A r c h i v e d  I n f o r m a t i o n

To Sum It Up: Case Studies of Education in Germany, Japan, and the United States

Chapter 3

Dealing with Differences in Academic Ability
(Part 1 of 2)

"I think there is a high correlation between impressive academic achievement and parental involvement. Where parents are involved, kids are performing better. "

(Teacher in the U.S.)

"If the child is not suited to the Gymnasium, if he cannot learn foreign languages and is not good at abstract thought, then this child will continually fail, and will continually experience frustration, and such children are deformed in the development of their personality. They have continual experiences of failure and no successful experience... as a result, we say, do not send children to the Gymnasium who are not suited for it. Such children belong as soon as possible in the correct educational path."

(Teacher in Germany)

"She no longer holds back now that she is at the Realschule. This is her level. She studies, does her homework. It is fun for her. I think it is better for her to have a good Realschule degree than a bad Gymnasium degree."

(Parent in Germany)

"As far as inborn ability goes, I cant say that it isnt there, but I say that it doesnt matter. Regardless of whether you have ability, if you persevere, you can get a good outcome."

(Teacher in Japan)

"If I use instructional grouping, those who are placed in a slow group would feel very ashamed. When I think of how they feel, dividing them has a more negative than positive effect."

(Teacher in Japan)

Regardless of a societys beliefs about what factors are most relevant to students academic achievement, such as students level of effort or ability or teachers styles of teaching, every teacher must cope with a wide range of knowledge and skill existing among students in every classroom. Similarly, every parent must recognize the fact that all children do not learn with equal ease and effectiveness. The response to these facts in some countries, such as the United States, is to "stream" students into different groups or tracks from the time they enter school. Other countries, such as Japan and Germany, attempt to provide all students in the early elementary school years with the same type of education and to prohibit any separation of students into groups according to ability. In Germany, separation occurs at fifth grade. Not until high school is any effort made in Japan to channel students into different curricula. For example, math and science instruction and assessment in the three countries varies depending on grade level (in all three countries), and school type (in Japan and Germany) (table 8).

Table 8Instruction of math and science curricula at grades 4, 8, and 12




United States


  • All students study same curriculum in math and science.
  • Ability grouping prohibited.
  • All students study a comparable curriculum in math and science.
  • No in-class ability grouping.
  • All students study math and science. Content subject to teacher discretion.
  • Ability grouping begins, including pull-out programs for remedial and gifted students.


  • All students required to take math and science.
  • All students study same curriculum.
  • Ability grouping prohibited.
  • All students required to take math and science.
  • All students study comparable content, but level of difficulty and pace of instruction is determined by school type (e.g., Hauptschule, Realschule, Gymnasium).
  • All students required to take math and science.
  • Students study different content, and level of difficulty depends on selection of courses.


  • All academic and vocational high school students required to take advanced math (e.g., calculus) and science courses.
  • Level of difficulty and number of hours adjusted for track and school type.
  • All Gymnasium students required to take math and science courses.
  • Number of hours required varies according to track within schools (i.e., mathematics-science, modern language, humanities).
  • Students not always required to take math and science courses.
  • Content and level of difficulty differs markedly among elective courses.
  • Some schools offer advanced placement courses.

SOURCE: Third International Mathematics and Science Study, Case Study Project, 199495.

Our discussion of differences in academic ability begins with consideration of the philosophical perspectives of these three nations concerning the basis of individual differences in academic ability. Following this, three main approaches to dealing with differences are considered: tracking of students, remedial programs and programs for gifted students, and teachers responses to differences in students abilities, motivation, interests and home backgrounds.

Perception of Differences in Ability

Japan. Primary attention is given in Japan to the influence of effort on all forms of accomplishment. When a student has difficulty in school, Japanese parents and teachers said they viewed the problems as resulting from lack of effort or inadequate family support. Regarding children as diamonds in the rough ready to be polished, various education agents must decide how much they would like to refine and strengthen the potential that is assumed to exist in every child.

