Germany and Switzerland 2010

Updated November 5, 2010


From left to right, Sigfried Specker, President of the Baden-Wurttemberg schools, Katharina Hirt, assistant to the president, and Jeff Bain, President of the Virginia School Boards Association.

School Responsibility Rests with States in Switzerland, Germany

Sigfried Specker has the title of President, but he functions as the superintendent of a very large school system. He supervises 1,130 schools, 25,000 teachers and 325,000 students in the southwestern corner of Germany. One of the surprises of our visit to Switzerland and Germany is that both countries are organized, like the United States, into states. Germany has sixteen. Also, as in the U.S., both nations have relegated the responsibility for education to the states. The notion of a national curriculum or national standards does not exist in either country.

Vocational track student scores not part of international reporting

When I asked Mr. Specker to share with us his biggest concerns he mentioned two areas familiar to American educators, the inclusion of special ed students into the general population and the integration of immigrant students. Like Switzerland, Germany also tracks its students into either an academic or a vocational course of study. As in Switzerland, the majority of German students pursue the vocational track. We were surprised to learn that students in the vocational track are not counted in the international test results.

Impressive business commitment to education

Jeff Bain, President of the Virginia School Boards Association, is impressed with the commitment that businesses in both Switzerland and Germany make to vocational programs. He sees this as a substantive contribution to the low student drop out rate in both countries. Clearly, students are motivated to stay in school by a relevant course of studies, real work experience, and the salary they receive. Jeff feels that the American business community should borrow a page from these European countries and begin to support apprenticeship programs in the United States.

One of our concerns with the vocational track has been the limiting of options for students so early in their school experience. The German model appears to provide students with more opportunities to get back to the academic track if they choose to do so.

Let's work to get US business on board to improve educational experiences for students

We head back home tomorrow excited about what we have learned and hopeful that we might bring home some ideas that will help to significantly improve the educational experiences of our students. Vocational education is not a new idea, but clearly it has been relegated to a second class education in our country, and we need to change that perception and bring the business community on board as is the case in Switzerland and Germany.

Posted November 5, 2010 by AASA Executive Director Dan Domenech

Updated November 4, 2010

Kindergarten class

Kindergarten students at the Wengen Primary School in Switzerland.

Vocational Education Keeps Students in School

Only one more day before we head back to the States from what has been a most productive and educational experience. This year's AASA International Seminar focused on vocational education practices in Germany and Switzerland. It is apparent to all of us on the trip that the U.S. education reform discussion is avoiding a very critical element that could be a major factor in motivating many of our at risk students to stay in school and graduate. Whether we call it vocational education or technical and professional career training, there is no doubt that the vocational and professional training programs in place throughout much of Europe have succeeded in keeping their students in school.

Major benefits from apprenticeship programs

Much of the success is due to the apprenticeship system that provides students with real world experience in the work place. European apprentices spend two days in school and three days on the job, and they get paid! We would not want to deny any of our students the opportunity to go to college if they choose to, but we know that, for the one third of our students who drop out of high school, this kind of paid work-study experience might be the critical factor that might persuade them up stay in school and earn that high school diploma.

Why not here?

Perhaps the Business Roundtable or the Chamber of Commerce might see the apprenticeship program as a constructive contribution to fixing our dropout problems. Speaking with their counterparts in Europe might persuade them that it is a good thing to for our students.

Posted November 4, 2010 by AASA Executive Director Dan Domenech


Updated November 3, 2010


Dan Domenech with Heidelberg Middle School students.

DOD School In Heidelberg, Committed to Quality

In my days as superintendent of the Fairfax County School system, I had the privilege of serving on the Advisory Council for the Department of Defense Schools. In that capacity I had the opportunity to travel to many of our military bases around the world and observe the performance of the Department of Defense schools on the bases. I was always impressed by the quality of instruction that went on and our military's commitment to provide the best education possible for the children. I was pleased when Frank Roehl, Superintendent of Schools for the Heidelberg District, invited our International Seminar group to visit his schools.

