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A Poor Report Card for Macedonia’s Schools

A national inspection hands out low marks, but teachers and principals say reform solutions often ignore classroom realities.

by Ljubica Grozdanovska Dimishkovska 12 January 2012

SKOPJE | Djordje Arsov, director of Macedonia’s State Educational Inspectorate, seemed to be a man on a mission in December – to point out all the deficiencies in the country’s public schools to the people running them.


Djordje Arsov
Last month Arsov’s office issued grades based on the first two years of a three-year “integral evaluation,” part of a longer-term effort to decentralize and modernize public education. The process, co-financed by the Swedish government, involves on-site inspections and questionnaires filled out by students and parents. When it is finished this year, all 1,100 of the country’s primary and secondary schools will have been reviewed in detail – from the physical state of their facilities and their implementation of state curricula to how much individual attention teachers give their charges and how students do in competitions and fairs.


Among the many findings, the inspectorate’s report card highlighted poor hygiene in schools; neglected schoolyards; and inadequate or insufficient use of computers, despite the country’s ambitious project to provide a PC for every student.


Arsov also found much fault with Macedonia’s teachers, whom he said lag in working directly with students and don’t do enough to address the particular needs of either the most gifted kids or those who need extra help. Overall, he gives Macedonia’s schools a grade of C, and their teachers a C-.


The middling results come as Macedonia ramps up spending on primary and secondary education, from 162 million euros in 2010 to 185 million euros in 2011. The budget for primary and secondary schooling has gone up by more than 50 percent since 2008, when the decentralization effort and a new budgeting system were launched.


While instructors came in for criticism, the inspectorate chief lays responsibility for the lackluster grades squarely on schools’ administration.


“The heads of the schools are to be blamed for the conditions in their schools,” Arsov said. In the communist era, Macedonian principals were largely figureheads, little involved in school activities. Those days are “way behind us,” he said. “[Now] they are managers, so they must find ways to improve the situation.”


Neglected schoolyards was one of the most common problems found in the review. Photo by Ljubica Grozdanovska Dimishkovska.


Many principals don’t dispute Arsov’s assessment of the schools. But the reasons, they say, are deeper and more complex than mere lax management. The integral evaluation seeks, and the Education Ministry has begun imposing, systemwide changes. But where schools vary widely – in class size, socioeconomic makeup, parental involvement, and basic physical condition – implementing those solutions is often much easier said than done.


“We support the evaluation,” said Tome Kolovski, the principal at the Kole Nehtenin secondary school in the eastern city of Shtip. But he said the demands of state reformers are often incompatible with the practicalities of daily school operations.


“We were obliged to make a schedule with additional classes and present it publicly,” Kolovski said, by way of example. “We did that, but we still don’t know if all the teachers can hold such classes. We can’t organize additional classes every day because we have organized transport for students and the buses come at the end of the regular classes.


“No one invested in these aspects of education for years. We must be patient to see results,” he added. “Most important, we must be realistic and see where the education laws need to be revised, where they can’t be implemented in practice, and which regulations are good.”


Teachers are more blunt in their view of the evaluation and its results.


“We don’t have classrooms equipped for practical work [in subjects] like chemistry and physics, and the inspectorate asks for additional classes. That’s absurd,” said Ajten Kadriu, who teaches Albanian language and literature at the Cvetan Dimov school in Skopje.


“I have 40 students in one class. How can I work individually with each of them in these conditions? During the week, we have eight class hours. I can come on Saturdays to hold additional classes, but believe me, the children won’t. Most of them live in rural areas. Who can force them to come during the weekend?”


Tamara Kjupeva, an instructor in Macedonian language and literature at the capital’s Orce Nikolov school, shares Kudriu’s frustration. Her school hasn’t yet been visited by the state inspectors.


“No one from the state institutions has been among us, teachers and students, to see what is needed – what the students want, what we want, and in what conditions we work. There’s no space for additional work, nor are we given financial incentives to do that.”




Gjulsefa Kurteshi, principal at Brakja Ramiz i Hamid elementary school in the Skopje suburb of Shuto Orizari (often called Shutka), also has not seen state inspectors for a while. She said the evaluation accurately reflects conditions at her school, if not the reasons for them.


Brakja Ramiz i Hamid, built in 1979 for 800 students, now has 2,200, 90 percent of them Roma. The students attend classes in four shifts – the only school in Macedonia where this is the case. (Most others have two shifts.)


“Hygiene is the biggest problem. Because of the huge number of students in four shifts, the cleaning employees don’t have a chance to clean the classrooms,” Kurteshi explained. “We have computers, but they only cause problems because the teachers cannot organize group teaching sessions. Also, some computers work and some don’t, and that isn’t our fault.”


Despite such problems, Kurteshi said the school is following state directives – for example, scheduling extra classes for lower-achieving students – as best it can.


“Because of the lack of space, I decided that one class must last 40 minutes. One shift has seven class hours. The eighth one sometimes is an additional class, sometimes it’s a class meeting, sometimes it’s a meeting with parents.”


The integral evaluation is the same at Brakja Ramiz i Hamid as it is at the Blaze Koneski elementary school in Prilep, a relatively prosperous city in southern Macedonia – same process, same forms, same questionnaire. But the two schools couldn’t be more different.


Blaze Koneski, with 925 students, is so well-organized that its website features details of the school evacuation plan. Gordana Ivanovska, the mother of a sixth-grader and a member of the parents council, said the school community decided it couldn’t wait for the state or the municipal government – officially in charge of schools since decentralization began in 2005 – to address issues there.


When Blaze Koneski had problems with its heating system, parents raised private funds to buy a new boiler, Ivanovska said. Disrepair in a schoolyard was addressed by students, who “made different crafts last Easter and sold them. With the money they made, and with the help from a public utility company. we’ve managed to put the yard in good condition.”


Back at the State Education Inspectorate, Arsov said teachers and principals need not worry so much about the low grades for their schools’ current performance. They will not be sanctioned for past mistakes, he said – but they do have a set amount of time to start making improvements based on the findings.


“We don’t want to penalize them. We just point out to them what we think is wrong. We give the schools six months to work on our recommendations, to work on improving school conditions and meeting the education law. They will be penalized if they don’t take the necessary measures,” he said.


Whatever their individual conditions, Arsov said, schools have gotten a significant financial boost as part of the reforms. “I won’t tolerate excuses” from low-graded schools, he said. “In the past we’ve received a lot of donations for teacher training, for interactive teaching, and we’ve spent a lot of money in computers.”


In Shutka, principal Kurteshi said she is ready to welcome state inspectors to Brakja Ramiz i Hamid and show them around, so they can see for themselves what the school itself is really like, and what kind of help it really needs.


Ljubica Grozdanovska Dimishkovska is TOL’s correspondent in Skopje. 
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