Learning to work diligently was considered by both parents and teachers to be an important contributor to the self-development of all individuals. Although individual differences in academic ability were acknowledged, accomplishment was considered to depend primarily upon the effort an individual expends. All children were said to be able to achieve satisfactorily in school if they were willing to study hard. This belief in the efficacy and importance of hard work, along with a centuries-old admiration for learning, has led the Japanese to convey to their children that getting a good education should be the major goal of children and youths. In fact, it was clear from our interviews with parents, that children are told that an active social life, participation in sports, and other factors described as being important to healthy development should not come in the way of getting a good education.

While there is an acknowledgment of differences in ability among individuals, the tendency among Japanese is to disregard consideration of this factor and to emphasize that accomplishment can always be increased through the application of greater effort. This view was expressed clearly by one teacher: "As far as inborn ability goes, I cant say it isnt there, but I say that it doesnt matter. Regardless of whether you have ability, if you persevere, you can get a good outcome." A parent put it even more succinctly: "Motivation. Thats all that counts. Unless you are a genius, success depends on how hard you are willing to work."

The motivation to do well is considered to be a virtue in its own right. To encourage students to study hard, both teachers and parents said they often tell children, "If you tried your hardest, it wouldnt matter if you succeeded or not." In the long run, it is explained, success results from cumulative effort.

The Japanese student, regardless of how readily or slowly he or she may learn, absorbs the view that no special natural talent is necessary in order to do well in school. In fact, many teachers and students were quick to redefine individual differences as differences in gakuryoku (acquired academic ability). For example, rather than being attributed to innate ability, success in mathematics was perceived by students to be dependent on the slow and steady accumulation of knowledge and skills. Even in high school, after the time students have been separated into different tracks, differences in performance were attributed to students motivation for academic work, their interests, and their occupational plans, rather than to differences in ability.

Germany. In contrast to the Japanese focus on effort and hard work as paths to success, German respondents said the primary factors contributing to differences in academic ability were natural disposition (often referred to as innate intelligence and talent), the home environment, and parental support.

The attributions offered by teachers about individual differences in academic ability differed only slightly among the different types of school. Teachers at Hauptschule and Realschule, as well as those in Grundschule, cited innate intelligence and family support as the two most important determinants of academic achievement. Teachers in the Gymnasium added several more factors. In addition to innate intelligence, which they typically mentioned first, and family support, they added motivation to learn and students interest in the material being presented. Parents and students also mentioned differences in innate ability as a primary factor contributing to differences in students academic outcomes. It was normal, they explained, that not everyone could be good in all academic subjects.

United States. Teachers, parents, and students with whom we spoke in the United States readily acknowledged the existence of differences in academic ability among students and often pointed out the magnitude and range of these differences. When asked to explain the basis of these differences, they cited family stability and family support as the major factors. In poor communities, broken families were most frequently blamed for low achievement, while in more affluent areas, family support for schooling was cited as the main factor.

Socioeconomic status also appeared to influence the respondents beliefs about the role of innate ability. Explanations focusing on innate ability occurred more frequently in affluent communities. Parents and teachers in poor communities seldom mentioned innate differences in intelligence or personality as major contributors to differences in academic ability.

Dealing with Differences in Ability in Japan

Tracking. Japanese educators and policymakers we interviewed firmly opposed the idea of any form of tracking during the elementary and junior high school years. Indeed, they suggested that any effort to separate students into tracks on the basis of ability is unfair. One teacher summed up this view in the following manner:

If a school separates students according to ability differences, what the school is doing is discriminating among students. This goes against the school's basic goal of having students learn as members of a group.

Elementary school teachers suggested to us that the use of instructional grouping would hurt students emotionally, so much so that they would lose their motivation to study. One teacher described the negative emotional effects of grouping elementary school children in this way:

Those who would be in the slow group would not do any work because they would be discouraged by the fact that they were placed there. They would feel their teacher gave up on them and also feel that their peers looked down on them. I think it is very unbearable for the students to be labeled like that.

The Japanese egalitarian conception of education is abandoned when students enter high school. Only those receiving high scores on the high school entrance examination and high grades in middle school are permitted to enroll in academic high schools, and the most prestigious high schools require the highest qualifications. Japanese academic high schools, like the Gymnasium of Germany, seek to prepare students for admission to university; thus their prestige is based primarily on the students' scores on the college entrance examination and the universities and colleges in which the school's graduates enroll.

