Pupils and students show increasingly poor performance

Results of a teacher survey in Basel-Stadt and Basel-Landschaft

by Michael Pedrazzi, Chairman “Starke Schule beider Basel” (“A Strong School for both Basel Cantons”)

In the past two weeks [before 16 December 2020], Starke Schule beider Basel (SSbB) conducted a broad-based survey among teachers at the primary, lower secondary and upper secondary school levels on the topic of “pupils’ performance levels today compared to that of five years ago”. The results are sobering: a clear majority of teachers rate the performance of pupils today as worse or significantly worse than that of the past.

506 teachers from primary and secondary schools took part in the survey in the two Basel half-cantons. This makes it a meaningful survey. Only teachers with at least five years of teaching experience were allowed to participate, so that they would be able to compare the situation today with that of the past. The teachers gave information on how they see the development of pupils’ performance in the various subjects. They were able to use the following five gradations: “significantly worse”, “worse”, “about the same”, “better” and “significantly better”. The teachers could give differentiated reasons for their assessment and its causes.
  The results are depressing: 63.6% of the teachers rate pupils’ performance levels as worse or significantly worse compared to that of five years ago or earlier. Only 7.9% rate the performance of today’s pupils as better or significantly better. 28.5% see no relevant difference in performance.

Significant difference in the two Basel half-cantons

Of the 506 teachers, 264 teach in Basel-Land, 242 in Basel-Stadt. In both half-cantons, the respondents agree: in Baselland, 70.8% say that the current level is either worse or significantly worse. In the city canton, the same statement is made by 55.8% of the participants. Only 7.6% in Baselland and 8.2% in Basel-Stadt say that performance levels of the pupils have improved in recent years compared to the past.
  The fact that Basel-Land teachers see a greater deterioration in the level of achievement than their colleagues in the city canton may also have to do with the somewhat exotic school model (orientation level and school for further education) of the past decades, which has only recently been replaced. Many experts blame this Basel school model for the last 15 years of educational malaise.

Comparison between the different academic years

If we compare the three school levels (primary, secondary I and secondary II) of both half-cantons with each other, secondary I, i. e. the classes of the 7th-9th school year, comes off the worst: 75.6% of the respondents state that the level of performance has deteriorated or even significantly deteriorated. Only 24.4% assess the situation as either an improvement (6.0%) or stagnation (18.4%) of the performance level.
  Overall, the picture is similar for all three school levels: In each case, more than half of the respondents see a deterioration, and the number of voices that can see an improvement is alarmingly low.

Teachers see clear reasons for educational decline

307 teachers expound their assessment of the performance level development in a differentiated statement. Feedback evaluation shows six main reasons for the deterioration of the education level:

  • Compared to the past, schoolchildren are clearly less able to work under pressure. The ability to concentrate has also steadily declined.
  • Today, more students receive less support from home, which has to be compensated for at school. This requires considerable time resources at the expense of teaching time.
  • The change from five to six primary school years and the condensation of secondary school in three instead of four school years is considered as leading to a significantly greater heterogeneity in the 6th primary school year. High-achieving learners, in particular, cannot be optimally supported in the last year of primary school. In today’s 6th primary school year, it is not possible to teach the same content quantitatively and qualitatively as in the former 1st secondary school year.
  • Due to numerous projects and project weeks, camps, sports days, school trips, “Future Days”, internal school training, etc., fewer and fewer days remain to teach subject lessons according to the timetable. The effective teaching time is significantly less than it has been even only a few years ago.
  • In the teaching of foreign languages (French, English), multilingualism with the corresponding teaching aids “Mille feuilles”, “Clin d’oeil”, “New World” is given as the main reason. Many foreign language teachers blame these teaching materials and their underlying ideology for the decline in education. The lack of grammar in and the unstructured setup of these teaching materials are mentioned several times.
  • The new curriculum with its descriptions of competencies is considered useless or unhelpful. Many teachers blame the numerous reforms of recent years for the decline in education.

