Welcoming the Welcomed - The Challenge of Integration in the Berlin Educational System

by Amish Dave, Bistra Ivanova and Ali Sutton

The guards outside the Hotel Adlon brandish magnificent smiles as they hold open the doors to the famous establishment for a stream of visitors. The European Union information center entices tourists on Unter den Linden by offering free soccer balls to anyone who can win a game of football. Waitresses at the Café de France serve flan and beer to a crowd of Brazilian soccer aficionados who praise Berlin while dancing to the beats of an imported samba band. From atop every building, the once conspicuously-absent German flag waves proudly besides a plethora of international flags. In preparation for the thousands of foreigner travelers who stroll down the Berlin "Fan Mile" to celebrate the victories of their favorite teams during the FIFA 2006 World Cup, Germany has prepared a vigorous welcoming.

But, the welcome has been selective. Staring straight ahead, Ismahan Alboga, one of the few mainstream German journalists of Turkish descent, is quick to voice her criticism over Berlin's lack of a "welcoming culture" where immigrants, especially Turks, are concerned. While today’s tourists are felicited enthusiastically, many Turks who were interviewed felt that politicians and the media too often saw the integration of immigrants as a problem, not a challenge. Ironically, pointing to the 2006 policy statement of the Commissioner for Integration and Migration of the Senate of Berlin recently published by his office, Ulrich Raiser notes that Germany once ardently welcomed Turkish migrants. From the end of the Second World War until 1973, chronically labor-deprived West German companies contracted thousands of unskilled Turkish guest workers. However, the initial welcome for the migrant influx proved short-lived as economic difficulties in the 1970s and the collapse of the Berlin Wall led to an evaporation of jobs, even as new immigrants continued to arrive in Germany. With 119,000 Turks in Berlin in 2004, many in the city are attempting to better integrate a population that is unwelcome and unsupported by large elements of German society.

However, not all Turks are feeling unwelcome. Neumark-Grundschule teacher, Gulşen Aktaş, beams as she states, "We at the school ask ourselves many times if the children are truly well-integrated. Now, with the World Cup, we can see the children (both Turk and non-Turk) cheer on Germany." Yet, if the children of Turkish migrants in Schöneberg do feel that they are represented by the German national soccer team, they are often unrepresented in German higher education. As Raiser stresses, "Low educational achievement is one of the key qualities that defines an integration problem." If so, then Turks are woefully not integrated. According to the 2005 Microcensus of the Statistisches Bundesamt, only 4% of German Turks have attained a university degree, compared to 17% of non-migrant Germans. Similarly, a whopping 20% of German Turks have never received any educational degree, while the same is only true of 3% of non-migrant Germans. Yet if education is a clear hurdle in the path to successful integration of Turks, pinpointing the reasons for the gap in educational achievement between Turks and non-migrant Germans has proven more elusive. While some Berliners are convinced that the three-tier system for middle school education and a lack of information on the system are to blame, others stress that language difficulties and socioeconomic factors are responsible. While many factors are no doubt involved, the complexity of the German educational system has often been the focus of debate on matters of integration.

To an outsider who has never studied in Germany, the Berlin education system is immediately daunting. Intense research alone might not allow the educated individual to grasp the difference between a Berufsfachschule and a Berufsoberschule (yes, there is a difference). Although the sixteen federal states of Germany each have different educational systems, the basics of the Berlin education system include optional kindergarten and mandatory six-year instruction in Grundschule (similar to elementary schools in the USA). Subsequently, students attend Oberschule, where, at the age of ten, they are separated into three tiers: Hauptschule, Realschule, and Gymnasium. Describing common perceptions of the educational system, Karin Jäger, a German teacher at Heinrich-von-Stephan-Oberschule, asserts, “Hauptschule prepares students for jobs such as bakers and mechanics, Realschule for positions like bankers, and Gymnasium is for those who plan on attending university.”

