Lawrence gets in-depth look at Germany education system

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AFT executive vice president Francine Lawrence took the message of solution-driven unionism to Germany earlier this month, urging union leaders from 18 countries to build community support in their fight to stop austerity-minded governments from gutting public education.

"What is clear is that whether it's in Egypt or Greece or anywhere in the world, we are truly engaged in one movement, one fight," Lawrence told an international labor seminar in Dusseldorf. "The AFT has tried to make the communities around us see that we're part of the solution, not part of the problem. We've come to realize that without community, we have no leverage."

Fran Lawrence in Germany

Lawrence's well-received speech was the highlight of a busy five-day mission to Dusseldorf that included school site visits and discussions on the German approach to early childhood education, teacher preparation and vocational training. The labor seminar she addressed preceded the 27th Congress of the German Education Union.

Participants in the seminar, titled "International Trade Union Cooperation in Times of Crisis," painted a grim picture of public school systems eviscerated by funding cuts. In Greece, for instance, 20,000 teachers have been laid off, and the salaries of the remaining educators have been slashed by 40 percent. Greek union leaders told of students too hungry to learn and of heat being turned off in schools during the winter because the bills from the recently privatized national gas company could not be paid.

Union leaders agreed the international labor community should band together to fight the cuts, and called on Education International to increase pressure on the European Commission and financial institutions to abandon their damaging austerity policies.

"We need to be the driver of shared economic prosperity and opportunity and to create a path to the middle class for all of our fellow citizens," Lawrence said. "If we don't, no one will."

Fran Lawrence at kindergart in Germany

Following the seminar, the 432 delegates of the German Education Union called on their country to equalize educational opportunities for students and employment conditions for teachers throughout the nation's 16 federal states. Delegates also demanded their federal and state governments make good on a law guaranteeing every German 1-year-old a spot in a daycare center or kindergarten. The country has a severe shortage of early childhood educators because of low pay. Delegates also elected a new president, former technical school teacher Marlis Tepe, who will succeed the retiring Ulrich Thoene.

Before the seminar began, Lawrence saw firsthand the need for affordable early childhood settings when she visited a popular kindergarten in Dusseldorf. The school, Villa Huegelchen, was created by a parents' initiative and offers a superb learning environment for 54 children ages 1 through 6. The only fee is 10 euros a month to support a parents' council. But Villa Huegelchen has a waiting list of 350—not uncommon among high-quality, nonprofit kindergartens in the country.

Later in the week, Lawrence dropped in on a teacher training program and spoke with students and faculty. The state of North Rhine-Westphalia, where Dusseldorf is located, recently changed the way teachers are trained. The process, which does not require tuition or fees, begins with a three-year bachelor's degree program followed by a two-year master's program that includes university work, hands-on teaching and special training at a teaching center. The final step is an exam that requires aspiring teachers to teach two classes while being observed by a committee that includes a union representative.

Lawrence concluded her trip with a look at Germany's "dual track" apprenticeship system, in which a worker masters skills in the workplace and the classroom. During a visit to a Mercedes Benz facility, she observed students who are paid a small stipend while learning the practical and theoretical aspects of building automobiles. The program, which caters to students ages 16-18, usually includes receiving a high school diploma. While the system has its critics, supporters contend it turns out skilled workers.

Reflecting on her visits, Lawrence said she was struck by how various aspects of German society—government, schools, industry, unions—work together to improve early childhood, teacher training and apprenticeship programs.

"What impressed me was the assumption in Germany that cooperation between different elements of society is the norm," Lawrence said. "There are certainly conflicts among these groups, but the belief that they can work together as partners is something we need in the United States." [Scott Stephens, Larry Specht]

June 20, 2013