Remember, this is an essay written by an American, with an American prospective and some understanding of the German "system".
So, this is the basic introduction to German 'high school'.
Every single kid has to enroll by age six into a state-run or private-run school (no home-schooling). You can go to a local public school, a private academy, or a Catholic-church run operation. The national law is that you will attend at least nine years of school, period.
The home-schooling concept? It comes up once in a while and most people (from bureaucrats on down to parents) shy away from it. Typical big reason? If you go and look at fifty percent of society in terms of parents.....they have a basic 9th grade education, and some occupation school after that. That's it. The occupation theme (for usually two to three years) is mostly driven at the skill or craft that they desire. So the vast number of parents would not be in the same level of knowledge as some might desire to home-school a kid. The other side of this coin is that the state itself....wants that kid to have something to be used for a craft or job later, and they really don't want him or her being on the welfare rolls because he never got a decent education.
A national program? Only in the essence of the word.....most all of the school systems are state-dominated by the sixteen states. Each can pick their own school books and hire at their own leisure more teachers (or less teachers).
At age six, all German kids end up in Grundschule. It would be accurate to say that there's not a lot of agenda to the first grade....most schools have no tests or real grading program. At the end of the year, the teacher gives the parent an assessment of "junior". First grade through the fourth grade consists of roughly 20 to 25 hours a week and will usually end around 12 noon, or 12:30. No lunch....the kids are sent home, and they usually walk back to the house (note, there are a lot of Grundschules).
Midway through the 4th grade, some tests occur and the teacher has a meeting with the parents. It's a pretty harsh reality that occurs. The teacher makes a recommendation....where the kid will go next, and there's typically four possibilities (plus even the private school deal if you want to go that way).
The style of the American all-in-one school school? Some exist are called Gesamtschulen. It's a newer concept and seen less often. They will have various courses offered which might help the marginal student, and other courses which interest the high-end student. No one really claims it's a plus or minus....it's simply an experiment which survives on.
The Hauptschule is the second option....going from grade 5 to grade 9/10. This is designed more for the occupational trades than the university crowd. The lesser students with attitude problems in the 4th grade? Guaranteed to go to Hauptschule....whether they are bright or not.....the attitude problems won't be accepted at higher-end schools. These are all kids who will end up in an apprenticeship program at the 9th or 10th grade, depending on how they advance or if they want to stay another year.
The Realschule? It ends at the 10th grade.....and there's two paths at the end of this.....either an apprenticeship deal or some vocational training at a Berufschule (occupation training school).
The smart school? Gymnasium. Germans will say (whether right or wrong) that the more advanced or better teachers end up here, and that more funding might be put into their programs than the other schools. I have doubts that it's all true but people believe it.
The kids at a Gymnasium stay from the 5th grade till the 13th grade, typically. Some states will allow you to leave at the end of the 12th grade, provided you pass the exams. You can screw up and get sent down to the next level, or possibly really screw up and get down to the Hauptschule (it's not normal but things can advance that way).
What does the typical Gymnasium offer? Gymnasium curriculum offers chemistry, biology, physics, geography, IT, history, philosophy, German, advanced mathematics, and foreign languages.
At the end of Gymnasium.....you get the degree of a Abitur, or Abi. You can't enter German university without that Abi, period.
Up until the last decade.....most kids went the path of occupational schooling and the apprenticeship was the intended goal. Now? It's shifting toward slightly more kids going to Gymnasium and aiming toward university situations. Cause? There is some belief in better jobs.....better pay....coming out of the university trail.
A kid with an Abi going to occupational school or apprenticeships? It could happen but it's unlikely.
The plus and minus of this system? Basically, if you got into the third and fourth grade with some marginal teacher with limited skills and didn't really excel "Junior".....then the kid is screwed. If Junior has a bad attitude? You can forget about Gymnasium. If Junior gets onto one particular subject where the teacher in the school is marginally qualified and the kid can't grasp the topic? The only thing you can do as a parent is go and sign up the kid for some after-school private tutor deal and watch four-hundred Euro of your money each month for four months go to 'save' Junior.
The plus side is that smart kids get more structured classes, and excel. Kids with some drive and grasp of things.....would be better suited for the German system.
Friends for life? No....that won't be the norm with the German system. You will split the group up by the end of the 4th grade.
The American system.....let's face it.....is built upon the idea of a all-in-one school, which has marginal teachers mixed with competent teachers. Attitude kids remain in a school.....when they ought to be dumped.
To say one system is better than another system? No, it's not possible to reach that conclusion. This is what works in Germany, and if you tried to go and change it.....you'd find virtually every single teacher fighting you because they all believe this is the way to go.