Students who receive the lowest test scores and the poorest grades in middle school generally attend vocational schools. This is not always the case, however, for some students who are qualified to enter academic high schools choose, instead, to attend a vocational high school. Regardless of the type of high school in which the student enrolls, acceptance in the highest level schools is characteristically explained as the result of working hard rather than of being "smart." Nevertheless, most of the older Japanese we talked with accepted the tracking system and saw it as being neither good nor bad. By the time a student reaches high school, according to one parent,

He or she should know what they like and what they want to do in the future. So there is no need for them all to stick together as in elementary school.

There is further tracking of students into a humanities or science track within academic high schools. Coursework, especially in mathematics and science, is not at an equal level of difficulty in the two tracks. Within each track, further stratification may occur. Students who did well in their earlier academic work may be channeled into the more difficult tracks and those who performed less well are placed in less demanding tracks. These separations are introduced with an eye on the college entrance examinations that take place during the senior year of high school. "There are students who need to study math for college entrance exams and those who don't," explained one teacher, "We do such grouping for every major subject, but especially for math and English."

Whole-class instruction. Classroom observations indicated that students in Japan are taught primarily through lessons involving the whole class, a mode of classroom organization and instruction dictated by several considerations. The size of Japanese classes and of Japanese classrooms is one concern. Japanese classrooms at all grade levels contain large numbers of studentsat least 35 in each classroomand the rooms are generally small in size. As a result of these conditions, it is difficult to divide the students into small groups that can work effectively.

A more important justification of whole-class teaching made by many teachers and parents we spoke with was the belief that mixed-ability classrooms provide social as well as pedagogical benefits. It is assumed that through whole-class participation in mixed-ability classrooms, students learn that the world consists of many different kinds of people, and through their daily experiences acquire satisfactory ways of interacting with children and adults who are not like themselves or their family and friends.

Pedagogically, whole-class instruction means that all children receive instruction throughout the whole class period. The level of instruction in the mixed-ability classrooms is aimed at the average student. To help slow learners understand the lesson, the teacher begins with easy material and gradually increases the level of difficulty. Students who learn rapidly are asked the more difficult questions and may be asked to explain their solution to their classmates. A fundamental assumption behind whole-class teaching, which was voiced by the teachers we interviewed, is that students need to hear alternative interpretations and responses to problems and that through skillful guidance from the teacher, they come to differentiate among answers in terms of their efficiency and effectiveness.

Dealing with Differences in Ability in Germany

Tracking. The elementary school teachers with whom we talked described the first four years of schooling as a time when German students are educated in an egalitarian atmosphere which strives to provide all students with the same education and social foundation. In line with this goal, there is no tracking between classes nor grouping within classes during the elementary school years.

Teachers said that they regard it as their duty to try to reduce the differences in ability within each class by making sure the "weak" children are "brought along" with the rest of the class. In doing this, they said they frequently supplement whole-class instruction with mixed ability groups and peer tutoring in order to promote socialization and to facilitate learning.

The situation changes abruptly in Germany at the beginning of the fifth year when the children are assigned to one of the tracks that lead to the various kinds of secondary school. Teachers and parents attributed this change to the belief that students' academic as well as social development can be fostered best in an environment that is most appropriate for them.

In contrast to Japan, where tracking does not begin until after 10 years of schooling, tracking begins in Germany after only 4 years. In both cases, tracking has profound, long-term effects on the student's opportunities for entering a university. Although it is conceivable that a Japanese student in the vocational track could qualify for entrance into a university, it rarely occurs. In fact, based on the data we have collected in both countries about the available pathways to such a goal, it is likely that graduates of Hauptschule could enter a German university somewhat more easily than Japanese vocational school graduates could enter a Japanese university. Even so, it is vastly more difficult for the Hauptschule graduates to qualify for admission to a German university than it would be if they had attended a Gymnasium.

Because of the gravity of the decision about placing the child in one track or another, both teacher and parents participate in the decision about which track the child should follow. The decision is made on the basis of the child's performance during the fourth grade, and both teachers and parents reported to us that in making this decision an effort is made to match the child with the type of secondary school that provides the most appropriate level of education.