Recently, the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development’s (OECD) Program for International Students Assessment (PISA) showed dramatic problems within the German education system when compared to other countries, particularly regarding the success of immigrant students. When comparing migrant children to their native counterparts, the performance gap between the student groups in Germany was almost double the average performance gap seen in other OECD countries. The United States was also included in the PISA study, and received a slightly less negative report. With two of the researchers on this project coming from the Chicagoland area (consisting of the city of Chicago and its Illinois suburbs), it has been interesting to note the striking similarities between Berlin’s problems integrating its Turkish migrants with those challenges faced by the Chicago education system in integrating its Latino population. Considering Germany’s results, the question arises why, even when immigrant students have positive attitudes towards school and show greater motivation than their native counterparts, do they perform at significantly lower levels? Most importantly, how can we welcome students and parents of Turkish background four decades after they were originally welcomed into Germany? How can Germany welcome the welcomed?

Does the three-tier system need to go?
One challenge to integration that has received a great deal of attention is the German three-tier education system. The system itself has been in place in West Germany (and, after reunification, all of Germany) for decades and, according to Karin Jäger of the Heinrich-von-Stephan-Oberschule, was a successful program at one time. However, the situation in Germany is changing rapidly.  Apprenticeships are no longer prevalent in German society, causing Jäger to describe Hauptschules as “providing education for the unemployed.” Unfortunately, the system is deeply ingrained in German society and has become difficult to modify according to fluctuations in the German labor market.
Among its more general flaws, the three-tier system is especially harmful to Turkish immigrant students. Turgut Hüner, a spokesperson for the Turkish Parents Association Berlin-Brandenburg, declares that the main problem Turkish students face when attempting to integrate into German society is the educational system. According to Hüner, there is a clear discrepancy between the numbers of Turkish immigrant and non-migrant students who are currently entering Gymnasium. In contrast, statistics show that Turkish students are more likely than their native peers to receive lower-level degrees: about 25% of 15 to 25 year olds with migrant background have a Hauptschule degree compared to only 16% of individuals of non-migrant background in the same age bracket (Report on Education in Germany, 2006). Additionally, the effects of this discrepancy in education spill into the work force: in 2005, 16.2% of people with Turkish migrant background were unemployed, compared to only 9% of their German counterparts (Report on Education in Germany, 2006).

Amid many hypotheses as to why students of Turkish background are not reaching higher levels of education, discrimination against Turkish students within the three-tier system is a major concern. Ulrich Raiser points out that "migrant children only have a fifth of the chance to get into Gymnasium compared to non-migrant children even controlling for socioeconomic factors and student achievement in primary schools." To Raiser, this statistic indicates that "discrimination at the institutional level stills exists." Petra Stanat, a former fellow in the Max Planck Institute for Human Development and a co-researcher of the PISA 2000 study, also agrees that student achievement alone is no guarantee for university enrolment. Considering that it is a student's teacher that recommends him or her for Gymnasium, any discrimination must be taken seriously. Although educators may not always see themselves as prejudiced against Turkish minorities, they might subconsciously expect an unreasonable amount of work from their migrant students, thus placing them into a lower “tier of success” based on their Turkish descent.

An overwhelming consensus exists among the experts interviewed that the three-tier system needs dramatic reforms. When asked why Turkish immigrant students were not performing well academically, Mekonnen Mesghena of the Green Party-affiliated Heinrich Böll Foundation states, "It has nothing to do with immigrants. It's the system of education that needs to be fixed." Similarly, Ulrich Raiser notes, “The three-tier system needs to be changed because Hauptschules are no longer offering the same chances to students to enter vocational training as they once had.” Both Mr. Hüner and he believe that combining Hauptschule and Realschule levels may make a positive impact. Although many Germans believe that such educational changes will require gruelling reforms, Jäger stresses the relative speed at which reform can take place by noting that, after a vibrant debate, her school recently began merging selected classes within these two tracks. Karin Jäger hopes that, as the merging of the Hauptschule and Realschule continues at the Heinrich-von-Stephen-Oberschule, the views of parents, students, and lawmakers will evolve as they see opportunities for migrant students expand.

