American and German Schools

MAY a knowledge of the educational practices of other nations help us to improve our system and methods of education ? Upon this question there seems to be a wide difference of opinion. On the one hand, it is asserted that no two nations have the same conditions of life, either social or civil; that the schools of a nation are a growth peculiar to itself, as are its laws and customs, and therefore that they can be perfected only by trial and experience under the peculiar conditions of their origin and existence. On the other hand, it is urged that the universality of the needs of men as human beings should be recognized : and as the highest end of education is to make good and wise men rather than citizens of any particular state or workers at any given calling, there should be some common means pursued by which this highest and common end is reached. A knowledge of the common means thus employed serves a double purpose: first, in proving the efficacy of true theories of education ; and, secondly, in guarding against false ones. Thus the successes and mistakes of one people may be used for the benefit of all others.

The history of education shows that this principle of coöperation, or the transmission of theories through their embodied practices, has been a potent factor in the development of true methods of education. It was recognized in the times of Comenius and Pestalozzi, when hundreds of teachers of various countries flocked to see the practical working of theories which were not fully understood or believed. And when we reflect upon the influence of the imperfect and crude attempts of these men to embody in practice theories which without such practice might have fallen upon dull ears, — an influence which has extended throughout the civilized world, — we cannot resist the conclusion, not only that it is useful for one nation to study the educational practices of other nations, but that it is the surest and best way of extending and perfecting the science as well as the art of education.

In seeking to find where we may learn most of that which will be useful in improving our schools, we naturally turn to the countries where lived the great reformers whose names I have just given, and where the fiercest pedagogical conflicts have been waged. In these countries — Germany, Austria, and Switzerland— we find a system of education scientific and thorough in its character, broad in its scope, and uniform in its practices. So good, indeed, are the schools here that other countries willingly sit at their feet as learners, as shown by the throngs of visitors in the schools, either drawn thither by professional interest, or sent officially to study their systems and to observe their methods. Nor is the interest and zeal in behalf of the schools new to the German people. Ever since the Reformation, the government has encouraged the establishment of institutions of learning of every kind to such an extent as to call to the service of elementary education the best thought of the country. True, that thought has been erratic and at times abnormal in its applications. Yet it has always been vigorous and powerful, whether exercised in the severe classical formalism of Trotzendorf and Sturm or in the free naturalism of Comenius and Basedow. The experience, therefore, of Germany in the management of her schools has been a thoughtful one, and as such it commands our respect and invites our attention to some contrasting features of her system of schools and ours.

For the purpose of making a comparison which will be most effective in the minds of readers, I will speak only of the conditions under which the schools are maintained, and especially of those conditions which all agree to be vital to the best interests of the schools. The conditions of which I shall speak are : (1) qualifications of teachers ; (2) permanence of the teaching force; (3) character of plan of studies ; (4) school attendance ; (5) supervision.

1. Whatever may be said of the superiority of natural over acquired qualifications for the teacher’s calling, no one, I suppose, will doubt the general statement that the efficiency of teachers is enhanced by special preparation for their work. That being conceded, we turn to inquire how much so-called professional preparation is demanded of teachers in the United States. From a recent report of the Commissioner of Education 1 it will be seen that in California, Illinois, Kansas, New Hampshire, New York, Massachusetts, Pennsylvania, Vermont, and Wisconsin — the only States making full reports — only one out of every seventeen teachers was in 1886 a graduate of a normal school. A larger proportion, or about twelve per cent, of all teachers employed, is reported as having attended a normal school. These States doubtless have other training schools, in which some of the teachers have received more or less professional training. Making a liberal allowance for the number attending such schools and for the probable advance that has been made, it is safe to say that not more than one fourth of the present teachers of the above-named States have had any professional preparation for their work. The character of the teaching in these States is certainly as high as it is in the rest of the Union. It may be said, therefore, that as many as three fourths of all the teachers of this country now in practice entered upon their work without any direct training in the science or art of teaching. In other words, a majority of the people of the country regard teaching as less of an art than carpentry or horse-shoeing, for which some preparation, at least, is thought to be necessary. When it is considered that a large proportion of these untrained teachers are new to their work every year, the seriousness of the matter becomes apparent. The enormous waste of money which is occasioned by the misdirected energies of this army of novices is of little consequence beside the irreparable injury which their experiments and mistakes cause to the children.

