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“Weg Da-Wir Wollen Lernen!” Education Reform in Hamburg, Germany in Neoliberal Times

by Jeff Bale - 2013

Background/Context: This paper is in dialogue with critical policy scholarship that has developed a certain consensus about what neoliberalism is and what its impact has been on recent education policy. A substantial part of the paper comprises a synthesis of recent German scholarship on neoliberal education policies in that country.

Purpose/Objective/Research Question/Focus of Study: Drawing on critical analysis of neoliberal education policy, this paper examines a recent education reform measure in Hamburg, Germany. A key component of the intended reform measure was defeated by a ballot initiative spearheaded by a coalition of Hamburg residents widely understood to represent the city’s wealthy elite. Making sense of the controversy over this reform measure is the central goal of this paper. To do so, I identify five features of neoliberal education policy in Germany and use them as a framework within which to read the specific reform measure in Hamburg and the resistance to it.

Research Design: This paper reports an interpretive policy analysis and draws on document sources from four interpretive communities: (a) Hamburg’s education ministry; (b) two pro-reform coalitions; (c) one anti-reform coalition; and (c) news media sources. A total of 389 documents were collected for this study, to which I applied a grounded theory approach for data analysis.

Conclusions/Recommendations: By reading this controversy against previous scholarship on neoliberal education policy, I argue that this specific case of education reform in Hamburg does not follow the pattern such analysis would predict. By stressing this divergence, I neither intend to challenge the consensus on neoliberalism within critical policy scholarship, nor to position this reform policy as a panacea to neoliberal ills. Rather, I argue that the anomalous nature of this specific reform effort in Hamburg provides two unique analytical opportunities: (a) to understand more deeply the constraints imposed by neoliberalism on schooling, especially in a context of policy making that bucks the neoliberal trend; and (b) to identify more clearly what educational policy strategies are required to move beyond neoliberal imperatives for schooling and society.


Send Goetsch to primate school!1 So read the sign held by a boy at a demonstration in Hamburg, Germany on April 19, 2009. Some 5,000 people had gathered to protest a series of proposed education policy reforms (Krupa, 2009), known collectively as the education offensive (Bildungsoffensive). Although these reforms were comprehensive, the sign in this boys hands reflected a central point of dissent. The first reference is to Christa Goetsch, a Green Party politician who was then Hamburgs education minister overseeing the reform effort. The second reference is a play on the name of a new school form, the primary school (Primarschule), introduced by these reforms. While elementary schools (Grundschulen) in Hamburg currently end with grade 4, the new primary school would end with grade 6. As I detail below, the stated purpose of this restructuring was to ensure that students spend more time in an integrated learning environment before separating into various secondary school tracks. That is, learners from different linguistic and ethnic backgrounds, as well as students considered high- and low-performing, were meant to attend a common primary school for an additional two years. It is this proposed school form to which the sign at this demonstration referred as primate school, and to which Mrs. Goetsch should be sent.

The sign and its word play were not the only curious aspects of this demonstration. As documented in media coverage, protestors overwhelmingly represented one segment of Hamburg society, namely its wealthy and elite. For example, the liberal newspaper, Die Zeit, dubbed the rally the Gucci-Protest (Krupa, 2009, n.p.). As the article noted, protestors hailed from city districts in which the dropout rate is especially low and the university attendance rate especially high. And they were particularly well dressed. The main organizer of the rally, lawyer Walter Scheuerl, was described as wearing his blue sweater tossed over his shoulders, chanting, Were here, were loud, because theyre stealing our education! (n.p.)2 Additionally, the location of the demonstration along a premier shopping district in the city was noteworthy. As the article maintained, The route that demonstrators chose reflects the city of Hamburg the way it would like to be seen: prosperous, clean, self-confident. Most of the demonstrators know this route because theyre often here on Saturdaysbut to shop, not to demonstrate (n.p.). Ultimately, this demonstration helped block the new primary school. Indeed, the controversy over the education offensive led to Goetschs resignation as education minister and to the collapse of the entire coalition governing Hamburg in November 2010.

Making sense of the controversy over this reform measure is the goal of this paper. The paper presents a critical policy analysis of the education offensive in Hamburg and the specific form of resistance that emerged against it. To inform this analysis, I draw on document sources from four interpretive communities (Yanow, 2000): (a) Hamburgs education ministry; (b) two pro-reform coalitions; (c) one anti-reform coalition; and (d) news media sources. I situate my analysis within critical education policy scholarship. As I elaborate below, there exists a certain consensus within that scholarship about neoliberalism: what it is, and the extent to which it shapes contemporary education policy (e.g., Apple, 2004; Butterwegge, Lösch, & Ptak, 2008; Hursh, 2007; Jones et al., 2008; Klausenitzer, 2002a; Lipman, 2011; Lohmann, 2010). However, my reading of the education offensive in Hamburg indicates that this specific case does not follow the pattern predicted by critical scholarship. By stressing this divergence, I neither wish to challenge this consensus, nor to position the education offensive as a panacea to neoliberal ills. Rather, I argue that the anomalous nature of this specific reform effort in Hamburg provides two unique analytical opportunities: (a) to understand more deeply the constraints imposed by neoliberalism on schooling; and (b) to identify more clearly what educational policy strategies are required to move beyond neoliberal imperatives for schooling and society.

To substantiate this argument, I first provide an overview of the education offensive and suggest its relevance to education policy audiences outside Germany. Second, I identify the consensus within critical policy scholarship with respect to neoliberalism and its impact on contemporary education policy in Germany. Third, I describe the studys research design. Fourth, I present key findings of my analysis that indicate the anomalous nature of this reform. Finally, I use the findings to explore which alternatives to neoliberal education policy are possible, and which strategies might bring those policies into practice.


To aid readers unfamiliar with schooling in Germany, this section provides a brief detour and overview. The traditional school system is highly federalized, as in the United States, meaning that the 16 Länder are chiefly responsible for their own schools. Typically, though, the German system comprises a primary level, the Grundschule elementary school, which ends at grade 4. Thereafter, students have traditionally advanced to one of three secondary school tracks: (a) an academic track (the Gymnasium), which historically has ended at grade 13 with the Abitur university entrance exam; (b) an intermediate track (Realschule), which ends after grade 10 and has a white-collar vocational focus; and (c) a basic education track (Hauptschule), which students can leave after grade 9 and whose curriculum traditionally has focused on trades and blue-collar vocational training. Reforms from the 1960s and 1970s introduced the Gesamtschulen, comprehensive secondary schools most similar to high schools in North America which can lead to all school-leaving qualifications, as well as a series of mechanisms to allow students to move between secondary school forms after grade 6. Finally, students with disabilities have been educated in separate institutions called Sonder- or Förderschulen, or special education schools (see Arlt et al., 2009, pp. 14-29 for a description specific to Hamburg).

The transition from elementary to secondary school is one of the most complex aspects of German education. In Hamburg, teachers make a formal recommendation after grade 4 as to which secondary school form the child should attend. Parents have the right to challenge that recommendation and place their child in the school form of their choice. No matter who decides, the childs placement is probationary for two years. After grade 6, the school reserves the right to move the child to a different secondary form. Both stages of the assignment process are ostensibly based on the childs academic performance.


The education offensive reform measure was extensive. At its heart were two structural questions: creation of the primary school, thereby lengthening elementary education to grade 6; and replacing the complex secondary school structure with a two-track secondary system. One track is the district school (Stadtteilschule), which is a merger of the previous basic, intermediate and comprehensive school forms. In contrast to those forms, district schools are designed to prepare all students for the university entrance exam in grade 13. The second track is the academic Gymnasium, which leads to the university exam after grade 12.

Beyond these structural reforms, the measure called for a number of internal reforms as well: individualized student learning plans, standards-based3 instruction, expanded compensatory services for German language learners, and smaller class sizes across the system. Furthermore, accompanying the school-based reforms has been an ongoing professional development offensive for teachers (for an overview in English, see Behörde, n.d.).

