Germany's PISA Shock

The Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) helped guide Germany’s government with key education reforms.

What's the issue?

The first results of the OECD’s assessment of student learning outcomes (PISA), released in 2001, were a wake-up call for Germany. Results from 31 countries were released at the time, and German students’ scores in reading, mathematics and science were lower than the OECD average.

These results not only contradicted the public’s perception of the education system, they also sent a serious warning to a major exporting economy that relied on skills and value added for its competitive advantage. Results showed that performance was mostly correlated with socio-economic status, and students with an immigrant background did poorly compared with others.

This became known as the “PISA shock”, triggering a public outcry and debate about education policy that went on for months in the country’s media, and spurred transformative reforms.

How is it being addressed?

PISA showed that improvement was possible, and provided the necessary impetus for change. Germany virtually doubled federal spending on education in the early 2000s.

National education standards have been gradually introduced in schools over the past two decades. This is something that was hard to imagine in a country where the autonomy of the Länder (states) was sacrosanct.

Much greater support was given to disadvantaged students, including those with an immigrant background. Access to early childhood education was also massively expanded in the first years after PISA and over the past few years. The emphasis shifted from access to quality, and from care to quality early learning.

One thing is clear: the foundations for successful learning are laid early on in life. We must therefore concentrate our efforts on early childhood education.

Edelgard Bulmahn German Federal Minister for Education and Research, 2002

What’s the impact?

By 2009, Germany’s PISA results had improved, with disadvantaged groups, including immigrants, doing much better too. OECD data on early childhood education show that Germany doubled the participation of children under the age of 3 between 2005 and 2016. This restored confidence in Germany’s talent and competitive advantage for the years through the crisis and beyond.

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