In decided contrast to the amount of professional training required for teachers in this country are Germany’s requirements. Candidates for positions in the elementary schools (Volkschulen) must have the equivalent of a normalschool training of three years and pass two rigid examinations, — one at the close of the course, and the other not earlier than two and not later than five years afterwards. The examinations are oral and written, and cover all the subjects taught in the normal school, including religion, language (in some parts of Germany a good knowledge of one foreign language is required), mathematics, science, history, pedagogics, psychology, logic, and a practical test in teaching a class of pupils. During the last two years of the normal-school course the students have constant practice in teaching in a model school; and between the two examinations just mentioned permission is granted the candidate to teach, although no permanent position is given until after the second examination is passed.

The examinations of candidates for positions in high schools are very severe in the various subjects which they are called upon to teach ; and before permanent positions are given them, they are obliged to teach for one year under the direction of a competent master. Other examinations are given candidates for positions us principal, as special teacher in any department, or as instructor in private schools. Even one who desires to teach in a private family must first have a certificate of qualification from an examining commission. These examining commissions consist of different classes of persons, depending upon the character of the examination ; but in general it may be said that professional teachers of good standing are largely represented in the commissions, and that one or more representatives of the provincial or district school boards are present at all examinations.

Thus we see that teaching is recognized by the government of Germany as a profession, in every way as severe in its requirements and as honorable in its character as is either of what we are wont to call the three learned professions. Nothing could be more marked than the contrast between such a recognition of a noble profession and the laissez faire policy of many parts of our country, which permits a person who simply knows a little arithmetic, grammar, and geography to help mould in its most pliant period the human mind.

2. Efficient service depends not only upon intelligent effort, but also upon a continuance of that effort. A frequently changing personality in any department of industry means a loss in unity of purpose and effort, and consequent weakness. This is especially true in teaching, which requires united and harmonious efforts toward a common purpose. If we step to-day into any one of the one hundred thousand school-rooms of Germany, we shall find a teacher who feels that he is engaged in his lifework ; and in nine tenths of those school-rooms we shall find teachers who have the assurance of their government that as long as they behave themselves they may remain where they are to the end of their natural lives. Very rarely are the permanently elected teachers changed from the position to which they are appointed, and more rarely still are they dismissed from service.

Aside from the efficiency of these professional workers, their permanence of place makes their efforts felt in a way not known in a system of constant changes like ours. From recent statistics 2 we learn that in the United States an average of twenty-six changes occurs yearly in every one hundred teachers’ positions ; that is, the average length of the service of teachers is less than four years. In some quarters the rule is to make a change every term, the term consisting of ten or twelve weeks. So accustomed are we to a want of permanency in the position of teachers that we regard it not out of place for a young woman to make it a convenient waitingplace for matrimony, or for a young man to use it as a stepping-stone to one of the so-called learned professions. What other business would permit such a large “ tramp ” element to impair its efficiency or to lower its standard of effective usefulness ?

3. A good plan of studies is to the teacher what the chart and compass are to the navigator. By its aid progress in the right direction may be measured ; without it there is likely to be much aimless and useless work done, if indeed it be not absolutely mischievous. The making of a good plan of studies implies not only a knowledge of the subjects to be studied, but also such acquaintance with the powers and capacities of the growing mind as to know the proper sequence of subjects and the relative amount of work to be done in successive periods. Such knowledge, it must be admitted, is scientific, and can be acquired only by long and varied experience.

