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2024 International Education Study Group

A Project of the Pennsylvania School Boards Association
in collaboration with the American Council on Germany

From April 14-20, 2024, an 18-person delegation of Americans visited Bonn, Düsseldorf, Dortmund, and Cologne as part of the Pennsylvania School Boards Association’s (PSBA) International Education Study Group to provide school board members and school administrators from the state with an overview of the German education system, including how it works, how the system achieves results, how it is funded, and much more. The intent of the project is to gather ideas for the adaptation and implementation of German practices and to develop recommendations centered on changes Pennsylvania school districts could implement to significantly enhance district academics, operations, facilities, and culture. Members of the delegation represented rural and suburban school districts from across the state of Pennsylvania.

Beginning in Bonn, the delegation first met with representatives from the Bundesministerium für Bildung und Forschung / German Ministry of Education and Research for an overview of the federal education ministry and a discussion about its role and responsibilities, current trends in the German education system, challenges and areas in which innovation is taking place, how quality and performance is measured in schools, and what kind of funding the ministry provides to promote educational initiatives. The group learned about the StartChances program, a new federal €20 billion initiative over 10 years that the federal and state governments have agreed to in order to decouple educational success from social background and ensure more equal opportunities. Around 4,000 schools in Germany will become start-up schools through this initiative, which will focus on strengthening basic skills through three program pillars: investments in contemporary and conducive learning environments, opportunity budgets for needs-based solutions in school and teaching development; and personnel to strengthen multi-professional teams. In the afternoon, a representative from the Ständige Konferenz der Kultusminister der Länder in der Bundesrepublik Deutschland (KMK) / Standing Conference of the Ministers of Education and Cultural Affairs of the Länder in the Federal Republic of Germany shared how the KMK coordinates education policy between the federal government and the sixteen German federal states. Additionally, the delegation learned about exchange opportunities for teachers, teaching assistants, and students between Germany and the United States.

Before departing Bonn on the second day of the program, the delegation visited Grundschule Finkenhof / Elementary School Finkenhof and BONNEUM Beuel to learn about the educational network of learning workshops in Bonn that promotes scientific and digital learning in innovative didactic formats for students in kindergarten, primary, and secondary school. The goals of the BONNEUM are: to enable children and young people to learn independently and responsibly in attractive, multifunctional learning workshops; to qualify competent learning companions who will carry the idea of learning workshop work into their schools and thus contribute to the spread of an innovative learning culture; and to develop workshops in the regions and in the two central locations (media center, MINT learning workshop) and to offer them to other interested educators. At the Marie-Kahle Gesamtschule Bonn / Marie-Kahle Comprehensive School the school’s principal explained the comprehensive school model used in North Rhine-Westphalia and its advantages over the traditional school system used in Germany that divides students into different schools after 4th grade. The delegation was extremely impressed by the leadership, commitment, and passion driving the school’s teachers and administrators to provide a quality and equity-focused education to their students.

In a wide-ranging discussion at the Ministerium für Schule und Bildung des Landes Nordrhein-Westfalen / Ministry of Education for the State of North-Rhine Westphalia in Düsseldorf the delegation learned about the responsibilities of the state education ministry in terms of school oversight. Additional topics included education funding, the Digital Strategy for Schools in North Rhine-Westphalia – Teaching and Learning in the Digital World and the state’s AI Systems and Media Competence Framework, curricula for primary schools, and efforts to develop alternative forms of performance reviews for schools. The groundwork was laid for further cooperation and exchanges between North-Rhine Westphalia and Pennsylvania.

The delegation had an intensive two days of meetings and visits in Dortmund, beginning with a discussion at the Dortmund Schulverwaltung / Dortmund School Administration to gain a deeper understanding of how municipal school administrations are structured and what responsibilities they have in the German education system. While most responsibility for education policy is at the state level, municipalities are responsible for infrastructure and ensuring resources exist to implement policies. Current challenges, similar to those in the U.S., include the integration of migrants, digitalization efforts, a shortage of teachers, and adequate funding to build new schools and modernize school buildings for the classrooms of the 21st century. At the Stadtgymnasium / Dortmund Grammar High School members of the delegation had the opportunity to interact with students and teachers to learn about the school’s digitalization efforts and focus on integrating the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) into their curriculum. Everyone was extremely impressed by the energy and commitment of the teachers and to the amazing English skills of the students aged 10 to 17, who presented information on various activities taking place at the school. The directors at the Zentrum für schulpraktische Lehrerausbildung / Center for Practical Teacher Training, one of several centers in the state responsible for the practical training of teachers following the first phase of teacher education at German universities, explained their work and challenges. During the visit, the PSBA delegation had the opportunity to experience classroom lessons of teachers being prepared for teaching apprentices in vocational schools. Many of the future teachers were individuals who had worked in industry and decided to follow their “inner calling” to become an educator and to prepare the next generation for the future.

During the second day in Dortmund, the group visited the Droste-Hülshoff-Realschule (Intermediate Secondary School) learning about the school’s commitment to inclusion of students with special needs and following the motto “every human being is a miracle!” Led by student guides, delegation members attended classes for English, mathematics, science, and social studies. Students at the school also showed the delegation their Holocaust project which they created on their own initiative to educate youth about the crimes of the Nazi regime and the need for us all to never forget. At KITZ.do / Dortmund Children and Youth Technology Center, a non-profit educational institution that specializes in STEM topics, the delegation toured the learning workshops used by schools and parents to get kids interested in STEM fields. Kids can learn about chemistry, building trades, 3-D printing, and IT amongst many others. The center has over 10,000 visitors per year and offers a range of activities in addition to the learning workshops, such as science competitions, home experiment sets, and an open makerspace. The visit to Dortmund concluded with a meeting at the Robert Bosch Berufskolleg Dortmund / Robert Bosch Vocational School to gain an understanding for the role of the vocational school, which provides theoretical training as part of the German dual system of apprenticeship training. The school focuses on technical fields such as electrical engineering, automation technology, and medical technology and informatics. During an apprenticeship, the trainee spends 30% of the time at the vocational school for theoretical training and 70% of the time working at an employer earning a small salary and gaining practical learning in the production process.

The delegation wrapped up its busy week in Germany with a visit to a Mittelstand (SME) company to learn about apprenticeship training and to the Universität zu Köln to learn about teacher education. At FOGTEC Fire Protection company representatives discussed why so many German companies participate and invest in the German dual system of apprenticeship training, providing young Germans ages 16-20 with practical training in more than 325 recognized occupations. FOGTEC offers apprenticeships in eight fields and sees their program as critical to finding skilled workers to operate their future business. Colleagues from the Industrie- und Handelskammer zu Köln / Chamber of Industry and Commerce joined the meeting to explain the important role of the chambers in monitoring and coordinating the apprenticeship system. The group also had the opportunity to tour the production facilities to see FOGTEC’s innovative sprinkler systems being built. At the Zentrum für Lehrer*innenbildung (ZfL) / Center for Teacher Training at the University of Cologne, the group engaged in a great discussion with eight administrators and faculty about the structure of the teacher education system in Germany as well as the challenges posed to reforming the education system to ensure fairness in opportunity to all students and the recruitment and retainment of qualified teachers.

For many school board members on this trip, it was a life-changing experience with many opportunities to learn about and study the structure, curriculum, and governance of German schools. The ACG looks forward to supporting the PSBA and their efforts to share international perspectives on education to expand and improve educational opportunities for students in Pennsylvania and to build further bridges with the German state of North-Rhine Westphalia.