The Chicagoland school system greatly differs from the Berlin model. Although Chicago high schools are not separated into three separate “tiers,” "tracks" within the one high school system certainly exist (including special education, regular education, and advanced education or advanced placement classes). However, instead of being tracked for all subjects, this system enables students to create a class schedule that accurately fits their abilities in each academic area. Despite this different intention, the educational divide is similar to Germany's in that Latino immigrant students do not attain the same higher education level as their Asian immigrant and Caucasian peers. However, Karen Horvat, one Chicagoland English as a Second Language (ESL) teacher, suggests, "Economics and cultural expectations play a larger role in university attendance" in comparison to the actual education system.

My Tongue or Yours
Virtually everyone in Berlin has an opinion on the importance of German language acquisition for educational success. However, while fluency is regarded as critical for successful integration, the means by which to teach the language of "poets and philosophers" to tens of thousands of Turkish children is a contentious issue (“Bad Grades for German Schools,” 2004).

"Of course learning German is important," social worker Anne Beatrice Eickhoff muses, “but people either believe that knowledge of Turkish should be fully developed before German is taught or that both Turkish and German can be learned simultaneously." But, the question of which language should come first is no superfluous topic of debate. According to Free University political science student Monika Frech, "linguicism," a form of discrimination towards minorities based on language, is a product of a social policy where "parallel immigrant societies with isolated cultures and members [cannot] speak the predominant language [or do not] want to learn it." This unhealthy dualism is only exacerbated, according to Frech, when "false tolerance towards cultural and linguistic divisions [breeds] indifference and neglect."

To Ismahan Alboga, teaching German to Turkish children is a very personal issue. "Although my parents wanted me to go to school and learn, they were not able to help me with information or homework," she recalls. "If they had known German, it absolutely would have helped me." Teachers at the Neumark-Grundschule in Schöneberg, where more than 95% of pupils are non-native German speakers, share Alboga’s frustration. As children run through the halls screaming in Turkish and barge into our meeting unannounced, Elke Metzenthin struggles for the right words to describe the challenges of integration at her school. "This school had a policy of bilingualism with Turkish-only language classes," she explains, "but it's not really a good idea for different kids to be learning different languages."   Her colleague, Gulşen Aktaş concurs, "If kids can not speak either German or Turkish well, they might never learn how to say the word for 'flower pot' in either language." Turkish children, both agree, must be immersed in German language study, while parents must encourage their children not to watch only Turkish television. "Integration is worse in a sense today because now you have ghettoes filled with immigrants who do not get out of their communities," Aktaş believes. “Perhaps after the fifth or seventh generation, we can speak of complete integration."

However, instructors at the Rixdorfer-Grundschule in Neukölln have very different opinions regarding bilingual education.  Proud of her school's 24-year program to educate first through sixth graders in German and Turkish, Angelika Tiedemann insists, "If you want to further communication, you have to give migrant children the tools to communicate." In a "social learning" class implemented at the school this year, Tiedemann and her co-teacher, Rüya Yurttagül-Schumacher, preside over a third grade students' lesson on civic-mindedness and proper behavior.  Raising their hands and waiting to be called, the children speak in either German or Turkish as they explain how students should behave in class. To ensure that everyone understands each statement, the teachers repeat everything in both languages. From first through third grade, students in this homeroom have seven hours per week of "cooperation classes," where both languages are compared to enhance knowledge of each; from fourth through sixth grades, the number of hours is dropped to five and students begin to learn English as well. "Our bilingual students," Yurttagül-Schumacher explains, "learn German better than many children in more affluent schools, get better grades than many monolingual students, and learn English with greater fluency." In striking contrast to the low rates of migrant children attending higher educational institutions elsewhere, Tiedemann says that 24 out of every 26 bilingual children in a given year might be expected to go to Realschule or Gymnasium, while only two will proceed to Hauptschule. Explaining this success rate, Yurttagül-Schumacher believes that their program allows children to speak two languages fluently rather than only half of two languages. "If Turkish parents barely speak to their children and, when they do, speak only poor Turkish and worse German, children's linguistic development is stunted." The Rixdorfer educators insist that bilingual education must be expanded across Germany, regardless of cost.