The German system of schools recognizes first of all the importance of a plan of studies by providing for the best plan that experience and science can give, and by causing one to be placed in the hands of every teacher. The Minister of Instruction — the highest educational authority of the state, and a member of the government — issues for all kinds and grades of schools a general plan of studies, which is elaborated and adapted to special needs by inspectors and masters of schools. So carefully prepared are these plans that they may be said to be the result of the best, educational thought of the state, — on the one hand so well defined as to make the teacher’s duty clar, and on the other hand so unrestricted as to leave much freedom and independence of action.

In many parts of the United States the arrangement of a plan of studies is left to the local board, — a board which is made up of men who are able, it may be, to run a farm or factory, but who have no special fitness to direct teachers in respect to subjects of study. As a consequence, there are many towns which have no plan of studies for their schools, absolutely no guide of what is expected to be done beyond the wishes of parents who are ambitious for their children to go through or over many books. This may not be less harmful than a faithful adherence to the requirements of some plans which are made by persons wholly unfit to make them. And all these hindrances to good and systematic work are but little worse than the constantly changing courses of studies which ambitious school committees, superintendents and principals are fond of putting out as essential improvements over what has preceded, or as proofs of their ability as reformers.

4. In estimating the value of an educational system, the attendance of children upon the schools should not be left out of the account. No school system can be said to be good which is not supported by laws requiring a certain standard of education for all. How far the practice of many parts of our country is from this standard appears from statistics which show that in twenty-one States there are no compulsory laws of school attendance, and that in other States, according to the Commissioner of Education,3 “ in many instances the compulsory attendance law, if not actually a dead letter, is practically so.”In many of the Northern States where the percentage of attendance is the highest, there is gross neglect not only in enforcing the laws of compulsory school attendance, but also in providing proper truant schools. This neglect is due largely to the fact that the execution of the laws is left to local authorities, who for political and social reasons fail to do their duty. Members of the school board do not stand a good chance for reëlection who by an enforcement of the law entail extra expense upon the town ; and they are few, especially in country towns, who are willing to proceed against a neighbor or a neighbor’s children, in case of a violation of the law.

Comparatively little fault can be found with Germany either in the laws relating to school attendance or in their enforcement. For many years there have been in successful operation in the various states which now are a part of the empire compulsory laws, which provide that every child between the ages of six and fourteen, or until certain attainments are reached, shall attend school while the schools are in session; that is to say, about ten months in the year. The penalty for non-compliance with these laws operates upon parents as well as upon truant children,—the former being lined and imprisoned, and the latter being cared for in schools provided for the purpose. The rigid enforcement of the laws may be attributed to the fact that the police officers of the state act directly in conjunction with the school authorities, both in ascertaining the causes of absence and in prosecuting offenders. The extent to which the compulsory laws are enforced is shown from the statistics of school attendance. For example, “ on the first of December, 1888, there were absent from school, for valid reasons, 170,439 children out of a total of five millions ; 13,517 children were absent through illness ; 8826 were incapacitated, through bodily and mental defects, from attending school; and only 3145 were absent without sufficient cause.” 4

5. Experience has proved the necessity of wise supervision in most departments of labor ; and nowhere is wise supervision more needed than in a system of schools where there are teachers of different schools and grades, or where the teachers are deficient to any extent in the art of teaching. Germany has for many years made this provision in the management of her schools, and the results clearly demonstrate its importance. In that country, the organization of the schools, the examination of teachers, the criticism and direction in methods of teaching, — in short, all duties involving technical wisdom and skill, — are given only to professional educators. At the head of the educational system of each state of Germany is an official who is a member of the government and has a direct influence in shaping the educational policy of the state. He is in constant communication with the various school boards, and to him the several examining boards and school inspectors report at regular times. There are city and district superintendents, who have certain definite supervisory duties to perform. For example, in Saxony these officials are obliged to direct their attention especially to the observance of the law in relation to school attendance, to the teachers’ adherence to the plan of studies, to the methods of instruction, and to the progress of the pupils in general and in each subject. His conclusions with reference to these and other specified matters are embodied in a report sent to the district board at the close of every school year. School inspectors are also employed to act in conjunction with local boards in attending to the external affairs of the schools, such as care of school property, collection of fees, etc. In addition to the supervision performed by school inspectors there is the closer supervision by principals of all the large schools, both elementary and secondary. Such principals teach only about twelve hours a week, the rest of the time being given to matters of organization and supervision.