Eighth Grader provides tour, group given warm welcome by faculty and students

We started the visit at the middle school and Chelsea Shivers, an eighth grader at the school, was our tour guide. The faculty and students all gave us a very warm welcome. The base is scheduled to close in 2015, and many of the staff that have been there for over 15 years were sad to think that they will be leaving an area that has been home to them for so many years.

Many graduates gain admission to "finest universities' in US

We were pleased to see that at the elementary school they are experimenting with multi-aged classes as we saw in Switzerland. Superintendent Roehl proudly mentioned that many of his students are gaining admission into some of our finest universities back in the states. Supporting that are the Advanced Placement courses offered at the school.

Rachel Wilson and Najala Shabazz joined Chelsea in the picture above and I gave them AASA's web address so that they can go online and see that they are now on the world wide web. Thank you Heidelberg for a great visit and students, please pass our thanks on to your parents for their willingness to place themselves in harms way to defend our country.

Posted November 3, 2010 by AASA Executive Director Dan Domenech

Updated November 2, 2010


Jerry Klenke, Executive Director of the Buckeye Association of School Administrators, with Dr. Manfred Grossmann and Sebastian Lauinger from the "Wine University."

Learning Science of Wine in Rhine Valley

Germany's Rhine Valley is known for its many castles and its productive vineyards yielding some of the best Rieslings in the land. This is the setting for the HochSchule, otherwise known as the Wine University. At the Geisenheim campus, 960 students are working towered BAs, MAs and PhDs in viticulture and enology, or the science of growing, making and marketing wine.

Professor Manfred Grossmann is the head of the Department of Microbiology and Biochemistry at the university's Research Center which collaborates with universities around the world on the science of wine. Sebastian Lauinger is a third year student at the university, and he and Professor Grossmann hosted our Seminar delegation in Geisenheim.

Germany also supports active apprenticeship programs

Like Switzerland, Germany also has a tradition of apprenticeship programs. The majority of students attending this school come from families that are in the wine business, although there are students there that do not have the background. The equivalent of a high school diploma is required for admission, in either an academic or a vocational track.

Jerry Klenke, Executive Director of the Buckeye Association of School Administrators, likes the way European countries blend theoretical knowledge with applied skills. Students at Geisenheim learn the sciences that apply to the maintenance of healthy vineyards as well as the chemical analysis behind the blends that result in the different taste of the wine.

Tomorrow we will be visiting the American International School in Heidelberg.

Posted November 2, 2010 by AASA Executive Director Dan Domenech

Updated November 1, 2010

Switzerland6 Seminar participants Tom Maridada and Bartlett Ramsey with former AASA exec Paul Houston.

Paul Houston: Giving Wings to Children's Dreams

Former AASA Executive Director, Paul Houston, is participating in the International Seminar and spoke to the group about his most recent book, "Giving Wings to Children's Dreams." Houston believes that the job of educators is to make the dreams of children possible. "A lot of what is going on in school reform right now is dream killing," he says.In his book he writes about education needing to be personalized and motivating. Education reform, if it is to take hold, needs to start at the bottom, not at the top.

Does early tracking miss late bloomers?

I asked him what he thought of the Swiss system, based on his making dreams possible criteria. He agreed that the Swiss system does provide many youngsters with the opportunity to learn valuable skills leading to gainful employment. He is concerned, however, that by tracking youngsters after the sixth grade the Swiss may be denying too many children the second chance that is the hallmark of American education.

Using himself as an example, he describes how, had he been a student in the Swiss system, he never would have had the opportunity to pursue his dream to be a writer. He is a self-described late bloomer that did not begin to realize his potential until after the ninth grade.

This week we will be traveling through Germany holding discussions with education officials and visiting more schools.

Posted November 1, 2010 by AASA Executive Director Dan Domenech

Updated October 28, 2010

Miles Turner, Executive Director of the Wisconsin Administrators Association, with apprentices Ornella Ryf and Timothy Rohrer.