Chicagoland educators share the enthusiasm for bilingualism held by the Rixdorfer teachers. Declaring herself a "strong proponent of not just ESL, but also bilingual education," Karen Horvat states, "I believe that if one's native language is nurtured and developed, then learning a second language will be easier and students will reach a higher level of maturity." To Horvat, integration of Chicagoland Latinos does not justify replacing Spanish with English, but recognizing that knowledge of Spanish can be a powerful vehicle to teach the English language. Jan Bridgeman, a special education teacher, agrees that the language barrier is difficult, but believes that migrant parents are more frustrated by English language education than their children. While parents are able to do phone conferences to speak to educators (via school-hired translators) about their children's education, she notes, "They expect their children to handle schoolwork independently" in most cases. Essentially, as Kathy Kibitlewski, a third grade teacher suggests, supplementing bilingual education with parental involvement is "the million dollar question." Be it Chicago or Neukölln, educating children in the native language might be fruitless without simultaneously informing parents about the American and German educational systems respectively. As Rüya Yurttagül-Schumacher laughs, "I often feel like I'm doing double-duty by teaching both my pupils and their parents."

Developing a Dialogue
Another factor blamed for Germany's inefficient integration of Turkish students is the gap in communication between Turkish immigrant families and the German education system. For many years, Turkish immigrants did not see Germany as their permanent residence as they assumed that they would eventually return to Turkey. Ismahan Alboga recalls that it took her parents twenty years in Germany to finally realize that they would never return to Turkey.  This belief in a temporary life in Germany led many Turkish immigrants to resist assimilation. In addition, many Turkish parents remained disinterested in the German educational system.

However, with educational achievement increasingly linked to socioeconomic success, the Turkish immigrant population's need for information about the German educational system is apparent. Many Turkish immigrant parents seem to have unrealistically high expectations for their children in school, according to Petra Stanat, partly due to the fact that they do not quite understand the education system. It is clear that more information needs to be provided, but the context of such information needs to be considered as well. Jäger proudly explained to us that a letter is sent home each week with the student, explaining how the student is doing in school and other information in which parents should be aware. Although an innovative attempt, these letters are sent home in German, rendering them useless for Turkish immigrant parents who may be illiterate in their native language, not to mention German.

Although, as Ulrich Raiser points out, “schools must be responsible for dispersing information about the school system,” there is more to this issue than giving immigrant parents knowledge about the system. Concurrently, Ulrich Raiser highlights, "A much stronger dialogue between the teachers and immigrant parents must be fostered." Karin Jäger concedes, "Communication with parents is not my school's strongest point." However, to resolve inequalities in communication, many schools have attempted to create "parent programs" in order to educate the parents about the school system, stress the importance of education generally, and create a space for the parents to communicate with one another and school staff. At Neumark-Grundschule, for example, there is a mothers' breakfast program that provides German language courses, in addition to a social atmosphere where mothers can leave the home and talk with one other. Although the participation in these breakfasts is relatively low (only about 20-25 mothers attend regularly), Aktaş believes that the positive impact it has had on these mothers and their children is apparent.

Similarly, at the Heinrich-von-Stephan-Oberschule where Jäger teaches, attempts are being made to create a "Parents’ Cafeteria" where parents can meet weekly to share their concerns and interact with the school staff.
In the wake of the results of the PISA studies in 2000 and 2003, the Berlin Senate has provided funding for some of these programs for mothers and other parent projects. However, as Aktaş is quick to mention, many of these programs, regardless of their success, are constantly concerned that they will not receive future funding. Troubled by this instability, Mr. Hüner proposes that more financial support and attention from the state is necessary for these programs.

