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Learning the hard way

Warsaw Business Journal, 28 stycznia 2008. Autor: Konrad Kiedrzyński

Recent protests by the country's largest teachers' union have highlighted the need for bold reform in the Polish education system. Any chance at change, however, depends on cooperation between teachers, the state and parents themselves
Warsaw Business Journal - zrzut ekranu

The atmosphere between Poland's educators and the government is charged. As many as 12,000 teachers from the Polish Teachers' Union (ZNP) demonstrated in Warsaw in mid-January, presenting the state with a long list of demands. If the government did not accommodate them, the union said it would launch a strike in May - the month in which secondary school exit exams are held.


Wage demands

ZNP's key demands included a three-percent increase in basic salary, extra benefits for preschool teachers and salary boosts for vocational teachers, all to be effected this year. For the 2009-2010 period, the union wanted a 50- percent raise in salaries - around zł.600 for trainee teachers and zł.1,100 for fully certified teachers - earlier retirement, an end to the decentralization of the school system and the introduction of obligatory preschool education.

Meanwhile, the government offered 10-percent raises - amounting to zł.185 and zł.200 for trainees and teachers, respectively. According to the Ministry of Education, meeting all of ZNP's demands would require zł.7 billion, while the government is prepared to spend zł.2.7 billion.

The sense of dissatisfaction among teachers is all the greater since they were promised a 15-percent raise by the new government just after the October elections. Sławomir Broniarz, the president of ZNP, did not hide his annoyance. "Ten percent is not 15-16 percent, is it?" he asked WBJ, adding that the attitude of the Education Minister was disappointing too.

"She was the only Minister of Education [in contemporary history] that failed to present us with a structure for the salary system. If we do not know this information, how are we supposed to negotiate with the Ministry?" Broniarz asked. The Ministry of Education declined to comment on the issue.


Losing out on talent

There is a considerable amount of sympathy among Polish society for the situation teachers face, though not necessarily for the demands of ZNP. "What [teachers] get is just another form of an unemployment handout," commented Andrzej Sadowski, the vice president of the Adam Smith Research Institute.

"While the economy is growing, so are salaries in the private sector and state employees want to participate in this growth as well," explained Arkadiusz Radwan, an expert on education from the Sobieski Institute.

Poor salaries not only deter talented individuals from entering the profession, but also demoralize those who are already in it. "They feel heavily under-appreciated," explained Alicja Pacewicz, a program director at the Center for Citizen Education (CEO). She stressed, however, that ZNP's pay raise demands were unrealistic.


Unequal and theory-biased

Pacewicz noted that the strike could spur a much-needed debate on the state of the Polish school system and its problems. Apart from resolution of salary issues, Polish public schools need to reform their teaching programs. The school system is often criticized for emphasizing theory and neglecting practical application and the kind of skill- and task-based learning useful in the job market. Experts also lament that the system has a poor record of stimulating individual and creative thinking among students, not to mention self reliance.

"This is the legacy of the communist mentality in teaching methods," said Alina Kozińska- Bałdyga, the head the Federation for Educational Initiatives (FIO).

Unequal opportunity for students and the contrast between the quality of education offered in the cities and the countryside are bugbears as well. To make matters worse, many villages are seeing their schools closed, forcing students to commute long distances and limiting opportunities for extra-curricular activities.

"Since the [1999] reform of education, 4,000 schools have been closed and another 5,000 are threatened," said Kozińska.


Misguided mantra?

All of this bodes ill for the future of Poland's economy, especially since human capital is generally considered one of the country's assets. However, while "well-educated labor force" remains a mantra among foreign investors, not everyone is convinced it measures up.

"The majority of international investors compare our [workforce] to that of China or India. Obviously Poles will look good in that context," Radwan. He added that even Polish achievements in the IT sector, for example, are due more to individual creativity than to the education system. "There is a natural curiosity among these people in that sector, and I know a lot of good IT specialists who do not have a university degree," he said.

If Poles are achieving success in spite of the education system, reforms could give rise to a world-class workforce.


Young Einsteins

Despite the long list of worries, however, the situation in Polish schools is not without its bright spots. On the contrary, the primary and secondary school system is one of the few state-managed areas of activity that functions well, Radwan said.

The performance of the primary and secondary school students in Poland has improved considerably, as evidenced by data from the Program for International Student Assessment tests held by Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD). The most recent tests were conducted among 400,000 students from 58 countries and the results were revealed in December 2007. Poland had one of the highest reading proficiency scores and results for mathematics and science were on par with the OECD average.


Reading, writing, reform

"The Polish education system is a public treasure, we cannot let it slip away," ZNP's Broniarz stated. Yet only through thorough reform of the system can this be avoided. For example, although many teachers deserve higher wages, the number of working hours should increase as well, CEO's Pacewicz explained.

"While Polish teachers are surprised by how much their American colleagues earn, American teachers are surprised by how few working hours Poles need to spend at school," she said. She also stressed that teachers need to be more task- and project-oriented, and to work in closer cooperation with their peers.

The educational system's priorities need to change as well, providing lessons that will aid young people better in their adult lives. "The key task of Polish schools is to educate free citizens to live in a democratic society," said Kozińska.

In order to achieve this, schools need to teach study habits and how to process information efficiently. Socalled "soft skills," including teamwork, negotiation and debate are also needed, experts agreed. Finally, rudimentary economics should be taught from an early age, they said.

"The lack of knowledge on basic economic facts in society is appalling," said Radwan.


Controlling the budget

Even the most basic vision of reform for the sector will remain unrealized without a financial injection, however. ZNP's Broniarz claimed that state funding needs to increase. "Investment in schools is an investment in society's future. In this sector we cannot apply the criteria of a commercial institution and search for opportunities to cut spending," he said.

More pressing than either increases or cuts in funding is reform of the system by which the funds are distributed. Some critical voices have called for less government interference in the system. "Those sectors that are managed privately do not go on strike," Sadowski pointed out. The potential for such an initiative does exist in Poland, in the form of so-called "education bonds." Each student is assigned a certain amount of money, which can either be managed by the school system or a parent organization. The aforementioned Federation for Educational Initiatives is an example of the latter. It helps parents from rural areas, where the public schools have been closed, to found their own educational units. So far 300 schools have been established this way.

"This model can be adopted throughout the country," said Kozińska. According to FIO, the model is effective economically and guarantees the quality of teaching, giving rural children the same opportunities as their urban peers. Kozińska added that the initiative has additional benefits for adults, allowing them to increase their knowledge of law, economics and management.

Kozińska said, "Such schools encourage the educational ambitions of the parents too."

The implementation of such initiatives still remains difficult, but there has been a fair level of success - particularly in cooperation with local governments - despite bureaucracy and unfavorable regulations, Kozińska noted. ZNP's objections to education bonds, however, constitute a considerable obstacle.


Visionaries wanted

Few would disagree that Poland's economic and cultural prosperity depends on the education of the next generation. Finding someone brave enough to take on the ailing system is proving difficult, however.

"The Polish school system is like a black box and only those on the inside can see what is really going on, but they are unable to reform it," said Pacewicz. Only someone from the outside would be able to carry out reforms, she added.

Radwan agreed. "The Polish school system needs a visionary, a figure like Balcerowicz for the Polish economy or Beenhakker for Polish footbal.