The education offensive was first announced in April 2008 and overseen by Goetsch, a Green Party politician and from 2008-2010 Hamburgs education minister. At this time, Hamburg was governed by an unlikely coalition of the conservative Christian Democratic Union (CDU) and the Greens. However tenuous the coalition, on October 9, 2009 it gained support in Hamburgs state parliament to codify the reform as law (Bethge, 2010). Throughout the 2008-09 school year, the education ministry organized a series of regional conferences across the city, in which over 2,000 school staff, parents, and other community members participated (Behörde, 2009a). These conferences led to the July 2009 publication of the School Development Plan with a proposal for implementing the entire reform school-by-school in all 22 districts (Behörde, 2009e). Public feedback was solicited throughout fall 2009, and a final plan for implementation was issued in January 2010. Implementation of the new primary and district school forms was set for August 2010. At the secondary level, the merger of the previous school forms into the new district school did move forward, while the academic Gymnasium remained unchanged. At the elementary level, 24 schools were selected to pilot the new primary school form (Behörde, 2009c). Complete implementation of the primary school form was intended for the 2012-2013 school year (Behörde, 2010c).

However, no sooner had the reform been announced in April 2008 than an anti-reform coalition was founded in May. Named We Want to Learn (Wir Wollen Lernen or WWL) and led by Walter Scheuerl, the coalition leveraged its considerable social, cultural and economic resources in opposition to the reform. In following Apples (2004) lead of identifying specific social blocs behind policy advocacy, the findings I report below suggest that the WWL coalition was dominated by elite professionals, especially lawyers and chief doctors; individuals whose families have an aristocratic history; and the leading members and supporters of the liberal Free Democratic Party.4

Ultimately, WWL was able to make use of Hamburgs ballot initiative law, unique in Germany, to hold a referendum on the primary school form on July 18, 2010. Their initiative to block implementation of the primary school was successful. By November, Goetsch had stepped down, and the coalition government collapsed. New elections were held in February 2011, through which the Social Democrats (SPD) took office. WWL operates to this day, functioning as a sort of permanent opposition to Hamburgs education ministry.

The story of this policy reform and the resistance to it is relevant to a non-German audience for two reasons. First, Hamburg and its schools present the characteristics, challenges and potential common to urban educational contexts internationally. Hamburg is a port city located in northern Germany. It is the countrys second-largest city and one of its three city-states. It is similar in size to Philadelphia, with roughly 1.7 million residents and 165,000 students in the grade school system (Arlt et al., 2009). It is also one of Germanys most ethnically- and linguistically-diverse urban centers. In the 2007-2008 school year, roughly one-quarter of all fifth-graders in Hamburg were identified as having a migration background (Arlt et al., 2009, p. 120).5 Over a third of preschool-aged children were bilingual, of whom some 20% spoke the non-German language predominantly (p. 161). In 2008, the most common non-German languages in Hamburg were Turkish, Russian, Farsi/Persian, English, and Polish (p. 161).

Hamburg is also a city of significant contradictions, educationally and otherwise. On the one hand, it has the highest rate of students taking the university entrance exam among Germanys 16 states. Additionally, the dropout rate has fallen almost four percent over the last decade, to around 8.2% of students leaving school in 2008 with no qualifications (Arlt et al., 2009, p. 67). On the other, these positive aspects do not apply to all of Hamburgs students equally. For example, students with a migration background quit school at a rate more than twice that of their peers with no migration background (Beauftragte, 2010, p. 96). Further, students with a migration background must repeat a grade at disproportionately high rates, and they are significantly overrepresented in special education and vocational secondary schools (Arlt et al., 2009). This concentration of diversity and educational contradictions is more similar to urban educational experiences in the United States than not, and alone warrants a comparative analysis.

Second, the phenomenon of school restructuring is also not unique to Hamburg. To name two recent examples from the United States, the Chief Recovery Officer of the Philadelphia school system announced plans in May 2012 to close 64 schools in the next five years, with the goal of 40% of the citys children attending charter schools by 2017. To start, the system will outsource 25 schools for 2012-2013 to achievement networks run by private or charter organizations (Haver, 2012). Similarly, the Emergency Financial Manager of Detroit Public Schools has again issued layoff notices to every Detroit teacher, effective June 30, 2012, and plans to outsource some 15 schools to the state-run Education Achievement Authority, in addition to closing a number of other neighborhood schools (Chambers & Lewis, 2012). As I elaborate below, these experiences with school restructuring are tied to a broader neoliberal reordering of public education. In the US, critical policy scholars have formed a consensus about the nature of this neoliberal reordering and its detrimental impact on students of color in particular, and working class and poor students in general (e.g., Apple, 2004; Lipman, 2004, 2011; Russom, 2012).

The restructuring efforts in Hamburg thus trigger a number of questions that beg a comparative analysis. For example, was this restructuring and the broader reform effort also emblematic of neoliberal imperatives for education reform? If not, as I argue in this paper, to what extent was this reform effort an example of policymaking to resist neoliberal pressures on schools? Especially because the measure failed, what lessons can we draw from this experience for developing strategies that are effective in moving beyond neoliberal imperatives for school and society? By addressing these questions, my analysis of education reform in Hamburg in neoliberal times functions as an instrumental case study (Stake, 1994), insofar as better understanding this specific case helps us to better understand the general phenomenon of neoliberalism and its impact on education policy.   


This study is in dialogue with critical policy scholarship that has defined what neoliberalism is and how it has shaped contemporary education policy. This section takes up each point in turn. In this section, I indicate the extent to which neoliberalism is at once an international and German phenomenon. In so doing, my position is not that neoliberalism operates uniformly in every local context. Quite the contrary, as Jones et al. (2008) argued,

The neo-liberal transformation of the school is a process, not an event. Its pace and rhythm have differed from country to country. They have been hastened or retarded not only by the extent of explicit resistance, but by the value systems and embedded practices existing within each nation state. (p. 19)

Indeed, among so-called advanced industrialized nations, neoliberalism is most acute in the Anglo world (i.e., North America, the United Kingdom, Australia, and New Zealand). Consequently, the extent of its impact on education policy has been greater there than in Germany (see Anderson, 2009; Magotsiu-Schweizerhof, 2000; Radkte, 2000; Weiß, 1993). Yet, German society has not been spared the pressures that neoliberalism has exerted internationally since at least the 1970s. As such, this section serves two functions: to identify how neoliberalism has impacted education policy both within Germany and more generally; and to establish a theoretical framework within which to analyze the conflict over school reform in Hamburg.


Informing critical scholarship on neoliberal education policy is a historical analysis that recognizes the dynamic connection between the political-economic features of a given historical conjuncture, and the structural and ideological forms that public education has taken. Three broad periods are typically identified: (a) the influence of rapid industrialization on public schools from the turn of the 20th century through World War II; (b) the requirement for larger numbers of white collar and middle management employees, and the subsequent shift across primary, secondary and tertiary education sectors from the 1950s; and (c) the current period, dating back to a series of international economic crises in the early 1970s, and the need to restructure the state so as to facilitate capital accumulation and thereby restore profitability (e.g., Brown, Halsey, Lauder, & Wells, 1997; Lipman, 2011; Russom, 2012; Saltman, 2000; Schöller, 2004).

In many ways, this periodization represents a re-invigoration of key theoretical contributions made 40 years ago by Bowles and Gintis (2011). Their groundbreaking study is best known for its claim that the structural and ideological forms that schooling takes correspond to economic, political, and ideological structures at work and in society at large. The primary goal of schooling, then, is not to develop specific cognitive or vocational skills, but rather to socialize students into their future place in society. This correspondence principle has since been widely criticized as overly reductive and deterministic (see Anyon, 2011). Yet, critics often overlook how Bowles and Gintis focused not on the rigidity of this relationship between society and school, but rather on the contradictions at its heart.

Bowles and Gintis did argue the existence of a direct and dynamic relationship between the political-economic features of a given era and the form that schooling takes. But they also maintained that the structural and ideological forms of schooling often lag behind profound shifts in political economy. This contradiction between a more dynamic economy and a more stagnant school system pries open political and ideological space for conflicts over school: what its goals should be, what form it should take, what should be taught and how, and so on. Sometimes, as was the case just prior to when Bowles and Gintis developed their thesis, broad social movements succeed in imposing their responses to these contradictions and in shaping what school might be used to do. More often, as critical scholars argue is the case today with respect to neoliberal education policy, elite solutions predominate in these debates.

