Moldovan educators have overcome many obstacles to shed the Soviet past. But if reforms are to progress, teaching conditions must improve. [Also in Russian.] by Nils Kauffman 20 August 2007
Progressive education has reached even the remotest of villages in the former Soviet republic of Moldova.
In a class of 23 fourth-graders in the southern Causeni region, students work in small groups with their desks clustered together. Their artwork hangs on the walls, and they take turns leading the class while solving math problems or reading poems. The students even get to share their “news” in a show-and-tell exercise that encourages interaction and personal development.
“My sister’s birthday was last Sunday,” one student announces.
“We are going to Chisinau!” another says, describing an upcoming trip to the capital city.
“My mother is leaving,” a third explains quietly. According to a school director in Chisinau, as many as 25 percent of students live without parents because thousands of Moldovans emigrate each year to seek jobs abroad.
This sort of student-driven, personalized education is a sharp deviation from the rigid communist structure that was the norm in Moldova for decades. It is primarily the product of a reform program called Pas cu Pas (PCP), or “step by step.” The program encourages the use of group learning, teacher-student interaction, and character-building activities.
A Moldovan student at work.
Though still an alternative to centralized, uniform education, PCP should stand as the norm, allowing schools across the country to engage students’ curiosity through flexible classroom practices. This requires that the Moldovan government more fully embrace PCP and help the program overcome the daunting obstacles it faces. Changes are needed in teachers’ salaries and training, as well as the national funding available for schools.
Until those developments occur, Moldovan education will continue its steep uphill climb.
Organized by a group of international educators and funded by the Open Society Institute in 1994, PCP was created as an alternative to widespread Soviet educational practices. It began as a preschool program but expanded to elementary schools after parents lobbied for growth in the 1990s. Starting from only 12 classrooms, PCP had expanded by 2000 to 394 classrooms serving 9,850 students.
Soon after, PCP received a grant from the Moldova Social Investment Fund, which provides community development grants with the support of the World Bank, to finance further expansion. Like many not-for-profit organizations, PCP is dependent on soft money from philanthropic organizations.
The changes generated by PCP are extraordinary in this rural country, perhaps the poorest in Europe. According to the World Bank, roughly 21 percent of the population lives in poverty, surviving on scarcely 1.5 euros per day. PCP students, however, enjoy classroom experiences and lessons similar to those in wealthier, more developed countries.
At hundreds of Moldovan schools, teachers have received training through seminars at one of five PCP centers across the country. The seminars help teachers gain a general sense of how a child-centered classroom operates, but PCP sets no exact guidelines for curricula. Teachers aren’t even required to give students marks; they instead use anecdotal observations.
Teachers also have full discretion for the use of one 45-minute lesson per day.
“We talk about orthography, or grammar, or about many things,” explained the teacher of the fourth-grade class, who spoke anonymously. “A number of disciplines are integrated. You can solve many problems, not just [math] but moral and spiritual as well.”
One day, a student brought a live bullet to school, and relying on PCP’s flexibility, the teacher talked about gun safety. It is an issue she knows well; military education was mandated when she was in school during the Soviet era, and she was one of the best shots in her class.
Clearly, much has changed since that time, when bureaucrats in Moscow dictated what teachers in Moldova could do and children sat quietly in classrooms memorizing obligatory lessons.
But even with PCP and the new tools it offers instructors, all is not bright for Moldovan teachers. Thousands of teachers have left their profession seeking higher pay in other fields or countries. Those who remain often rely on second jobs to make ends meet. As a 2005 World Bank report noted, “The low level of teachers' salaries has an adverse effect on the quality of learning outcomes at all levels, making it difficult to attract good young teachers into the profession.”
In a sampling of 21 schools nationwide, every director noted the problem of finding teachers who received training after the collapse of communism. According to a 2005 report by the Institute of Educational Sciences in Chisinau, nearly 75 percent of teachers received their pedagogical training before Moldovan independence in 1991. Currently, about half of the graduates from the pedagogical universities, which specialize in teacher training, do not even enter the teaching field.
Teachers also face the problem of underfunded schools. According to a 2003 report by the Institute for Public Policy in Chisinau, the government budget provides only 40 percent of the money needed for schools. The amount barely covers teachers’ salaries and utilities. Four years after the report was issued, little has changed; rural schools are cold and often dark, supplies are limited, and maintenance is incomplete or left to parents to address. Consequently, PCP can be difficult to implement in particularly poor regions.
In PCP, other financial problems are mounting. The Soros Foundation is reducing its funding for programs in Moldova. The Moldova Social Investment Fund supports a variety of projects around the country, meaning its resources are too limited to fund PCP fully. Consequently, teachers or their schools must pay for the training seminars and the transportation costs of getting to them.
“We pay ourselves, from our own money – can you imagine?” the teacher from the Causeni region said.
“But I don’t regret it because I think it was useful,” she added.
Indeed, PCP’s expansion has been borne on the backs of dedicated teachers who make sacrifices while setting their sights on improving education for their students. But even with determined teachers pushing the program, PCP has critics at the top. Some senior officials in the Ministry of Education prefer a traditional state program and worry that PCP is an unsuitable national model. They consider PCP to be too great of a break from the past.
“At least [the national program] is more understandable for the whole country and parents…. In PCP children, don’t even have any marks,” one assistant to the Minister of Education said.
Despite such top-down objections, PCP has been able to motivate many teachers in an otherwise undervalued profession. The government would be wise to recognize the dual benefits PCP provides teachers and students and promote the program’s pedagogy as the national standard.
Officials should prioritize improving teachers’ salaries so that they can focus unhindered on classroom development. The Ministry of Education should also consolidate schools to save financial resources and redistribute them to improve the infrastructure of classrooms in rural regions.
So long as teachers work in dilapidated classrooms for little pay while facing government resistance, continued success and reform is in doubt. With a national boost for PCP and education in general, however, the future could be marked with even more progressive developments.