There is a fascinating discussion of education going on at Mrs. DuToit's. I read the whole thing and commented. But sometimes when you have so much to say, you want to post your own. So here it is. My comment:
As a homeschool mother, a private school teacher, and a public college teacher, I think that I can pretty much say I've seen it all.
I don't think the public school system is fixable. What can be done instead, I am not sure. I know that Switzerland has a system much like Germany's. It works well for what they want. But Switzerland is not the US. We have, I think, different goals.
Switzerland wants to know where people fit. Americans, while wanting that, are more willing to live with ambiguity if it will provide some other goal. And we want, more than knowledge, for our children to do well. Now what that means varies from individual to individual, but people want our children (not just your child or my child but all children) to be successful.
A one size fits all grammar school (use of the term is intended, although I DESPISE diagramming sentences) where the basics of courtesy, reading, writing, grammar, spelling, math, and civics are covered would be my preference. We need that.
Then I would probably move to a three year (7-9th grade) campus where you get introduced to many new things. In my junior high, we had two electives a year. (It is the only good thing I can say about my innercity junior high.) The first year language elective course was eight weeks of four languages: French, Spanish, Latin, and German.
Maybe 7th grade could be all elective classes. Science electives. Math electives. Life skills (home ec, shop) electives. Fine arts electives. Introduce the child to multiple options and special interests.
Then the next year they have to choose. Limit the choices and allow them to go more in depth with them. For science, perhaps they could have a choice of biology or earth science. If they loved the languages, they could take two or even three languages and limit their other classes.
In ninth grade they could continue on with more advanced work in the classes they have chosen or start a new set of year long electives, or a mixture. Perhaps keep French, drop Spanish, and add music. That's only three classes and I am envisioning at least five in the day, but that's an example.
I know people have said that students don't know what they want when they are in 8th grade, but frankly, most of my classmates were already set on what they were going to do or be in life then. And if you look at the grades, most kids have set themselves in tracks, even within our public high schools now.
Plus, the idea of “trying out” subjects as your job in junior high would add interest to a time when most kids are beginning to figure themselves out. It adds a new dimension to their self-understanding and lets them experiment in ways that are not anti-social.
Then you can have magnet high schools where the emphasis is really on those subjects that the students are most interested in. They may have literature, but it's French literature in translation and then later in the original. Or “English” class is writing and you do research and write on whatever your field is. It's more like a directed study.
We can't totally toss the high school systems unless we reform the colleges, too, because they expect a minimum number of science, math, and English classes. But I think that this would work.