These contemporary elite responses are rooted in neoliberalism, a political-economic agenda that emerged in the early 1970s and has come to dominate social and economic policy making (Apple, 2004; Harvey, 2007; Willke, 2003). Picower (2011) succinctly defined neoliberalism as an ideology and set of policies that privilege market strategies over public institutions to redress social issues (p. 1106). Neoliberalism envisions a society in which individuals make choices for themselves on the open market, not within the confines of public agencies or government mandates (Lipman & Hursh, 2007). This ideological claim drives the intent of neoliberal policies to deregulate the economy, liberalize trade and labor policy, and privatize social services hitherto provided by the state (Butterwegge et al., 2008; Hursh, 2007a).

Deregulation and liberalization, however, do not necessarily imply a dispassionate state. Instead, definitions of neoliberalism have highlighted the activist role the state plays in facilitating neoliberal policies. As Hursh (2007b) argued, Under neoliberal rationality, the state plays a central role in creating the appropriate conditions, laws, and institutions necessary for markets to operate. This includes producing and reproducing particular discourses, practices and structures that enable neoliberalism to persist and prosper (p. 116). Lipman (2011) underscored that this activist stance directly contradicts neoliberal claims to limited government or individual choice. In actually existing neoliberalism (p. 9), decision making is outsourced to appointed managers or to public-private partnerships elected by no one, thereby undermining traditional liberal democracy.

Finally, scholarly assessments of neoliberalism are generally careful to avoid language that rings of conspiracy theories or that is otherwise overly reductive. Indeed, critical policy scholars have applied a dialectical analysis to neoliberalism: on the one hand, framed by the logic of capitalism in an effort to overcome a series of international economic crises beginning in the early 1970s; and on the other, framed by the interests of specific ruling elites in specific contexts (Lipman & Saltman, 2007). Apple (2004), for example, identified various political blocs that are both distinct in origin and character, and that have come together behind a broad neoliberal agenda. These blocs include multiple fractions of capital, neo-conservative intellectuals, authoritarian populist religious conservatives, and fractions of the professionally oriented new middle class (p. 15). In this sense, then, the neoliberal agenda is at once the product of individual actions taken by official policy makers, and of structural impulses toward capital accumulation that are both larger than and constitutive of individual motivations.


In this paper, I assume the reader is familiar with the milestones in neoliberal development in the United States, both in terms of general social and economic policies (see Anyon, 2011; Harvey, 2007; McNally, 2008); and in terms of neoliberal education policy, such as the 1983 Nation at Risk report; the metamorphosis of the standards movement into a high-stakes testing movement; initial attempts at vouchers and the subsequent explosion in charter school growth; the fallout of No Child Left Behind (NCLB); and the extent to which President Obamas Race to the Top policy has doubled-down on NCLB by linking test scores to teacher evaluation and demanding an even friendlier policy climate for charter schools (Anyon, 2011; Hursh, 2007a; Lipman, 2011; Ravitch, 2010; Russom, 2012).

With respect to German neoliberalism and neoliberal education policy, one can trace similar arcs in their development. However, there are two historical specificities that distinguish German neoliberalism. First, Helmut Kohl, the conservative counterpart to Reagan and Thatcher who served as chancellor from 1982 to 1998, never succeeded in imposing the sort of economic and social policies that his Anglo-American peers did. Consequently, while it was conservative governments who initiated neoliberal reforms in the US and the UK, in Germany this shift was effected by the center-left. In 1998, a coalition government between the Social Democrats (SPD) and the Green Party was elected and remained in office until 2005. Not only was it a Green Party foreign minister who began rehabilitating German militarism by dispatching German troops into combat for the first time since World War II. But also, in 2003 the Red-Green coalition pushed through Agenda 2010, a collection of neoliberal reforms to health, retirement, and (un)employment policies aimed at dramatically paring the German welfare state. Second is the fallout of reunification (Butterwegge, 2007; Butterwegge et al., 2008). Anderson (2009) estimated that by 2008 reunification had cost Germany some $1.3 trillion. Besides the formidable price tag, rapid integration of displaced East German labor into the reunified economy functioned to lower real wages nationally between 1991 and 1998; trim the ranks of the trade unions by 30% over twelve years; and accelerate the deregulation of labor policies in general. By 2004, this restructuring allowed Germany to reclaim its status as the largest exporter of manufactured goods in the worlda position it had not enjoyed since the 1970s.

In part because of the delayed development of neoliberalism in Germany, its impact on education policy has also been less extensive than in Anglo-American contexts. This does not mean, however, that German neoliberalism has spared education policy altogether. Indeed, critical German policy scholarship locates the origins of such influence to the early 1990s (e.g., Lohmann, 2010; Magotsiu-Schweizerhof, 2000; Radtke, 2000). As Barth and Schöller (2005) noted, with the Waterloo of actually existing socialism, neoliberal tendencies increasingly insinuated themselves into education policy (p. 1340). By then, it had long been recognized that democratic reforms to (West) German schools from the late 1960s and 1970s had failed to bridge the considerable gaps in educational attainment across ethnicity and social class (Klausenitzer, 2002a). The sharp focus throughout the 1980s on curricular and/or pedagogical reforms in individual schools had similarly been charged with failure (Radtke, 2000). By the 1990s, these perceived failures gave way to calls across the political spectrum for excellencenot (merely) equal opportunityin education. As I argue in the next section, these calls for excellence in German education mirror five basic features of neoliberal education policy.


As in the US, a consensus has emerged within critical scholarship about German neoliberalism and its impact on school policy. For the sake of clarity, I have enumerated five points around which this consensus has formed: austerity, the market model, individualism, state intervention, and economic prosperity. However, I should note that these features overlap with one another. My aim is not to insist on only one specific categorization. Instead, my purpose is to provide a succinct overview, which can also serve as a framework within which to understand the conflicts over the education offensive in Hamburg.


There are two levels at which German scholarship has understood neoliberal austerity at school: as efforts to lower state spending, whether by cutting budgets directly, wresting more work from public employees, or both; and as ideological demands to break the government monopoly over education and thereby establish greater efficiency at school. Because both understandings overlap, education reformers from across the political spectrum have found it easier to get behind neoliberal reforms (Radtke, 2000). For the New Left of the 1960s and 1970s, challenges to the state monopoly in education (Lohmann, 2010, p. 120) resonate with their frustration over how little has changed in German schools. For the center-left of the SPD and the Greens, calls for austerity generally fit under the rubric of modernization (Radtke, 2000). And for conservatives, their longstanding demands to shrink government have now broadened to include the school sector. As Barth and Schöller (2005) described it, privatization is their battle cry, lowering state expenditures their program (p. 1339).

While cost cutting is not always the public face of a given reform, it is often the underlying motivation. As Magotsiu-Schweizerhof (2000) argued, within policy discussions it is implied among other things that upper management preaches autonomy, but they mean save (p. 230; emphasis original). Schöller (2004) made the case more emphatically: Common to all education reforms is that they are really about education finance reforms. There is nothing fundamentally pedagogical or educational about them (p. 526). Whether named austerity or efficiency, the goal is the same: driving down overall state expenditures for public education by lowering wages, benefits and costs, and making those who remain employed by the state work harder and longer for less compensation (see Apple, 2004; Lipman & Hursh, 2007; Russom, 2012; Saltman, 2000).

The Market Model

The market model asserts that schools foster greater student learning when placed in competition with one another, self-managed, and subject to the pressures of parental choice, and when held to external measures of accountability (Brown et al., 1997; Gillbourn & Youdell, 2000; Tomlinson, 1994). In Germany, this discussion has taken place most extensively under the rubric of school autonomy.

The term autonomy is vague in the German context because it has such a long tradition in conversations about school (Magotsiu-Schweizerhof, 2000; Rürup, 2007). Identifying the primary forces behind a given call for autonomy helps to clarify what is meant by the term. On the one hand, in the 1970s it was typically teachers and their unions who supported autonomy as democratic pedagogical reforms (Magotsiu-Schweizerhof, 2000). On the other, calls for autonomy today emanate almost exclusively from state education ministries and policy think tanks. These imperatives have introduced market forces to German schools both in terms of the quasi-market supply and demand in relation to school admissions and parental choice and of the rise [of] market relationships between schools and external suppliers (Jones et al., 2008, p. 57). It is in this sense that Lohmann (2010) characterized the ideological and practical function of school autonomy in Germany as analogous to that of vouchers and charter schools in the United States. Calls for autonomy have displaced public and policy conversations about equal opportunity with notions of efficiency, quality, deregulation, and privatization (Magotsiu-Schweizerhof, 2000).

