With the Neue Mittelschule, reformers tried one-size-fits-all – with dismal results. Education Minister Heinz Faßmann’s pragmatic approach deserves a chance

As I listen to the latest round of policy boxing over the new Pädagogik-Paket (Teaching Package), my heart sinks. It’s a debate I’ve heard before in another time and place, one where a world of well-meaning people destroyed for a generation, the very thing they were trying to fix.

It’s déjà vu all over again. Ask any Briton about the failure of UK comprehensives; ask Americans about 1970s “mainstreaming” and “dumbing down.” Ten years after the initial launch of the Neue Mittelschule (NMS, or “new middle school”), it’s hard to find anyone who will speak in favor of it. To review: In the 2008/2009 school year, the NMS model was introduced selectively, primarily at what had been Hauptschulen, one year at a time, and only if 2/3 of parents and teachers supported it. Teachers would sign on voluntarily, guaranteeing a highly motivated team: two teachers per class of no more than 26. The emphasis was on independent learning, with stronger students expected to help the weaker ones – considered an important learning experience for both.

By 2010/2011, there were problems: not enough teachers volunteered, and many in the core subjects of German, math and English were under qualified [i.e. with the briefest training], thus dragging down the level of the entire program. Well, perhaps. But former Gymnasium teachers didn’t fare much better. “They were taking on very different students, without proper preparation,” one teacher told me. “They had no experience in differentiated teaching. The whole thing was a disaster. There was a lot of resentment.” Still, in the fall of 2012, the Neue Mittelschulen became part of the regular system, expected to provide any remedial work in the 1st class, (age 10). This way, the theory went, the early division between general education and college prep would be erased.

The trouble is, it doesn’t work – for teachers or kids. Putting children together regardless of preparation or aptitude, not to mention vast gaps of culture and family expectations, makes teaching next to impossible. Some spread is manageable, but when it gets too wide, you are forced to teach to the center or below – the better students are bored and the weakest left behind. People of goodwill argue about this, and it is, to some extent, a question of balance – of the size of classes and range of ability. And, politically correct or no, often the cultural mix. A class of mostly able students with enough cultural cohesion can absorb a few of the less well-prepared. But if the balance shifts too far, weaker students may improve some, but able ones, depending on personality, either fall asleep, feel frustrated, or cause trouble. To teach and learn effectively, children need to be tracked by ability, and if possible, by interests and goals. All this is clear to Stefan Hopmann, professor of education at the Uni Wien.

“A comprehensive school, where children walk hand in hand and the good students bring the weaker ones along doesn’t exist in practice,” he said in 2016. “Almost all countries with comprehensive school systems have developed alternative ways of segregation. The hoped-for equality of opportunity is simply a fallacy.” Enter Heinz Faßmann, education minister and remarkably unruffled Graue Eminenz of the current government. His solution: Restore ability streaming, with aptitude testing in elementary school to guide children to programs where they can thrive. He also wants number grades at age 7 or 8 to diagnose problems early, and the possibility of staying back. What’s next, however, isn’t so clear. Hopmann himself admits that you can’t just turn back the clock, which would only “strengthen social divisions.” As it is, “families that could, have fled.” The challenge is to restore faith in the system. Among his proposals is more school autonomy, allowing principals to adapt programs to the children and challenges at hand. This is surely a good idea. While standards and a general framework can, and probably should, be national, how to get there must vary. Principals also need the power and resources to retrain or remove teachers who don’t measure up. Unions and job security matter, but not more than the children – which should be obvious, but apparently isn’t. What children need are rigor, energy and imagination, that is, good teaching. One thing is clear: The problem was not the way the school system was organized, but what was going on inside of it. Says Hopmann, “The idea that you can get good results by changing the structure is pointless and simply wrong.”

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Dardis McNamee is the Editor in Chief of METROPOLE. Over a long career in journalism she has written for The New York Times, Conde Nast Traveler in New York, the Wall Street Journal Europe and Die Zeit in Vienna, as well as having been a speechwriter to two US ambassadors to Austria. She was awarded the 2007 Kemper Award for Excellence in Teaching for her work at the Department of Media Communications for Webster University Worldwide. In 2010, she was granted Austrian Citizenship of Honor (Ehrenstaatsbürgerschaft) for outstanding contributions to the Austrian Republic