Both Students and Business Win with Apprenticeship Program

Bucherer is one of the largest jewelry chains in Switzerland. We visited their store in Zurich to meet with management and two of their interns, Ornella Ryf and Timothy Rohrer are apprentices at the store. Ornella is 22 years old and is in her third year there while Timothy is 17 and in his first year. Ornella had been in the Gymnasium program, the equivalent of our college prep high school, but she decided to switch over to the vocational track and pursue a career in the jewelry retail business. Timothy had the same interest but went directly into the program after the ninth grade. They both spend two days in school and three days at the store working with a mentor. They get paid a stipend by Bucherer.

I asked the manager, from a business perspective, what's in it for the store, and he answered by saying that they get quality work from the apprentices for less cost than if they had to hire a regular employee.This seems to be part of the successful formula that allows the vocational education system to thrive in Switzerland. Both the employers and the students benefit from the arrangement.

'Corporate commitment makes the system work'
Miles Turner, the Executive Director for the Administrators Association in Wisconsin, is very impressed by what he has seen in Switzerland and agrees that it is the corporate commitment to education that makes the system work. In reality, any return on investment for the business is minimal. Most apprentices do not stay on with the companies that they do their apprenticeship with. Ornella, for example, says that she wants to go to the United States and look for opportunities there after she finishes at Bucherer.

But at break even, a modest stipend in exchange for real work experience, the Swiss corporate structure has significantly contributed to one of the lowest youth unemployment rates in the world. Miles Turner wishes that America's business community would borrow a page from Switzerland and put their money to work for our kids.

Posted October 28, 2010 by AASA Executive Director Dan Domenech

Updated October 27, 2010

Dan Domenech, NSBA President-Elect Mary Broderick, Ambassador Don Beyer and AASA President Ed Hatrick.


Delegation Visits Swiss Parliament, US Ambassador

We are in Bern, Switzerland's capital, today. We visited Parliament and met with members of the National Council, the equivalent of our House of Representatives. The Swiss modeled their democracy after ours, with a Council of States similar to our Senate and the National Council. However, they have thirteen political parties. Doris Leuthard is the nation's president creating a historic moment since the leaders of the other two houses of the parliament are also women. The president is elected for one year by the members of Parliament.

Swiss also find national curriculum a 'touchy issue'
There is no federal office of education since, similar to the US, the Swiss constitution has assigned the responsibility for education to the Cantons ( our States). This coming year the Parliament will be taking up the very touchy issue of whether national benchmarks and a national curriculum should be established. As one Swiss elected official pointed out, it generally takes them ten years to get anything done, so they are not expecting a quick resolution. Similar to the US, however, they are affected by global competition and the need for national standards. The Cantons are not expected to give up local control any more readily than our States will.

Reception with the Ambassador, a fellow Virginian
US Ambassador Don Beyer, a fellow Virginian, was gracious enough to invite us to the Ambassador's home for a reception. He shared with us his take on the Swiss educational system. Like us, he is very impressed with the vocational system and the resulting low youth unemployment rate.

NSBA president-elect, Mary Broderick, has enjoyed our meetings with the Swiss officials and sees the Seminar as an opportunity to get ideas that will help us back home.

Posted October 27, 2010 by AASA Executive Director Dan Domenech

Updated October 26, 2010

Swiss Apprenticeship Program Explains Low Youth Unemployment Rate


Dr. Ed Hatrick, AASA President, chats with a student and the instructor at the GIB vocational and technical academy in Thun, Switzerland.

Switzerland has an educational system that has served the country extremely well for hundreds of years. It is almost the direct opposite of our system in America. Switzerland's system is mandatory only through the 9th grade. After that, students must choose between an academic track or a vocational track. Only 22% of the students choose the academic track. The rest opt for vocational/occupational training. The Swiss apprenticeship system has been around for generations and today the country proudly points out that they have one of the lowest youth unemployment rates in the world at 4.1%. By comparison, the US youth unemployment rate is nearly 15%.

