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Standardized test scores for teens in Germany are down. Teachers aren't surprised

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

In Germany, teenagers are scoring lower on a global standardized test that measures aptitude in math, reading and science. So what's going wrong in the schools in Europe's biggest economy? NPR's Berlin correspondent Rob Schmitz reports.

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ROB SCHMITZ, BYLINE: Hundreds of teachers bundled up in thick coats and hats to fend off the Berlin winter are on strike. But they're not asking for more money.

ANNIE MOHR: We earn good money.

SCHMITZ: Elementary schoolteacher Annie Mohr (ph).

MOHR: But we have so many colleagues now in school who can't work anymore. They break down because of the conditions. So what is all the money for if you get sick? Psychological, physically, we need better work conditions.

SCHMITZ: Crowded classrooms, a lack of teachers and an increasing number of students whose native language is not German are at the heart of the problem for teachers here, says 36-year-old Mohr. They're also contributing to Germany's worst performance ever on last year's PISA exam, the standardized test given to 15-year-olds throughout the world every five years by the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development. Teacher Bellaniri Peguero (ph) says she's not surprised by the results.

BELLANIRI PEGUERO: Actually, no, because I've been seeing the quality of - well, not quality of students, but the quality of especially reading, for example, because I'm teaching German myself. I know that the skill of reading or the ability of reading is shocking - or inability of reading more like.

SCHMITZ: Peguero hasn't even finished the university coursework required to be a licensed teacher and she's already teaching at a local school in Berlin.

PEGUERO: So you would never let, like, a student of law or student of medicine or something practice before they are fully educated. But we are allowed to because of the astounding teacher shortage in Germany.

SCHMITZ: Peguero has 33 students in each of her seventh grade classes. She estimates between a quarter and a third of the students in each class are non-native German speakers. As a result, she says, they typically have a hard time following the coursework, get bored, and then often disrupt the class.

PEGUERO: But German is the educational language in Germany, so if you're not able to or if your German is not that good, you will have problems in every other subject as well.

SCHMITZ: To make matters worse, says Peguero, there isn't a single specialized teacher at her schools, such as a teacher who teaches German as a second language, who can help these students.

IRENE PIEPER: Germany only accepted a few years ago that we are actually an immigration country.

SCHMITZ: Irene Pieper is a professor of teacher education at Freie University in Berlin. She says as early as the 1980s, educators called on the government to hire more German as a second language teachers.

PIEPER: But the administration was reluctant in offering positions as ordinary teachers.

SCHMITZ: Pieper says Germany's state governments refused to give German as a second language teachers the same salary and benefits as ordinary teachers. NPR reached out several times to Berlin's ministry of education to ask why it's not elevating the status of these specialized teachers to deal with this problem, but a spokesperson rejected our requests for an interview. Jens Brandenburg, the parliamentary state secretary for Germany's Federal Ministry of Education, did talk to us. He said his ministry is not in charge of specialized teachers, but it has just announced the largest education funding program in the history of the Federal Republic. Twenty billion euros will go to the most socially disadvantaged schools starting this summer.

JENS BRANDENBURG: So it is a good opportunity to offer them better education and allow them to work in Germany later. So also, from an economic point of view, this is very important.

SCHMITZ: With Germany's economy showing the worst results in years and with an aging workforce, improving education for all Germans, no matter their background, is crucial, he says. Rob Schmitz, NPR News, Berlin.

(SOUNDBITE OF SHIGEO SEKITO'S "THE WORD 2") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Rob Schmitz is NPR's international correspondent based in Berlin, where he covers the human stories of a vast region reckoning with its past while it tries to guide the world toward a brighter future. From his base in the heart of Europe, Schmitz has covered Germany's levelheaded management of the COVID-19 pandemic, the rise of right-wing nationalist politics in Poland and creeping Chinese government influence inside the Czech Republic.