Dealing with Differences in Ability in the United States

Pre-kindergarten screening. Attention is paid to individual differences among U.S. children even before they enter school. In fact, prior to entering kindergarten, children in many school districts in the United States are given physical and psychological tests to assess their readiness for school. On the basis of these tests the child's parents and future teacher are sometimes alerted to give special kinds of attention and treatment to the child. This type of pre-kindergarten screening is rare in Japan and Germany, partly because kindergartens are not part of the public school system and partly because of a belief that kindergarten is too early to attempt such screening.

Ability grouping and tracking. Another practice that differentiates U.S. from German and Japanese elementary schools is the introduction of grouping based on level of academic ability. Our classroom observations and interactions with teachers provide the basis for a general description of ability grouping and tracking practices in U.S. schools. During the early years of elementary school, children may be divided into reading and mathematics groups on the basis of their competence in these subjects. Beginning around the fifth or sixth grade, many schools also divide students into general and advanced courses in mathematics and language arts. By the seventh and eighth grades, nearly all students are tracked into different levels of courses in these two subjects, and many are also tracked into different levels of science courses.

Many teachers and parents indicated that the courses into which a student is tracked during these elementary and middle school years have a strong potential influence on subsequent opportunities for enrolling in advanced courses. Teachers and parents said that without the information provided in the earlier courses, it would be very difficult for a student to succeed at the advanced levels, and the effects of early tracking could persist beyond high school. For example, students who study remedial mathematics in high school have fewer opportunities during their university studies to enroll in courses available to students who have already studied calculus or pre-calculus.

Assignment to a particular track during the middle school and junior high school years in the United States, depends on the student's scores on standardized tests, their past academic performance, and parental wishes. Some school administrators indicated that they are responsive primarily to parental wishes; others relied more strongly on test scores and previous grades. However, by the high school years, enrollment or assignment to a particular course was typically determined by the courses taken earlier, past academic grades, and the student's goals for higher education. Counselors in some schools, responding to the student's educational and occupational goals, played a central role in guiding students to make certain selections among the courses.

In the United States, the proportion of students taking advanced level courses varied from school to school among those we visited. When large percentages of students are college-bound, more will enroll in advanced or honors courses. However, school counselors said that admission to a university is not precluded by enrollment in courses at the "general" level. In fact, most high school students elect general courses in mathematics and science. Vocational courses are often selected not only by students who intend to go directly into the workforce, but also by those who plan to enter a university or to obtain further vocational training.

Despite the wide variety of available courses, a current trend in U.S. schools is to attempt to individualize instruction to an even greater degree. This is accomplished in several different ways, including "pull-out" programs, cooperative learning groups, and computer-generated instruction.

U.S. elementary schools use "pull-out" programs to deal with differences in students' levels of ability. In these programs, students are removed from their classroom for an hour or less each day to receive supplemental one-on-one or small-group tutoring in specific subjects.

Some teachers said they also form cooperative learning groups in their classroom to provide opportunities for peer tutoring. The primary purpose of these cooperative learning groups is to place students of differing levels of ability in situations where they can learn from each other.

Many teachers also stated their belief that computer-generated instruction has gained in popularity because it is possible to provide computer programs that are appropriate for the child's level of knowledge. For example, drills in mathematics and science can be provided for students in need of assistance, as well as for students who are capable of handling more difficult materials.

Despite the interest in individualizing instruction, most students in U.S. schools still receive whole-class instruction, where the teacher remains the authority, both in imparting the subject matter and in evaluating the students' responses. This type of whole-class instruction is in strong contrast with the whole-class instruction that occurs in Japan, where the teacher relies strongly on the students both as a major source of information and as the initial evaluators of the effectiveness of the student input.

Many parents and teachers have shown great concern about the effects of tracking on children's self-esteem. According to those we interviewed, being placed in slow-learning groups may be interpreted by children as reflecting a deficiency in cognitive ability. Those placed in fast-learning groups may be teased by their peers for being "book worms." Members of minority groups whom we interviewed were especially critical of tracking because, they suggest, differences in language or cultural background may be interpreted as differences in academic ability and could result in the children's being placed in special education classes.


[Chapter 2 - Education Standards (Part 3 of 3)]  [Table of Contents]  [Chapter 3 - Dealing With Differences in Academic Ability (Part 2 of 2)]