by knowledge and innovation, Europe’s education systems aren’t keeping pace. Indeed, some seem to be slipping into virtual dysfunction. It’s well known that the continent’s underfunded and overbureaucratized universities produce too few graduates with often outdated skills - an obvious threat to Europe’s prosperity. Less well known is the fact that many European countries, for all their talk of social equality foreclose opportunities for education and social advancement. … minds are a terrible thing to waste …

A scathing report comes out this week from London’s Centre for European Reform. A “grim” education “malaise” grips higher learning in Europe, the authors conclude. Most of its best universities are “clearly in the second division,” they say, worsened by “an exodus of academic talent.” …

Europe’s education malaise isn’t just about making tomorrow’s workers a little smarter. Nor is it merely about keeping pace with foreign competitors in the global marketplace. To the contrary, it’s about preserving Europe’s social fabric. Without vibrant, knowledge-infused economies, the whole foundation of the modern European welfare state falls apart. Already, schools and universities graduate too many students, …, straight onto the welfare rolls - a cost explosion that threatens to blow up Europe’s budgets and drag its economies down even more. … As violent riots set Paris’s … ablaze once again last week, Europe got another glimpse of the price it will play if it can’t offer its youth upward mobility and employable skills.

Once a powerhouse, Germany ranks 20th of 30 OECD countries in math and reading.

Numbers tell part of the story. At all three levels – primary education, secondary schools, universities - America and Japan significantly outspend Europe, according to 2005 OECD figures. The United States funnels 2.6 percent of its GDP into its universities alone, compared with just 1.1 percent each for Germany, Italy and France. Last year even Turkey passed these three. In the most recent global ranking of top research institutions compiled by the Jiao Tong University in Shanghai, only nine European colleges made it into the top 50, the majority of them in the United Kingdom. Less than a quarter of Europe’s working-age population has a university-level degree, compared with 38 percent in United States and 36 in Japan. Study after study, by OECD and others, as shown high/school achievement stagnant or slipping. The problems are particularly acute for the Continent’s Big Three, divers of Europe’s economy. Exhibit A is Germany. Once a powerhouse of training and education, it now ranks 20th among 30 OECD countries in math and reading skills, and 23rd in the number of college graduates.

MIXED REVIEWS: French schools are underfunded and overregulated.

At the heart of the problem are education systems that often seem stuck in another age. In France and Germany, bureaucrats in giant ministries micromanage curricula, budgets and personnel assignments. Austria, Belgium, Germany and the Netherlands have retained 19th-century school systems that divide up kids as early as the age of 10 into a different-level schools, all but cementing their future careers. Lower tracks, such as Germany’s Hauptschulen, offer only a rudimentary education. This relic of feudalism might have made sense for industrial societies that needed a small university/educated elite and masses of simple workers. Today, in a globalizing, flexible world, such fixed hierarchies are more out of date than ever.

POWERHOUSE? Germany excelled in academics. No longer.

The waste of talent, time and resources is astonishing Dropout rates average 10 percent at German Hauptschulen and a horrendous 60 percent at Italian universities. Many of these kids land straight in the lap of the welfare state. In Germany, the Federal Labor Office as 960,000 “customers” under 25 and spends €6 billion just on remedial programs that teach youngsters the most basic of skills, like simple math or how to use Microsoft Word. Despite 4.5 million registered unemployed, companies complain that they can’t find skilled workers - not just engineers and specialists but plain vanilla graduates with the social and learning skills to start simple on-the-job training. “The education system is sending us people who aren’t even ready to be trained,” says Labor Office chief Frank Weise. In contrast, countries like South Korea that have invested in education and raised the number of university graduates have enjoyed both higher growth and declining unemployment. Each additional year of education returns 8 percent in higher pay and productivity, says Jürgen Wössmann, education economist at Munich’s IFO Institute, Germany’s education troubles, according to estimates, cut the country’s growth rate by 0.9 percent.

A BRIGHT SPOT: Cambridge keeps its high standing.

You would think better investment in education, along with their wholesale reform, would therefore be a no-brainer. Instead, change as long been blocked by a combination of ideology and a desire to stick one’s head in the sand. Take the universities, similarly cash-strapped in much of Europe. Public coffers are empty, yet egalitarian ideals mean schools are barred form charging tuition beyond a nominal fee. …

A new report says most of Europe’s top universities are ‘clearly in the second division.’

That it took more than a decade of debate and litigation for German universities to be permitted to charge fees of a mere €500 a semester is testament to the painfully slow pace of change. The money will amount to no more than €16 million for the average university Even today, the education debate is marked by absurdity and distortion. Politicians talk about creating “elite” universities, yet they refuse to allow selective admissions. … Anything to avoid having to talk about the elephant in the middle of the room: that the system of education segregation is ineffective and cruel.

MASS EDUCATION: Europe feels the numbers crunch.

… Italy is one of several countries that have no system of testing and assessment at all, so there’s no way for any school to tell how it’s doing. For 25 years, German Education ministers blocked schools from participating in international tests after a 1970 study showed German students doing worse than expected. Even today, bureaucrats won’t allow researchers access to the newest data for fear they’d name and shame nonperforming schools.

There is another way. Finland, ranked by the OECD as having the world’s best education system, faced many of these same problems in the 1960s. In international tests, its students barely made the OECD average. Since then Finland as devolved decision making from Helsinki bureaucrats to the schools themselves, setting only guidelines for what students should be able to do. Schools and teachers are monitored for quality, and constantly evolve in terms of curricula and methods. The old-fashioned sorting of kids into different-level schools has been abandoned. Now Finish 15-year-olds not only score highest in a number of skills, but also show the least effect of class background on achievement, a key measure of meritocracy. Small wonder that Finland is today a high-tech powerhouse with high growth and low unemployment.

There are other bright spots. Like Finland, the Scandinavian countries also boast some of the world’s best school systems. Britain’s top universities are truly world class. Elsewhere, though, reform has been piecemeal and reluctant. The Netherlands deregulated schools in 2000, giving them more authority to make their own decisions. France has funneled extra funds to poorly performing schools …

Pressure is also coming from companies as education turns into an economic issue. German chemicals giant BASF, which has tested arriving trainees for more than 30 years, recently complained that basic skills have sharply declined. In Amsterdam’s Bijlmer and other disadvantaged districts, IBM and other companies have sponsored a network of “Weekend Schools” to mentor … kids for careers outside the ghetto. At the University of Potsdam, software billionaire Hasso Plattner has funded an elite computer-science institute, complete with an incubator for students’ business ventures. That kind of business-university partnership, which plays such a powerful role in America’s scientific and entrepreneurial prowess, is sorely lacking in Europe. So far, however, these are all changes around the edges. “None of these countries are having a strategic debate over where they want to be in 10 years,” says the OECD’s Andreas Scleicher. Nor do they seem willing to address the true causes of the malaise. Unless that changes, Europe’s future will be bleak indeed.

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