No uniform method of school supervision is practiced in this country; each State, and in some States each town, determining the methods to be employed. The schools of most of the cities and of some of the large towns are well supervised by skilled superintendents, appointed on account of their superior qualifications. The weak points in the supervision elsewhere—which means, of course, in the larger part of the country — are quite apparent to all who know the worth of intelligent direction in school affairs. In some sections there is absolutely no supervision of the schools other than that done by members of school boards, who, as a rule, have little time to attend to the duties of their office, and are likely to have neither natural nor acquired fitness to criticise and direct the work of teachers. In other sections, county superintendents are either appointed by a board or elected by popular vote. Some of these persons are doubtless efficient supervisors, but their field of labor is frequently so large as to prevent their service from being felt in the schools to any appreciable degree. In general it may be said, therefore, that a greater part of the school supervision of this country is ineffectual on account of the largeness of the supervisor’s field of labor, or of his dependence in election to and retention in office upon the will of the people, or of his want of proper qualifications to perform the duties of his office.

From this brief comparison of the conditions of education in Germany and America, there appear some features of difference to the advantage of the former country: first, in the professional standard of service required; secondly, in the uniformity of a complete system ; thirdly, in the removal of all educational affairs from politics and from the dangers of a changing public sentiment. The practical question for us to consider is, to what extent and in what way we may secure these conditions of excellence, and not violate the fundamental principles of a republican government. In some favored localities of this country these conditions are partially realized, and they are effected in such localities by the voice of the people themselves. This is the key to the solution of the question. Our laws should be so made as to require the governing school boards to call to their aid the best educational intelligence in conducting those interests which are the most important and sacred interests of a self-governing people. Such a delegation of powers and duties is not inconsistent with the principles of our government. The technical details of affairs which involve the highest interests of the people should be attended to only by persons best fitted to perform the service. This principle is recognized in the requirements of many States concerning matters of health ; as, for example, the inspection of public buildings and the practice of medicine and dentistry. The blunders of poor builders and quacks are, perhaps, more noticeable than those of poor teachers; but they are certainly not more disastrous to the public welfare, not to speak of economic considerations which constitute so large an element in all other public concerns. It would seem that no arguments beyond those of common experience would be needed to convince the average taxpayer that unskilled direction of the schools means not only poor instruction and a waste of the children’s time, but a waste of the people’s money as well.

If opposition to the proposed plan is raised on the ground that the rights of the people would be violated, or that popular interest in the schools would be lessened, the experience of places in this country which have, in part, followed the proposed plan may be cited. In Boston, for example, is there any feeling of uneasiness on the part of her citizens because her representatives have committed the management of the internal affairs of the schools to a superintendent and board of supervisors, or because the rule is established that no one shall teach in the schools who has not passed an examination of a high order ? The well-known interest and activity always shown in the educational affairs of that city disprove the idea that the rights of citizens are infringed, or that their interest in the schools is lessened in any degree. The same may be said of all places which have schools taught and managed by professional teachers and superintendents; and the results shown in their schools only prove the value of the lesson which may be learned from the experience of Germany. That lesson, so far as it relates to the conditions of school education, may be distinctly stated as follows: to provide means by which teachers of all schools shall have a thorough preparation for their work; to secure a permanent tenure of office for all worthy teachers ; to make compulsory the school attendance of all children under fifteen years of age; to provide for systematic, skilled supervision of the schools in every part of the country.

John T. Prince.

  1. Report of 1886-87, page 453.
  2. Report of U. S. Commissioner of Education, 1886-87, page 71.
  3. Report of 1886-87, page 56.
  4. London Journal of Education for January, 1890, page 32.