The second feature of the market model, namely the use of external accountability measures, is much less developed in Germany than in the United States. There is no system of standardized testing like that mandated by NCLB. Yet, testing as an external measure of quality has advanced in Germany both in terms of standardization and centralization. The most consequential of these external measures has been the PISA studies since 2001. Writing before their advent, Radtke (2000) extrapolated the experiences with the earlier TIMSS studies to speculate what role PISA would play. He called both testing programs just the answer. For neo-conservatives, the discussion over school quality& finally provides the opportunity to go on the offensive around standards and thereby reestablish the selectivity of the school system (p. 20).

Indeed, the three PISA studies since 2001 have dramatically impacted German educational policy and practice. Germanys results on the first round of testing were widely perceived as middling, and touched off what has since been called the PISA-Schock (Jones et al. 2008). This public anxiety has focused in large part on the high correlation between educational performance and students class and linguistic background (Baumert, Stanat, & Watermann, 2006). Not only did students with a migration background in Germany score worse than their peers in other European contexts, but also three times worse than ethnic German students (Jones et al., 2008). Revelationor reminderof this correlation has shifted public debates over school away from internal school reforms (Auernheimer, 2009, p. 8); however, the topics to which the conversation has switched are varied. In part, interest has grown in the structural features of German schooling, such as the multi-track secondary system, a topic deemed off-limits in policy debates for the last 30 years (Auernheimer, 2009). Moreover, there is a growing body of sociological, applied linguistic and policy research that has documented the extent to which students with a migration background have explicitly been blamed for Germanys PISA results (e.g., Diefenbach, 2007; Gogolin, 2009; Gomolla & Radtke, 2007; Hamburger, 2005). Furthermore, PISA has created pressure to homogenize the curriculum and re-frame education as a function of competition (Jahnke, 2007; Klausenitzer, 2002b; Uljens, 2007). Finally, the private education sector has exploited PISA-Schock to insinuate itself more centrally to policy debates (Jones et al., 2008). Despite these diverse responses to PISA, Jones et al. (2008) argued that in broad terms in Germany the release of the OECDs comparative PISA statistics has helped create a general acceptance of the necessity of modernisation (p. 140).


One of the most dramatic ideological projects of neoliberal education policy has been to shift public attitudes about education as a social good to those that view educational attainment as an individual responsibility. The implication is that the stateand by extension, society at largeis no longer responsible for the failures in public education. Instead, success at school is recast as the result of individual effort, perseverance, and talent. From this perspective, the most urgent social dilemmas of our times, such as growing poverty and segregation, decreasing social mobility, and so on, are not the function of structural inequalities created or reinforced by schooling, but rather of individual merits (Butterwegge et al., 2008; Magotsiu-Schweizerhof, 2000; Radtke, 2000; Schöller, 2004). Indeed, by reconceiving student as client, neoliberal reformers aim to depoliticiz[e] the discussion over education insofar as education is no longer to be thought of as a public good but rather as an object of ones private deliberations over consumption (Radtke, 2000, p. 20).

State Intervention

As discussed above, there is a yawning gap between neoliberal ideological claims that limited government is best, and neoliberal practice, which relies directly on state intervention to facilitate its agenda. With respect to education, this increased state intervention has taken two primary forms internationally. The first is implementation of national curricula in conjunction with the expansion of national testing programs to measure mastery of those curricula (Apple, 2004; Gillborn & Youdell, 2000). Because education is highly federalized in Germany and thus primarily a state-level issue, there is no immediate corollary to nationalized curricula there as in other industrialized countries. However, Klausenitzer (2002a) identified the growing connection between testing mechanisms and re-organized curricula at the state level. The exams have become more demanding, more centralized and designed to measure student mastery of standards organized around traditional values and a core academic curriculum (p. 56). He concluded from this trend that these assessment shifts have increased the sorting and selection of students and laid the groundwork for national and European-wide centralization of educational assessment.

The second feature of state intervention around neoliberal education policy concerns governance. Far from the state withdrawing from educational governance, it works instead to create a policy environment more favorable to neoliberal reforms. In Germany, various states have increasingly outsourced policy and curriculum deliberations to education think tanks. Indeed, these public-private collaborations have dramatically changed the public conversation about schools in Germany (Butterwegge, 2007). By far the most prolific among them has been the Bertelsmann Foundation, whose namesake is the founder of the Bertelsmann AG media group (Barth & Schöller, 2005; Butterwegge, 2007; Lohmann, 2010; Schöller, 2002, 2004). The foundations earliest and most extensive education projects focused on higher education reforms (Schöller, 2002, 2004). However, it has been active around school policy reforms as well. In 1995, it collaborated with the government of North-Rhine Westphalia (NRW), then run by the Social Democrats, on an ad hoc education commission. Its final report, The Future of Education Schools of the Future, has become a touchstone of education reform in Germany (Barth & Schöller, 2005) in ways similar to the Nation at Risk report in the US. Indeed, its centrality to national education reform is indicated by its colloquial moniker, the Red Bible6 (Kleinknecht, personal communication, May 11, 2012). The foundation followed up in 1996 with its Schule & Co. project, which measured over 900 school quality parameters in NRW by means of various pilot projects. Barth and Schöller (2005) characterized the Schule & Co. project as an early effort to implement in education the very techniques of ranking and best practices taken from industry (p. 1342). Moreover, the state of Hessen contracted Bertelsmann as a research consultant to evaluate new school management and budgeting process piloted in 2001 and intended for statewide implementation in 2003 (Klausenitzer, 2002a).

Economic Prosperity, Race and Class

A central ideological claim behind neoliberalism internationally is that education is the key to economic development (e.g., Apple, 2004; Brown, et al., 1997; Lauder & Hughes, 1999; Saltman, 2007). In Germany, this claim has largely centered on the notion of human capital and the role that school should play in developing it. The primary tool with which German neoliberal policies aim to realize human capital is increasing the selectivity of the school system.

Earlier, I described the traditional multi-track secondary school system in Germany and the complicated process by which students transition to one of those secondary forms after grade 4. Indeed, there is substantial empirical evidence of the overlap of the childs social class status, linguistic background and parents educational attainment, and secondary school assignment (e.g., Baumert et al., 2006; Diefenbach, 2007; Gomolla & Radtke, 2007). As such, a number of democratic reforms from the 1960s and 1970s aimed to redress this selectivity. One example is the Gesamtschule, a comprehensive secondary school form most akin to high schools in North America, which formally offers all school-leaving qualifications. Also, a number of mechanisms had been introduced for students to move between secondary school forms if their performance so merited.

German neoliberal education policy is predicated on the claim that these reforms have not only failed, but worse still have retarded the development of individual excellence. As one conservative politician from Berlin put it in 1992, If you talk about quality you must be thinking selectioneven if thats a taboo. Supporting and screening gifted students no longer occurs in school. Accessibility and equal opportunity as goals have sapped the courage to support and screen for gifted students (cited in Schöller, 2004, p. 518). In addition to fast-tracking college-bound students by reducing Gymnasium by one year, this support and screening has entailed the restriction or even abolition of students ability to move between secondary school tracks (Klausenitzer, 2002a).  

The impact of this renewed selectivity on working class students and students with a migration background has been less studied in the German policy literature. This stands in stark contrast to critical education policy scholarship in Anglo contexts, which has focused sharply on the consequences of neoliberal reforms for students of color (e.g., Apple, 2004; Hursh, 2007; Lipman, 2004, 2011; Picower, 2011). Magotsiu-Schweizerhof (2000) is an important exception, insofar as she framed her literature review on school autonomy around the question of its impact on the educational experiences of students with a migration background. Based on empirical studies, she noted the detrimental effects that school choice measures have on working class and poor parents (p. 238). However, she concluded that there is a need for more research in the German context.

