There was a time when the Vienna school system was among the most respected in Europe: Its Gymnasien prepared pupils for its universities and its Realschulen for technical or trade schools.
It was elite and selective, and very good, with results to show for it.
“The central Gymnasien account for most of the major figures in Vienna’s cultural life,” says historian Steven Beller in Vienna and the Jews.
Writers Arthur Schnitzler, Hugo von Hofmannstahl and Peter Altenberg, economist Ludwig von Mises, physicist Erwin Schrödinger and statesman Thomas Masaryk, for example, all attended the Akademisches Gymnasium on Beethovenplatz.
So good were these schools, in fact, that writer Stefan Zweig considered his university years an afterthought, asserts philosopher Allan Janik. Zweig’s real education was the one he got at the Wasagymnasium in the 9th District.
Today, this all feels very far away. In the most recent PISA report on International Student Assessment, Austria ranked smack in the middle – not terrible, but also far from excellent. And that with one of the most expensive education systems worldwide. Most worrying is that a fifth of Austrian pupils count among those highest at risk of failing even the most basic standards in mathematics, reading and natural sciences. Austria has also fewer students with an outstanding performance.
For a country that counts 22 Nobel-prize winners and has revered traditions in all the humanities, this is a come down, to say the least.
Among the Nobel rankings, for example, Austria has among the highest ratios of winners per capita, ahead of the U.K., Germany or the United States.
PISA study, what happened?
Well, two world wars, a lost empire and some very nasty Nazis, of course. At least seven of those Nobel laureates that are counted as Austrian were Jewish refugees of National Socialism who spent most of their productive lives elsewhere.
All but writers Elfriede Jelinek and now Peter Handke were born before WWII and the majority before WWI. Nazi ideals – emphasizing unquestioning loyalty – were crippling to Austrian education. Any teacher refusing to push the Nazi agenda was dismissed. Textbooks were rewritten and independent thinking crushed.
After the war, little changed. Austria had been declared “the first free country to fall a victim to Hitlerite aggression” by the Moscow Declaration in 1943. Thus, unlike Germany, Austria went through de-Nazification “lite” – a relatively half-hearted effort by the Allies to remove Nazis from public life.
Some 137,000 former Nazis in government, industry, education and the arts were removed from their jobs, required to register and pay a compensation tax. Of these, about 10% were considered seriously “incriminated”.
All the others, the “less incriminated”, were granted a full amnesty by 1948, including full voting rights, and were quickly courted as a powerful voting bloc by the established political parties.
From 1955 to the 1970s, the Education Ministry was in the hands of the conservative Austrian People’s Party (ÖVP), then heavily influenced by both the military and the Catholic Church.
“Republican values were ignored in the schools,” says Klemens Gruber, Professor of Theatre Studies in Vienna. All were content for history courses to end with the collapse of the monarchy in 1918.
Free schoolbooks for children in the 1979s
In the 1970s, the Social Democrats under Chancellor Bruno Kreisky began to democratise the system, with key reforms that included free schoolbooks for all children.
“Before that, poor families would be forced to spend their last Groschen to finance the books for a Gymnasium education,” says Gruber. “This was a radical change in the fortunes of the poor.” Still, the Teachers Union remained in the hands of the ÖVP, helping create a political stalemate that has crippled the Vienna school system for decades.
The Kreisky reforms brought their own challenges. “The earlier system was superb but completely elitist,” says Janik. “And when you get rid of that, it’s very hard to figure out how to replace it. This kind of elitism is no longer acceptable today.”
The school curricula – one measure of the underlying rigidity of a system – have remained stubbornly resistant to change. Chemistry teacher Gill Crowther, retired head of Natural Sciences at the Theodore Kramer Bilingual School in the 22nd District, remembers a colleague bringing in a notebook from her own school days some 30 years before and – in spite of all the developments in science since – the material was virtually identical to the current course work.
“If you think about it, it’s really a scandal,” Crowther said in a recent interview. Still, antiquated curricula are only part of the problem.
As to PISA tests, the poor rankings seem to spring largely from a pattern of administrative crossfire that gives high school teachers too much power and too little support. Even among those who are talented and conscientious, there is little program coordination, and no tradition of cooperation.
It’s not that no one has tried: A series of reforms have been attempted – a decrease in class size to 26, introduction of a comprehensive New Middle School (NMS), greater school autonomy, common education standards, more German classes for children with other native languages and a Central Matura (leaving exam) – with little or no effect so far. A review of the NMS by the Education Ministry was forced to conclude that reading and math performance had even declined, as poorly prepared teachers and loosening controls led to classroom chaos. Education minister Iris Rauskala stressed that the reforms point in the right direction, but that it might take years for them to take meaningful effect.
“There is an awful lot of confusion, and teachers are really on their own,” Crowther said. They are free to design lesson plans and grade as they see fit, but are also subject to pressure from parents and even school directors, to give grades that put the children and the school in a good light.
“The biggest problem? Assessment. There are no standards. It’s completely random,” she said. The newly introduced Schulstandards still have to prove that they can meaningfully move the needle. Instead, she points as a model to the International Baccalaureate system, in which she taught for many years, where creativity and independent thinking are fostered by design within an integrated, and highly disciplined, academic program.
“The IB is an infinitely better system,” Crowther said, “and stands a much better chance of getting good results, of producing students with good skills and understanding at the end.” But the point, she said, is that it is a system, thoroughly understood and implemented, something that at the moment, is sorely lacking in Austrian schools.
A version of this article ran originally on November 13, 2013. The editors are rerunning it at this time as the underlying themes bear reconsideration. It has been revised and updated to reflect current realities.