Swiss business community integral player in program success
AASA's President, Ed Hatrick, finds the International Seminar to be a truly enlightening experience. By seeing first hand what other countries are doing, we have the opportunity to gain insight into possible solutions to the problems plaguing our schools.

Dr. Ursula Renold, Director General for the Swiss School system, points out that the key to the success of their vocational program is the involvement and support of the Swiss business community who take on the apprentices and pay them a stipend while they are still in school.

Ed mentions that Americans have many misconceptions about the countries we are frequently compared to in the international tests. Switzerland generously supports its schools and then at the secondary level the business community steps in big time to ensure that they have the trained work force that will meet their needs.

More tomorrow when we meet with the American Ambassador to Switzerland, Don Beyer.

Posted October 26, 2010 by AASA Executive Director Dan Domenech

Updated October 25, 2010

Updated October 25, 2010


Updated October 25, 2010


School Visit Near 'Top of Europe'

Switzerland 3
Dr. Thomas Maridada, Superintendent in Pontiac, MI, with 3rd and 4th graders from the Wengen School.

On the way to Jungfraujoch, billed as the Top of Europe at an altitude of over 11,000 feet, we stopped to visit the Schule Wengen. Beat Buchers is the school's director as well as 4th grade teacher. It's a K-6 facility housing 60 students and eleven teachers. As with the school we visited yesterday, they have multiage grouping and small class sizes. As with other schools in Switzerland, High German is the language of instruction, but the students speak a variety of languages including French, Italian and Swiss German.

Substantial resources devoted to Swiss schools
Thomas Maridada took over the troubled Pontiac MI school district a little over a year ago after having earned a reputation as a turnaround expert. With a hand-picked team, he is in Pontiac for a three year stint to build the internal capacity needed to get the job done. At one time Pontiac had 40,000 students but now the student population is under 10,000. Four major General Motors plants operating in the area were closed due to the economy, raising havoc in Pontiac. Thomas has had to reduce staff and close schools to deal with budget shortfalls. He can't help but wish he had the resources he sees in the Swiss schools.

Much criticism is levied against America's schools because of our poor performance on international tests, but we are seeing first hand the substantial resources devoted to education that help place these countries ahead of us.

Posted October 25, 2010 by AASA Executive Director Dan Domenech

Updated October 24, 2010

Switz. 1

Dr. Eric Eshbach, Superintendent in the Upper Adams School District (right), with his counterpart Rolf Bucher, in Stans, Switzerland.

First Stop on International Seminar: Stans, Switzerland

The 37th AASA International Seminar visits Switzerland and German schools this year. Our first visit was to the Turmatt School in Stans, Switzerland. Rolf Bucher runs the schools in Stans and he was gracious enough to invite us for a tour of the school and talk to us about their system. Eric Eshbach, superintendent in the Upper Adams School District in Pennsylvania is part of this year's delegation. He was taking pictures of the kindergarten classrooms in the school to share with his kindergarten teachers back home. Turmatt is only two years old and a beautifully built facility.

Higher salaries, lower class sizes, larger budgets

There were many other aspects of the Stans educational system that we all envied. Starting salary for teachers is the equivalent of $70,000 a year. Maximum class size is 20 students. The elementary schools feature multi age classrooms where students can progress at their own pace. Eric marveled at the fact that his budget back home is about the same as Stans ', but he has twice the number of students.

Swiss schools: it's okay not to be college-bound
Swiss public education is compulsory k-9, but after that the students are tracked to be either university or vocation/apprentice bound. Thirty percent of the students in Stans go on to Gymnasium, the equivalent of our high school. That is higher than the 20% figure for all Swiss schools. A significant departure from American schools where compulsory education is through the 12th grade and where we expect all of our children to be college bound.

The Seminar is off to a great start. Follow our experiences over the next two weeks as we report to you from Swiss and German schools. Posted October 24, 2010 by AASA Executive Director Dan Domenech