In sum, these five points (viz., austerity; individualism; the market model; state intervention; and economic prosperity, race, and class) comprise a broad consensus within critical policy scholarship as to what neoliberalism is and what its impact on German education policy has been. The reader will notice that I have not included privatization in this discussion. Certainly, privatization is a prominent feature of neoliberal education policies. However, because it did not feature at all in the reform effort in Hamburg, nor in resistance to it, I have set this topic aside for space considerations. As my choice suggests, different categorizations are possible, with different emphases and nuances. The purpose in outlining this consensus, however, is to provide a framework within which to read the contest over the education offensive in Hamburg.


I conducted an interpretive policy analysis as defined by Yanow (2000). This approach to policy analysis assists in identifying various policy-relevant actors: those charged with implementing given policies, as well as those impacted by such policies. Interpretive policy analysis seeks to identify the meaning these constituencies make of policy, both symbolically in the form of words and objects, and concretely in terms of how that policy is practiced. Interpretive policy analysis employs a number of conventional qualitative research methods, such as document analysis, semi-structured interviews, and participant observation, although the study reported here reflects document analysis alone.

An early step in designing an interpretive policy analysis is differentiating between various interpretive communities with distinct, perhaps even competing stakes. For this study, I identified four and collected a wide array of documents related to them between 2008 and 2011:


official policy documents from Hamburgs education ministry (Behörde für Schule und Berufsbildung or BSB), including formal policy texts such as the School Development Plan7 and The Hamburg Education Offensive: A Clever City Needs Everyones Talent, as well as official BSB communications such as the School Letters signed by Christa Goetsch and distributed via the official BSB website;


documents disseminated by policy actors in favor of the reform measure, including those published and/or disseminated by the two pro-reform coalitions, as well as online and printed materials of the teachers union that endorsed the measure (the Gewerkschaft Erziehung und Wissenschaft Landesverband Hamburg or GEW);


documents disseminated by policy actors in opposition to the reform measure, above all those of the We Want to Learn coalition (Wir Wollen Lernen), the main opposition group and the teachers union opposed to the new primary school form (Deutscher Lehrerverband Hamburg or DL); and


reporting, editorials, and video broadcasts from news media sources, both local to Hamburg and national in scope.

As of this writing, I have collected 389 documents. Their distribution across the four interpretive communities is as follows: 78 official BSB documents, 17 pro-reform documents, 168 anti-reform documents, and 126 media reports. Concerning the low number of pro-reform documents, most sources I consulted are found on their respective websites, not as individual documents such as brochures or reports. Thus, I did not count each web page as a separate document. By contrast, the anti-reform coalition was more pro-active in sending newsletter-style emails with media and other attachments to them. I counted each email and each attachment as separate documents.

I based my approach to data analysis on grounded theory (Charmaz, 2004). Several features of the research made this approach most generative. First, the data set from which this study emerged is enormous. The document data not only spanned four interpretive communities, but also several years. I began systematic collection of documents in late 2008, continuing until the new state elections in February 2011. Additionally, the conflict over this reform measure is ongoing, meaning that I made a fairly arbitrary decision to end my analysis with the February 2011 state elections so as to draw a reasonable boundary around the data set. With such rich data reflecting a real-time political conflict, I felt particularly compelled to allow themes to emerge from them rather than applying pre-determined categories. Moreover, I delayed a literature review until well into the analytical process; I did not see a connection between this specific policy conflict and neoliberalism until quite late in the analysis.

Data collection and analysis proceeded in an iterative fashion. Typical of constant comparative analysis (Charmaz, 2004; Glaser & Strauss, 1967), I mined the document data for initial themes and compared them across different interpretive communities to verify, refine, or refute those emerging themes. Additionally, I used early themes to identify additional document sources, and to develop mid-range theoretical categories. It was at this stage that I drew connections between these categories and critical analysis of neoliberal education policy.


The findings from my analysis reflect the five categories identified in the literature review, which outlined a consensus in critical policy scholarship as to the impact of neoliberalism on education policy. As this analysis indicates, the specific features of the education offensive in Hamburg and of the resistance to it generally do not follow the pattern anticipated by critical scholarship on neoliberal education policy.



The education ministry, the BSB, committed itself to significant spending increases in carrying out the education offensive. For example, the BSB pledged to spend an additional €74 million per year through 2016-17 in order to implement the reform (Behörde, 2010b). Moreover, it promised to create 970 additional teaching positions by 2016 (Goetsch, 2010), 585 of which had been filled by September 2010 (Bethge, 2010). This increase was primarily intended to lower class sizes from 23 to 19 students at the primary level in poorer city districts (Bethge, 2010, p. 23). In a 2010 interview, Klaus Bullan, head of the GEW teachers union, stressed his satisfaction with this promise for more staff. He noted that the union had campaigned for a decade to persuade the BSB to hire 1,000 new teachers; hitherto the BSB not only ignored the demand, but had cut positions (Schütte, 2010).

Additionally, the BSB promised to adjust how the workweek was calculated, thereby accounting for the extra demands the new reform placed on teachers. The BSB uses differentials (i.e., multiplying one hour of work by a factor of 1.2 or 1.5 to account for additional teaching or administrative responsibilities, seniority, etc.) in calculating the official workweek for teachers. This new reform increased those factors to account for the additional planning time teachers needed to respond to the reform (Behörde, 2009d; Goetsch, 2010).

Several authors in the GEWs membership magazine explicitly contrasted the differences they saw between this specific reform and the past decade of actual neoliberal policies in Hamburg. Bullan (2010), the head of the GEW union, spoke directly to the fact that most education reform has been carried out on the shoulders of teachers, meaning an increase in work for no additional compensation (p. 11). This led, he argued, to a general distrust among Hamburg teachers for any reform initiated by the BSB. Horst Bethge (2010), a recently deceased Left Party politician and longtime Hamburg teacher writing in the same issue, contrasted the BSBs proposed school reform measures to Agenda 2010 and similar modernizing policies nationwide. Bethges argument made two points: not only was the education offensive not based on austerity such as were the aforementioned, but also, many people were suspicious of the BSBs plan because the very word reform had become so tainted by its association with previous neoliberal policies.

The anti-reform coalition, WWL, exploited these increased expenditures as a basis for opposition. For example, in an email newsletter from June 18, 2010, WWL claimed that the BSB was diverting €126 million to elementary school principals and teachers in the form of pay raises. The implication was that the ministry was buying the support of these employees for the new primary school form. The email directed the reader to an article in the conservative daily newspaper, BILD, with a headline that read Millions for teachers instead of better education (cited in Wir Wollen Lernen, 2010). The manner in which the BSB responded to this charge is not particularly relevant; of course they denied the accusation (Behörde, 2010c). Instead, what matters is that the anti-reform coalition used the increased expenditures as one strategy for challenging the reform measure.


The issue of parental choice was central in fomenting opposition to the policy reforms Earlier, I described the traditional process, complex as it is, for assigning children to a secondary school track (i.e., teacher recommendation after grade 4, which parents can contest, but then after grade 6, the school has the right to keep the child or re-assign him/her to another secondary track, which parents may not dispute). By extending primary school to grade 6, the reform effectively gave school staff alone the right to assign the child to either the new district school or the academic Gymnasium.

This issue was among the first to help galvanize support for the WWL anti-reform coalition. As one indication of the controversy, newspaper pictures of the Gucci protest (described in the introduction) were filled with protestors holding white crosses, on which was written the right of parental choice (e.g., Krupa, 2009). The message was clear, namely that the 6-year primary school meant the death of parental choice. These crosses represented a deft discursive move: their message conflated the traditional 4-year elementary school with parental rights to choose a secondary school track for their child, while downplaying that teachers have always had the exclusive final say after grade 6 to re-assign the child. Nevertheless, this strategy was successful in both gathering support for the WWLs anti-reform campaign, and in pressuring the BSB to allow parental input in determining their childs secondary school track.


Almost every official policy document disseminated by the BSB used the PISA exams and Hamburgs performance on them to rationalize the reform. Typical of these documents is a Powerpoint presentation that BSB officials used at public forums on the reform measure (Behörde, 2009a). The presentation was organized into four themes, the first of which asked, Why does Hamburg need school reform? The following slide cited data from the 2006 round of PISA exams reporting, 28% of 15 year olds in Hamburg cannot read proficiently. Below the statement, a bar graph compared this data point in Hamburg to Greece (28%), Germany nationwide (20%), and Finland (5%). Another statistic that appeared frequently in BSB documents invoked PISA data as well, namely that 30% of Hamburgs students belong to PISA risk groups. The BSB described these risk groups as comprising students with a migration background, those with parents who themselves have limited formal education (bildungsfern), and those living in poor city districts (e.g., Behörde, 2009b, p. 4). Official policy texts often marshaled both statistics to construct a teleological argument that (a) Hamburgs schools perform less well, despite the talents of its students; (b) the countries in which schools perform better are those in which students are not tracked at the secondary level until later, if at all; therefore, (c) Hamburg should lengthen elementary schooling to grade 6 so as to perform better on exams.