As with Berlin, there is also a lack of communication between the Chicago school system and its immigrant parents. Although more information is being provided in Spanish than ever before, Bill Werly, a high school psychologist, states, "We still need to establish more outreach programs to engage the Latino population…and to address issues that appear to be holding them back - including language, involvement opportunities, fear and passivity, antiquated cultural beliefs and values." Some schools in the area are tackling these issues by adopting new programs. Jan Shawgo, a special education teacher, points to evening events for her school district’s Latino parents that are conducted in Spanish; these events allow teachers to effectively explain select academic programs offered by the school. However, such programs are currently rare. Kathy Kettman, a third-grade teacher, perhaps articulates the problem most accurately for both Chicago Latinos and Berlin Turks when she states candidly, "It does take some expertise to navigate any education system and many minority parents just don't have enough knowledge." 

Empowering Parents
In Berlin, with an unemployment rate among non-Germans of 44.2% compared to 19.2% of Germans, migrants face enormous difficulties raising their children (Encouraging Diversity - Strengthening Cohesion, 2006).  According to Turgut Hüner, the unemployment rate amongst Turks in Berlin may be as high as 70%. Numbers like these concern Karin Jäger. “Turkish parents often cannot come to school meetings because they must work night jobs,” she explains, “while those parents who are more affluent will not send their children to our school.” The result, Ulrich Raiser laments, is that immigrant children of lower socioeconomic status are often placed in schools with meagre resources. “The system is not able to support these children to the degree they need,” he adds. To Mekonnen Mesghena, unemployment and the threat of losing one’s job often “leads to exclusion and isolation” of migrants.

However, Raiser is optimistic that some socioeconomic disadvantages can be curtailed.  Highlighting the role of neighborhood associations, Raiser stresses that while “we may not be able to control some of the hard factors that result in disadvantaged communities (i.e., unemployment, low education of parents, social welfare abuses), we can reduce some of the soft factors.”  Pointing to neighborhood projects in “blighted” areas of Berlin, like Neukölln and Wedding, Raiser stresses that funding projects to paint building walls, plant trees, and set up festivals can lead to greater public involvement and pride in communities.  In this way, poor neighbors can communicate with one another, learn about the educational system more thoroughly, and develop enhanced vigilance against criminal activity. 

But neighborhood beautification projects may not necessarily lead to greater involvement of struggling parents in their children’s education. “No one is empowering parents,” Mesghena insists, “but everyone is demanding more responsibility from them.” But, as Gulşen Aktaş explains, empowering parents requires educating them since many migrants do not necessarily place the same emphasis on education that German parents place. “The reasons for low parental participation in schools and poor German language knowledge are linked with a fear of the system and its institution. Turkish parents may not understand that a child’s right to an education is a human right,” she notes. 

The socio-economic status of Latino immigrants in Chicagoland area is also a large determining factor in their inability to integrate through education. However, there is a significant difference in how education is viewed by Latino immigrants compared to their Turkish peers in Germany. Karen Horvat explains, “I believe that most of our Latino parents are very interested in their children’s education. In fact, that may be a large part of their reason for coming to this country. Unfortunately, when you are worried about survival, you cannot attend all school-sponsored events.” There are issues of poverty and parents’ own lack of education that create problems in learning for their children. One major problem that a few Chicagoland teachers mentioned is that Mexican students are often pulled out of school for six to eight weeks to help with the planting season in Mexico, causing a situation of “catching up rather than keeping up or excelling” in school (Bridgeman).  Many older students are also expected to work outside of school, resulting in poor attendance and/or low grades.  In addition to poverty issues, many Latino parents, Jan Bridgeman highlights, are unable to help their children with schoolwork due to their own lack of education.