Some examples of feedback

“With many reforms, starting with the de-cluttering of the curricula, but above all with the individualisation of teaching and the softening of learning goals already in primary school (former learning goals for grade 1 are now only compulsory to be achieved after grade 3), teachers have been persuaded to transfer the responsibility for learning progress to their students.”
  “Matura students and undergraduates (I also teach a module at university) sometimes have big problems with spelling, in structuring trains of thought, cannot research carefully [...].”
  “The linguistic level in the mother tongue has declined very much.”
  “For years we have been increasingly copying the Anglo-Saxon school system with the shift of emphasis to testing, controlling (output) instead of focussing on the special competence of teachers.”
  “Combining the subjects of history and geography [in Basel-Stadt] means that the children no longer have any basics. Material that was actually a prerequisite is not covered at all or only very little.”
  “Digitalisation is another step backwards, as the cognitive component is insufficiently promoted by the keyboard. [...] Mobile phones (WhatsApp) and laptops are highly distracting and concentration drops rapidly.”
  “Basic language skills (sentence structure, spelling, answering questions in such a way that even someone who has not read the question will understand the answer) are no longer present when pupils enter secondary schools. The HarmoS reform has brought a massive deterioration: far too much inaccuracy and approximation is accepted at primary level. Today’s seventh graders are roughly at the level of earlier sixth graders. The approach of not insisting on correctness and of extensively creating neural highways for wrongness instead is questionable.”
  “Repetition is undesirable from an educational policy point of view because it is expensive. The numerous resulting consequences lead teachers to continually lower their standards.”
  “The change from 5/4 to 6/3 is tantamount to a cutback in education for the following reasons: 1. Primary teachers are not trained for the sixth school year, i.e. they lack the teaching material for this year and the corresponding subject knowledge. 2. The school children’s achievement gap is already large in the fourth and fifth year at primary level. In the sixth year, this heterogeneity can no longer be compensated for, even with the most efficient internal differentiation”.
  Although a clear majority of the written feedback dwells on deterioration, there are also a few positive comments.
  “I have been teaching for 30 years. The level of English has improved enormously, in contrast to French. There are many reasons for this. Perhaps the most important is the students’ self-motivation: English is cool, English is ‘easy’, English is a must. A teenager’s world is English, the music, the films and series on Netflix, the online video games. The latter are also played, written and spoken internationally, ie in English. Another reason is that the two years at primary school are an advantage; students come with a very good listening comprehension and can express themselves orally. The next reason is that English teaching materials are better than all the others. ‘Ready for English’ was top, ‘New World’ is ok.”
  “A broader knowledge of ICT through good ICT infrastructure for every pupil. More proficiency in mental arithmetic due to more efficient exercise programmes. Higher quality teaching materials than before.”
  “The English language is very much to the fore. Many pupils come into contact with this language on a daily basis. They also increasingly watch series on Netflix (or ‘stream’ them elsewhere) in English, which also leads to their level of English improving. Nevertheless, there are individual pupils who have a very poor level. I would like to add that level differences are getting bigger also in English.”
  “Students bring more basic knowledge about individual subjects. In the past, it was mostly individual students who already knew something in advance and could contribute, now it’s several students and more in-depth information.”


It is remarkable and noteworthy that one of the main reasons mentioned for the presumed reduction in performance is the reduced ability to absorb and concentrate, as well as the non-existent ability to link trains of thought and to think in a networked manner. So this is a damning verdict by the teachers for the competency-based curriculum that has been introduced, which should have particularly promoted precisely these abilities.
  It is obvious that with 3536 descriptions of competencies in the curriculum, the actual content of subject matter in class has been reduced, and thus various interdisciplinary skills have also suffered. Pupils today have more difficulty following simple trains of thought in a structured way than was the case in the past.
  As the most blatant reason for the deterioration, the SSbB recognises the subtly introduced change management with regard to the methodology and didactics of teaching. Without necessity, calm, concentrated teaching, in which pupils gain a basic understanding of the subject, was discredited and portrayed as frowned upon, reactionary and outdated. Group work and self-organised learning, on the other hand, are declared the measure of all things. Lessons detached from direction and guidance, in which pupils try to discover things for themselves at an immense expense of teaching time, and where they can hardly concentrate due to the noise, are mainly just kept busy and often achieve wrong results, have fatal consequences for learning success.
  Besides, teachers have to teach increasingly more subjects, especially at lower secondary level. This problem has been in existence since the University of Teacher Education (PH) largely took over the professional training of prospective lower secondary teachers from the university. Valuable study time is squandered on content that is far removed from practice and is ultimately missing in the students’ subject training.
  It is important to more strongly promote knowledge content and its connections in the individual subjects so that a further deterioration in the performance and educational level of the students can be offset. Students deserve to receive a good quality school education and thus be optimally prepared for further educational opportunities.   •

Source: http://www.starke-schule-beider-basel.ch/Home.aspx dated 16 December 2020

(Translation Current Concerns)

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