The primary focus of the education offensive was on the detrimental impact that school structure has on educational outcomes. That is, implicit in this reform measure and the advocacy behind it is the assumption that individual success at school cannot be achieved without significant structural changes first. For example, the primary text explaining the reform measure, Hamburgs Education Offensive: A Clever City Needs Everyones Talents, began with several rationales for the reform measure. It stated,

Hamburgs children are just as talented as those in Finland, Canada or Switzerland. In Hamburg, over 30% of students sit for the [university entrance exam]the highest proportion nationwide. But learning outcomes in other countries are higherand that comes down to school structure. (Behörde, 2009b, p. 4)

The text supported this claim with three points. First, it stated that Germany is unique in the world to sort its students into secondary tracks after grade 4, and that consequently talents are wasted all too early. Second, it highlighted that early sorting also leads to misdiagnoses, specifically that around 30% of Gymnasium students have to leave that school form over the course of their education because of insufficient academic performance. By contrast, as the text stated, almost no student makes the transition in the other direction, that is, from a vocational or comprehensive school into Gymnasium (p. 4). Third, the text cited the strong correlation between educational attainment and the social class and linguistic background of the student. The implication of this argument was that school structure only compounds the impact of this correlation rather than alleviating it.

By contrast, official policy texts used the slogan of longer integrated learning (längeres gemeinsames Lernen) to describe their response to these structural problems. These texts asserted that structural changes, such as expanding elementary school by two years, would lead to greater integration. The texts generally defined integration in one of two ways: diversity in academic performance and ability, and ethnic and linguistic diversity. Typical of the former is a BSB Powerpoint presentation used at public forums held across the city, which described integration as more time spent in a diverse learning environment before separation according to academic performance, and more opportunities to even out socially influenced differences in academic performance (Behörde, 2009a, n.p.). Typical of the second definition is a different BSB Powerpoint presentation defining integration in terms of ethnicity. It argued that the structural changes of the primary school would lead to greater ethnic integration and German language support.


Documents created and disseminated by pro-reform advocates suggest that they also understood the education offensive as redressing structural problems in the school system rather than individual performance or achievement. For example, the Pro-SchulreformHH website included an interactive graphic called WWL Fairy Tale Fact Check (see http://www.proschulreformhh.de/historie/wwl-maerchen-check/). It described the WWL anti-reform coalition as telling horror stories, to which it responded with fact checks of WWL claims. Seven of the 12 WWL claims and counter-claims addressed the structural changes proposed by the education offensive, especially the primary school. These fact checks asserted that (a) education research has long supported the collective benefits of longer integrated learning; (b) only those OECD countries with longer integrated learning have both high performing schools and fairly distributed educational attainment; (c) longer integrated learning especially benefits poorer students; and (d) longer integrated learning engenders social integration of students with a migration background, as well as mutual intercultural understanding.


The relationship between public and private spheres in deliberations over the education offensive was not one of collaboration, but rather of conflict. A private coalition formed to organize opposition to public policy by using a ballot initiative law to undo part of the governments reform measure. The contradictions of this opposition are indicated in a media report linked to the Pro-SchulreformHH website. The report was from the July 22, 2010 broadcast of Panorama, Germanys oldest television news magazine program, which analyzed the ballot initiative results in Hamburg (Anthony, Reschke, & Roth, 2010). Airing four days after the vote, the seven-minute report noted with irony that the very ballot initiative law that the Green Party had endorsed was used to block its central education policy agenda. The report began with images of the WWL coalitions election night party at a well-appointed restaurant, with supporters cheering as elections results in their favor come in. It then strung together three tightly edited sound bites: I think this is lived democracy, and there is far too little of it, said one lady standing at the bar. A second stated directly thereafter, this is a good sign for democracy. Finally, Walter Scheuerl himself explained, And for democracy in our city, today is a great day. A great day for democracy? the reporter continued in a voiceover. The peoples representatives [in parliament] have failed (n.p.) The report then continued by highlighting the disproportionate voter turnout across Hamburgs districts based on average income in each district. As if the point were not yet clear, images toggled between shots of elegant villas and dilapidated public housing towers as the reporter described the failed primary school reform. Most of the remaining report was filmed at a polling station in Billstedt, one of Hamburgs poorest districts, where few voters were to be found.

Sigrid Strauß (2010), vice-president of the GEW teachers union, identified a similar contradiction. She noted the union had campaigned vigorously to win the ballot initiative law in the first place. Now, she concluded, Hamburg has to live with the result that the rich beat the poor (p. 13). Indeed, pro-school reform advocates identified three explanations for how the rich beat the poor through this ballot initiative. First, Bullan (2010), the GEWs president, focused his analysis on official election results. He acknowledged that the 58% who voted for the WWL initiative was decisive, and conceded that a 40% voter turnout was reasonable, given that it was a special election held during summer vacation. He insisted, however, that these turnout figures meant that only 22% of eligible voters endorsed the initiative to block the primary school. Moreover, he noted the uneven voter turnout across wealthy (~60%) and poor districts (~25%) in the city to underscore that the votes against the primary school were cast disproportionately by the wealthy (p. 8). Indeed, the German edition of the Financial Times raised a similar point, stating, Voter turnout has become a virtual social atlas of the city of Hamburg (cited in Bethge, 2010, p. 23).

Second, Marina Mannarini (2010), spokesperson for the Intercultural Parent Initiative organization, stressed the extent to which the intended beneficiaries of the reform (i.e., immigrant families) were legally restricted from voting at all. Without the right to vote extended to all legal residents of the city irrespective of nationality, Mannarini argued, the ballot initiative by definition was undemocratic. For her, exclusion [is anything but] a question of chance (p. 14). She documented that over 206,000 migrants were ineligible to vote (p. 15).

Third, pro-reform advocates typically focused their analysis of the ballot initiative on how the WWL used the media to influence public opinion. Hamburg, coincidentally, is home to many of Germanys largest media corporations. Among them is the Springer press, which owns the Hamburger Abendblatt, Welt, and BILD, three newspapers that policy actors described as conservative and directly involved in the campaign against the education offensive. Brigitte Huhnke (2010), for example, compared the prominence of these conservative Springer papers with the Hamburger Morgenpost, which she described as having drifted rightward over the years, and the taz, a longstanding leftwing daily that had become toothless (p. 31). She underscored the extent to which the conservative media in Hamburg rely in particular on wealthy moneybags (Pfeffersäcke, p. 31) as their primary readership. These close connections, Huhnke argued, suggested that, Walter Scheuerl and his initiative have more or less free access to public opinion (p. 31).

Bullan (2010) and Strauß (2010) also focused on the connections between the WWL and Hamburgs conservative media. As Bullan argued, It is simply grotesque: the initiative by the Elbe enclave8 of lawyers, chief doctors, and aristocrats has succeeded, with help from the Springer media and support even from the FDP, to portray their struggle as that of David versus Goliath, or to present themselves as the those below against those on top (p. 10). It is precisely this combination of social blocs in Hamburg (viz., the professional elite, aristocratic elements, conservative media, and the liberals of the FDP) to which Bullan and many others referred as the Gucci-Fraktion9 or the Elbe enclave to index their particular wealth and status in the city. And still, Bullan (2010) and Strauß (2010) were careful to add that not all those who supported the WWL initiative were wealthy elites themselves; rather, from their perspective, it is how the WWL successfully exploited its status in Hamburg to mold public opinion that explains the coalitions success.

Taken together, pro-reform policy actors used these three pointsdisproportionate voter turnout, structural exclusion of legal migrants from voting, and the collusion of the WWL and Hamburgs mediato explain why the primary school reform failed. Specifically, they indicate how elite blocs formally outside the state and opposed to parts of the education offensive used state mechanisms such as the ballot initiative law to effect their agenda.