Hope in the Night
 “We were very surprised by the reaction of the children when they watched the Germany versus Poland football match late one night during a fieldtrip,“ Rüya Yurttagül-Schumacher laughed.  “While the students were calm before the match began and stated their support for numerous teams,“ she emphasized that, “once Germany came on to the field, all the children began screaming ‘Deutschland!‘ and giggling excitedly.“  Far from feeling separated from German society, the Rixdorfer-Grundschule third-graders were proud of their German identity.  While many problems remain in the Berlin educational system, the future is far from bleak.  However, while both Chicago and Berlin must contend with serious challenges while integrating Latinos and Turks respectively, the mood among Berlin educators and politicians is decisively more pessimistic.  Although many similarities exist between the two cities, the difference in perception of the integration challenge may utlimately be due to the historical identification of Chicago as a city of immigration, while in Berlin, immigration is a newer phenonmenon.  Just as the students in Neukölln have learned that speaking Turkish and German can strengthen their grasp of both languages, so too can an appreciation of thriving educational policies lead to more successfully integrated communities.


Works Cited


Aktaş, Gulşen. Neumark-Grundschule, Personal interview. 21 June 2006. 

Alboga, Ismahan. Radio Berlin-Brandenburg, Personal interview. 20 June 2006.
Bridgeman, Jan. Gages Lake School, E-Mail interview. 22 June 2006. 

Eickhoff, Anne Beatrice. Personal interview. 24 June 2006. 

Horvat, Karen. O’Plaine Middle School, E-Mail interview. 23 June 2006. 

Hüner, Turgut. Turkish Parents Association Berlin-Brandenburg, Personal interview. 22 June 2006. 

Jäger, Karin. Heinrich-von-Stenohan-Oberschule, Personal interview. 23 June 2006.
Kettman, Kathy. O’Plaine Middle School, E-Mail interview. 24 June 2006. 

Kibitlewski, Kathy. O’Plaine Middle School, E-Mail interview. 22 June 2006. 

Mesghena, Mekonnen. Heinrich Böll Foundation, Personal interview. 21 June 2006. 

Metzenthin, Elke. Neumark-Grundschule, Personal interview. 21 June 2006. 

Raiser, Ulrich. Commissioner for Integration and Migration, Personal interview. 21 June 2006. 

Shawgo, Jan. Libertyville Elementary School, E-Mail interview. 23 June 2006. 

Stanat, Petra. University of Nuremberg-Erlangen, Personal interview. 22 June 2006. 

Tiedemann, Angelika. Rixdorfer-Grundschule, Personal interview. 23 June 2006.
Werly, Bill. Warren Township High School, E-Mail interview. 22 June 2006. 

Yurttagül-Schumacher, Rüya. Rixdorfer-Grundschule, Personal interview. 23 June 2006. 

Additional Sources

"Bad Grades for German Schools." Deutsche Welle. 14 Aug. 2004. 

Bildung in Deutchland. Konsortium Bildungsberichterstattung. Berlin, 2006. 22 June 2006

Encouraging Diversity-Strengthening Cohesion: Integration Policy in Berlin. Berlin: Commissioner for Integration and Migration of the Senate of Berlin, 2006. 

Frech, Monika: Free University of Berlin,"Integration or Oppression- Perspectives on an Official Language." Transatlantic Student Forum. Free University of Berlin, Berlin. July 2006. 

Motakef, Mona: Das Menschenrecht auf Bildung und der Schutz vor Diskriminierung: Exklusionsrisiken und Inklusionschancen. German Institute for Human Rights. Berlin, 2006. 9-43.


Bild entfernt.

Bistra Ivanova (Bulgarien), Ali Sutton and Amish Dave (USA) participated in the summer fellowship program 2006 of Humanity in Action in Germany. The paper is the outcome of their research within this Program on human and minority rights.