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Global education lessons: Germany’s respected voc-tech path with Meisters

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"He learned that, even if he didn't make it in school, he can be useful to society," says Jörg Stuhlmann, Mateusz's baking teacher at the Bergius Vocational College prep class. "Society judges children on the basis of their grades. Here they make a product, something that tastes good, that people like. They get the chance to be praised for something they've done."

For a century, Bergius has taught middle school graduates to cook and clerk in Frankfurt's hotels and restaurants. It is one of 16 public vocational schools here that train youngsters in 365 officially recognized professions.

While most European nations try to track all students into college, Germany sends a majority to vocational training. Rooted in the guilds of the Middle Ages, the system offers training by – and, often, a job with – a Meister (professional).

"Most German company leaders or owners have gone through the system and are proud of it," says Jens Schneider, a University of Osnabrück sociologist. "Meisters used to be apprentices first, then journeymen, and now they own the shop; they are the guys doing the training."

Germany's education system tracks students by the age of 10 into one of three systems: the Gymnasium, for careers in academics; the Realschule, for white-collar jobs; and the Hauptschule, the trade-track school. For a long time, early tracking worked. Indeed the Hauptschules produced the specialized workforce that rebuilt the country after World War II and still feeds the strong small-business economy. Vocational training in Germany, unlike in most of Europe, is a respected, solid alternative to the traditional university path.

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