The discussion of the previous finding about how the rich beat the poor extends, as well, to understanding how middle class and elite families used their opposition to the education offensive to bolster their interests. In addition to the points made above, here I discuss two aspects of their opposition to substantiate this claim. First, the academic-track Gymnasium was an early point of contention over the planned reforms. After the February 2008 elections, the new CDU-Green coalition government entered into negotiations over the Greens campaign pledge to merge all secondary school forms, including the Gymnasium, into one comprehensive school form. Before the WWL was even formed, local CDU members and other prominent Hamburg residents pushed back within the party to insist that the Gymnasium remain intact. This pressure was successful, such that the April 2008 announcement of the education offensive included the Gymnasium as one of the two secondary tracks. Furthermore, Kurt Edler (2010), director of the German Society for Democratic Pedagogy, underscored the deep connection between Hamburgs elite and the Gymnasium school form in his assessment of the education offensive. He maintained, If you so much as lay a hand on the Gymnasium, those familiar with Green Party politics warned some 15 years ago, then you will see the day when the bourgeoisie raises the barricades. And so it has come to pass (p. 16).

Second, the cover of the GEW membership magazine for October-November 2009 portrayed an especially powerful image, which also provides the first half of this papers title. Three polo players were pictured on horseback galloping toward the viewer. Two of the players held their mallets poised to strike the ball. Just beneath the image, the headline read, Outta the wayWe want to learn (Weg daWir wollen lernen). The images juxtaposition of this elite sport and the play on the anti-reform coalitions name indicated the magazine editors perspective that wealthy Hamburg families were blocking this proposed reform to protect their own interests. GEW union official Joachim Geffers (2010) underscored this point in the same magazine a year later. He argued,

now [the reform] has failed. Failed, because the overwhelming proportion of the middle class saw their privileges threatened, because now they might have to face competition from below. This attitude was fed by the economic crisis, which fomented the (justifiable) fear of downward social mobility. (p. 20)

By contrast, official policy texts specifically referenced the inequitable educational experiences of students with a migration background as a key rationale to frame reform. In fact, official texts and those by pro-reform advocates more often charged the WWL and other anti-reformers as motivated by racism. Earlier, I reported findings that official policy texts explicitly defined the slogan longer integrated learning in part to foster social integration of ethnically and linguistically diverse students. These texts also used images to suggest who the primary beneficiaries of this reform were meant to be. The most ubiquitous picture across these texts was that of a young girl, perhaps eight or nine years old, with a broad smile, olive skin and dark brown eyes, her dark brown hair pulled back by a pink scrunchie. At times, the scope of the picture included other girls in the background, somewhat out of focus, as they worked collaboratively on an assignment. These girls were fairer skinned with lighter colored eyes and hair. The juxtaposition of the first girl with them underscored that the former has a migration background while the latter do not. The ubiquity and centrality of her image suggests how the BSB defined the intended beneficiaries of their reform.

While policy texts were suggestive, Christa Goetsch was often sharply explicit. In particular, whether in an interview or in her own writing, she often used ethnic social justice and integration as her main rationale. The most compelling example appeared in an interview with Der Spiegel, a national weekly news magazine. Birger Menke (2008), the reporter, pressed Goetsch to speak directly to the concerns about academic-track students not being able to start Gymnasium until grade 7. Goetsch responded thus:

We know from every study that heterogeneity supports learningindeed for stronger students too. Thus, those who say that higher-performing students would be held back by lower-performing students should honestly ask themselves what they really mean. Whether they dont mean segregating10 children from different backgrounds. That is the actual question. (n.p.)

In her response, Goetsch implied that anti-reform advocacy is based at least on segregation, if not outright racism.

Goetsch was not alone is ascribing such motivations to anti-reform advocates. Mannarini (2010), spokesperson for the Intercultural Parent Initiative, raised this point in particularly sharp terms. She suggested that both anti-reform advocates and many on the pro-reform side, as well, were indifferent to the formal exclusion of migrants from voting. She argued, Lets be honest: many democrats are simply not interested in migrants, the intended beneficiaries [of this reform]. It requires much less commitment to appease us with some well-intentioned advice: you should just become citizens! (p. 14). Moreover, multiple images included in pro-reform policy texts specifically accused anti-reform advocates of racism. Accompanying Edlers (2010) article, for example, was a picture from a pro-reform rally holding placards with ironic slogans, such as The elite demand: no mixing of our children, and The elite clarify their position: multiculti is too much to ask of us (p. 16).


The findings section reported multiple features of Hamburgs education offensive that did not follow the pattern of neoliberal education reform as described in critical scholarship. Where austerity measures aim to lower state expenditures, the BSB increased funding to hire more teachers and recalculate the workweek in their favor. Pro-reform advocates clearly distinguished between this reform effort and years of actual austerity measures in Hamburg and nationwide, while anti-reformers used increased expenditures to criticize the reform. Where critical assessments of neoliberal education policy note how parental choice functions to impose market pressures on schools, anti-reform advocates interpreted the education offensive as a direct threat to parental choice and made this a key opposition strategy. Where neoliberal education policies seek to shift public attitudes about schooling from a social good to an individual responsibility, both official policy actors and pro-reform advocates argued that the extant structure of Hamburgs schools prevented individual achievement and must be changed. Where critical policy analysis focuses on public-private collaboration to restructure school governance and thus undermine democracy, private advocates in Hamburg in fact organized against public policy and used a state mechanism, the ballot initiative, to block it. Indeed, pro-reform advocates understood this private opposition as an abuse of democracy. Where critics note how middle-class and elite families maneuver neoliberal education policies to bolster their economic interests, while families of color and the poor lose out, middle-class and elite families in Hamburg perceived the reform as a direct threat to their interests, while official policy actors and pro-reformers viewed it in part as benefitting students with a migration background. In fact, the only point where the education offensive and neoliberal education policy overlapped was the use of external testing mechanisms, here PISA, so as to justify and frame the reform. In every other way, this reform measure bucked the trend.

The purpose in highlighting this divergence is not to argue that critical policy assessments are wrong, or that we are not in fact living in an era in which neoliberalism has overwhelmingly constrained what education policy can do. Nor is the purpose to construe the partially failed school reform in Hamburg as a panacea for neoliberal ills. Instead, the point of squaring critical analysis of neoliberal education policy against what has occurred in Hamburg is to address two fundamental questions: what accounts for this divergence, and what lessons can be drawn from it to inform other policy efforts that seek to break the neoliberal mold?


In order to make sense of this divergence between the neoliberal trend in education policy and the actual policy in Hamburg, it is necessary to return to the notion of correspondence theory. Bowles and Gintis argued on the one hand that schools function primarily to socialize students into their future roles in the economy, and on the other, that gaps between a more dynamic economy and more stagnant school system open up political and ideological space for struggles over school. Critical policy scholarship has argued that neoliberalism has recently dominated the political agenda for closing those gaps, specifically by returning to increased segregation and selectivity at school. These policies have exacerbated the rationing of education to ensure that only a small minority of working class youth and youth of color can use schooling for upward social mobility, while the rest are left behind.

If the education offensive in Hamburg did not entirely follow the pattern of neoliberal reforms to education, it is because it did not need to: the extant structure of Hamburg schools is already designed to do just that. The highly stratified, multi-track secondary school system already works to compound the relationship between ethnicity and class, such that working class youth and youth of color in Hamburg remain overrepresented in the lowest educational tiers. As Bellenberg, Hovestadt, & Klemm (2004) concluded in their study of this phenomenon nationwide in Germany:

Even when we control for foundational cognitive skills and performance levels in & German and math, significant social disparities appear in the transition from the primary to the secondary levels of education, that is, socially disadvantaged children have less chance of attending Gymnasium than do socially privileged children. The probability that a 15-year-old from a higher social class attends Gymnasium is considerably greater than that of a child of the same age from the family of skilled worker. . . . In Saxony [in the former East], this probability is only three times as great, in Bavaria, however, it is ten times so. (p. 122)

Tillmann (2010) reported the same phenomenon within Hamburgs schools in particular. In 1997, the proportion of fourth-graders recommended to Gymnasium correlated strongly to the educational attainment of their fathers. Among children whose fathers had no formal qualifications, only 15.7% were recommended to the academic track. By contrast, among children whose fathers graduated from Gymnasium, 69.8% were recommended to the academic track (p. 10). Moreover, the institutionalized role of parental influence in determining which secondary school form their child will attend already functions in much the same way as critical policy scholarship has argued of neoliberal education policy intends, namely, allowing higher SES families to maneuver choice to insure their interests. German sociologists Mechthild Gomolla and Frank Radkte (2007) have characterized the collective impact of these dynamics as institutional discrimination (p. 18).

Whether or not the primary school reform would have been capable of minimizing such institutional discrimination is an empirical question that this study is neither designed nor equipped to answer. It is also, however, beside the point. Because across the official policy actor and pro-reform interpretive communities, it is clear that their interpretations of the intended reform measure was to redress this structural inequality at school; by contrast, the anti-reform coalition viewed integration, whether defined in terms of ethnic and linguistic diversity or in terms of academic performance, as a threat to their interests. Indeed, the mere suggestion of restructuring the school system in Hamburg to alleviate segregation and foster integration was sufficient to provoke the bourgeoisie to raise the barricades, as Edler (2010) described it. In this sense, the current structure of Hamburg schools seems to match the political-economic demands as neoliberalism has defined them, and thus requires no substantive reform. Moreover, anti-reform advocates understood the education offensive as a challenge to this stability, and thus to their own interests, and used their considerable financial, political, and social capital to maintain the status quo ante.  

To underscore the dynamism in Bowles and Gintis analysis of schooling, it is not a forgone conclusion how the contradictions between the dominant political-economic features of a given era and the shape that schooling takes will be resolved. Applied to this particular case, it was likewise not a forgone conclusion that the anti-reform effort in Hamburg would be successful. Much of the above discussion has focused on the success enjoyed by the WWL in mobilizing public opinion and voters to block the primary school. This does not mean, however, that pro-reform advocates were passive. Unfortunately, the two pro-reform coalitions were not as diligent in archiving the extent of their advocacy as was the WWL anti-reform coalition. Nevertheless, Bethge (2010), the recently deceased Left Party politician and veteran teacher, did include in his assessment of the education offensive specific details of how pro-reform advocates mobilized their side. He reported,

We were unsuccessful in moving sufficient numbers of workers and the unemployed, the economically precarious and marginalized, or naturalized immigrants to vote. And this despite 83 informational meetings in schools, countless discussion sessions and forums in churches, many informational tables at weekly markets, flyering campaigns at the key intersections, door-to-door leafleting in the poorer parts of the city, and 3500 house visits made by Left Party members, on top of daily news coverage. (p. 23)

Clearly, pro-reform advocates were highly engaged in response to pressure from the WWL and other anti-reformers.

The assessments made by pro-school reform advocates of this failed effort speak directly to the second question posed above, namely what sort of policy alternatives are possible in neoliberal times? In the findings section, I reported data that suggest two possible answers. First, pro-reform advocates compared this specific reform measure to past reforms to make two points. On the one hand, many Hamburg teachers had perceived previous BSB reform measures as detrimental to their interests, and thus were disinclined to see this one favorably; and on the other, a decades worth of actual neoliberal measures restructuring welfare, employment, health and tax policies in favor of the rich had been dubbed reforms, thus turning the meaning of that word on its head. Horst Bethge (2010), Kurt Edler (2010) and Addi Böttger (2010), all writing in the GEW magazines special issue assessing the partially failed reform, came to the same conclusion: that most working class, migrant, and other marginalized communities were predisposed to see any official reform as working against their interests. To underscore his point, Bethge (2010) quoted a 50-year-old metal worker, speaking in the northern vernacular, to underscore his point: what theyre doing at the top, I dont give a shit about that (p. 23).11

Second, Fritz Dittmar (2010), a teacher at the Horn Comprehensive School, argued that the problem lay not with voter apathy or confusion over what reform really means, but rather with the nature of the education offensive itself. Specifically, he claimed that the promise of longer integrated learning was simply not a compelling demand. Not only were past campaigns, such as the One School for All movement to unify all the secondary tracks into one, far more ambitious and thus far more motivating; but also, tacking on two years to primary school would do little to address the issues facing most Hamburg families. He wrote

They have more important problems: how to make ends meet with [cuts to unemployment], how to get off unemployment altogether, to keep their job, to keep [anti-immigrant politician] Sarrazin and his stupidity at bay, to pay the rent, to get the money together for child care, and so on. Whether their kids get stamped as losers after four years or six is a secondary problem. (pp. 25-26)

These assessments by pro-reform policy actors suggest two key lessons from this conflicted experience of education reform in Hamburg. First, in a context in which neoliberalism so thoroughly drives the policy agenda, it is necessary to make a sharp distinction between the impact of neoliberal measures and the actual intentions of a proposed reform. In Hamburg, by contrast, official policy texts muddied the waters at times insofar as they embraced the logic of standardized tests as a measure of quality and success. Moreover, as pro-reform advocates noted, the very Hamburg residents, parents and teachers who would otherwise have supported the measure were at times unclear or unmoved about the differences between this reform and past actual neoliberal measures. Second, as ambitious as neoliberal education policies have been in dramatically reshaping the school landscape, efforts to buck that trend should be equally ambitious. As even pro-reform advocates indicated, the education offensive in Hamburg was not especially aspiring in realizing its stated intentions to foster greater integration through schooling. The fact that Hamburgs elite mobilized its considerable resources to block even a modest effort at school restructuring suggests that hedged efforts are not enough. At one level, it would be simple to conclude this analysis of education offensive and the resistance to it as an example of change in neoliberal times being impossible. Quite the contrary, however, I suggest that the policy-actor interpretations of this reform measure indicate that change is indeed possible, when the terms of that change are clear, when the scope of that change is ambitious.


Special thanks are due to Dr. Robert Floden and the Institute for Research on Teaching and Learning at Michigan State University for project funding; to Dr. Heike Niedrig of the University of Hamburg for her insights and indispensible feedback on an earlier draft; to Prof. Dr. Ingrid Gogolin of the University of Hamburg, Prof. Dr. Sigrid Blömeke of Humboldt University and Dr. Marc Kleinknecht of the Technische Universität München for their guidance and input at different stages of this project; and to the reviewers for their extremely helpful, constructive feedback. All remaining errors and oversights, of course, are mine.


1. This is the translation of the section heading; all translations are my own.

2. Wir sind hier, wir sind laut, weil man uns die Bildung klaut!

3. The actual term used was Kompetenzen, or competencies. However, I think standards and the debates over them in the US is a more fitting translation. See Chapter 2 of Ravitch (2010) for background on these debates.

4. Indeed, the FDP was the only party in Hamburgs parliament to vote against the education offensive reform (Bethge, 2010). The modifier liberal is in the Continental sense of advocacy for pro-business, laissez-faire politics.

5. The Hamburg government defines a migration background if a student: 1) does not hold a German passport; 2) is an ethnic German immigrant, typically from the former Soviet Union; and/or 3) is from a home in which a non-German language is spoken predominantly (Arlt et al. 2005b, p. 9). Although this phrase student with a migration background is awkward in English, I use it in the paper. The criteria used to define such students are different from those used by the US government to define membership in racial or ethnic groups or to label English learners. Thus, to translate the German term into a more familiar one here would blur these distinctions too much.

6. The color refers to the SPD, who ran NRW at the time.

7. All documents were written in German. To make the manuscript more readable, though, I refer to them in English.

8. Die Elbvorortinitiative is a reference to the wealthy districts of the west side of Hamburg just on the Elbe river.

9. Fraktion is the German term used to refer to a political partys caucus in local, state or federal government.

10. eine Abschottung

11. Wat de da oben mokt, geiht mi an Mors vorbie.


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Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record Volume 115 Number 8, 2013, p. 1-36
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About the Author
  • Jeff Bale
    Michigan State University
    E-mail Author
    JEFF BALE is assistant professor in the Department of Teacher Education at Michigan State University. His research focuses on the history and policy of bilingual/second language education in the United States, as well as critical and comparative analysis of neoliberal education policy in Germany. He is co-editor of Education and Capitalism: Struggles for Learning and Liberation (Haymarket Books, 2012) and has published in the Annual Review of Applied Linguistics, Critical Education and Language Policy.
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