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Back to the Future?

Poland’s conservative government believes a return to the structure of the old educational system can produce smart, modern kids. Many disagree.

by Wojciech Kosc 10 May 2017

WARSAW, Poland – One video shows Franciszek the “motion designer,” who brings graphic elements to life through animation, and Piotr, whose education has propelled him to the position of a CEO of an IT company. The other video features Lidia, a geneticist, and Pawel, a “luxury cars interior stylist.”


These videos, which are available on the website of Poland’s Ministry of Education, promote the ongoing overhaul of the education system. The clips take the viewer to the future, with young people – who would start school this September, when the reform kicks off – talking about their careers in the year 2040.


Each video ends with a bold slogan: “The Generation of Good Schooling,” meant to imply that the new education system will result in well-educated people able to navigate the modern job market. Those words are also a reference to the all-encompassing slogan that the ruling Law and Justice (PiS) party has adopted for its reforms, which is “Good Change.”


Yet a large contingent of critics – parents, teachers, and others – has emerged to argue that the changes are neither “good” nor necessary, just as large segments of society have come out in force against the other sweeping transformations of Poland that the conservative, nationalist PiS has introduced since taking power in November 2015 (in the public media and the justice system, to take a few examples). These detractors worry that educational reform, one of PiS’ flagship endeavors, could reduce, rather than improve, the odds for today’s kids to achieve careers like the ones projected in the videos. And they say that PiS is dismantling a well-functioning system that has grown of age after the mistakes of the early years.


PISA Stars


Today, Poland’s education system consists of three basic levels. First, children must attend a primary school that lasts six years. Following an exam at the end of that term, they continue on to a lower-secondary school – a gimnazjum – which is compulsory as well, lasts three years, and ends with an exam, too. That change added one more year of required schooling.


The next level, upper-secondary school, is not compulsory, but a majority of pupils – who are around 16 when they graduate from gimnazjum – attend such schools as a required precursor to higher education.


Introduced in 1999, the system emerged amid much controversy, but also after the government made a huge effort to explain and ease the changes. And despite early growing pains, international measures demonstrate that those efforts started to bear fruit by the 2010s, with Polish pupils – as seen in the OECD’s Program for International Student Assessment (PISA) – tearing through the ranks to achieve some of Europe’s best results.


Polish students in Lodz. Image via Kuba Grabowski/Wikimedia Commons.


PISA is an international survey, which aims to evaluate educational systems worldwide by testing the skills and knowledge of 15-year-old students from 72 countries and regions. It is conducted every three years, the last time having been in 2015. Polish pupils came in third in the EU for reading skills, and sixth for mathematics. That is substantial progress from the 16th and 24th positions, respectively, that Polish students achieved in 2003. Various reasons have been used to explain such success: the extra year of required gimnazjum, a well-designed system of testing knowledge after at each stage of schooling; and the education boom of the early 90s, which led to many university graduates passing along their own belief in the value of an education to their children. Supporters also point out that the reform benefitted talented students from less privileged backgrounds by forcing them to enter a new school, often with a higher level of education, after a relatively short time in primary school.


Back to Basics


The upcoming reform does away with what the previous one introduced. The gimnazjum level will be eliminated and replaced with an eight-year primary school followed by a four- or five-year secondary education level. That, in turn, is a restoration of the system that was introduced in 1961 and lasted until 1999.


“There are two big negatives about this reform,” says Agnieszka Dziemianowicz-Bak, one of the leaders of Razem, Poland’s young leftist party. “First, it is how the reform is being introduced, ignoring what experts, teachers, and parents have to say. Second, the reform will lay waste to what the current system has achieved.”


Prior to working in Razem, Dziemianowicz-Bak spent five years researching the impact of education policies at the Educational Research Institute (IBE). IBE is a public body analyzing the functioning and effectiveness of Poland’s education system.


“The reform will unravel what the current system has attained thanks to prolonging compulsory education from eight years to nine,” says Dziemianowicz-Bąk. “It will also keep children in the same primary school for eight years, stripping them of the chance offered by moving on to a gimnazjum, a new school, often in a new town and in a new environment.”


“Children from wealthier backgrounds, with more cultural capital, will manage. But education should be about giving the less privileged an opportunity,” she added.


Critics also view the return to the old system – one that lasted for the better part of communist rule – as emblematic of a government grounded in conservative, national values that would rather turn back the clock to supposed earlier, simpler times than embrace modernity. They point to a core curriculum that they say is an attempt to fashion young people in line with the PiS conservative worldview, favoring, for example, history over science.


“The framework for physics is stuck in the second half of the 19th century,” Professor Lukasz Turski from the Copernicus Science Center in Warsaw told the daily Gazeta Wyborcza in January. “Kids starting school today know how to use a tablet and know there are other planets out there in space. Now, there’s nothing about planetary movement throughout primary school!” Others have pointed to the lack of information on contraception in biology classes and an overemphasis on military history to the detriment of the history of culture and society.


In a detailed assessment, the Polish Language Board – part of the Polish Academy of Sciences – also derided the Polish-language part of the curriculum as “reflecting the reality of culture and communication from the 1950s.”


Despite PiS hastily pushing through changes in the law to ensure the reform starts in September, which includes requirements for local authorities to implement the adjustments necessary to make it all happen on the ground, dissent remains wide.


The teachers’ union, ZNP, alongside Razem and several political parties, NGOs, and associations, have gathered over 900,000 signatures to present parliament with a motion to carry out a nationwide referendum on the reform. Half a million signatures were required to initiate a debate and vote on a possible referendum. The huge number of signatures puts PiS in an awkward position since the party has lambasted its predecessors in power for ignoring referendum initiatives.


But there’s little to indicate PiS will agree to the call for a referendum, and the party doesn’t have to: it has an absolute majority in parliament. “The reform has been introduced. It is being prepared,” Prime Minister Beata Szydlo commented in a somewhat contradictory way after the signatures were submitted to parliament.


ZNP also organized a countrywide teacher strike at schools on 31 March, which many parents joined by not sending their kids to school on that day. The union has argued that thousands of teaching jobs will be lost once the gimnazjums must transform into primary schools.


“I don’t have a lot of hope [that PiS will back down] but I hope the referendum will make it clear there’s huge disagreement about the reform,” said Dorota Loboda from Parents Against Education Reform, an activist group. “We will also be able to reach out to a lot more people during the referendum campaign.” Loboda’s older daughter would normally be going to gimnazjum this September.


No Backing Down


However, the Ministry of Education is having none of the protests and dissenting voices. In a letter to school principals and teachers across Poland, Education Minister Anna Zalewska refuted the criticism point-by-point. She said the reform will not cut, but create jobs in education, countering ZNP estimates that at least 37,000 teachers across Poland will lose their jobs. “There won’t be fewer children in the system after the reform, so there will be the same amount of work,” Zalewska told the news site in January.


The education minister has also argued that the new curricula are up to the challenges of the digital age, not mired in the past. Zalewska cited a comprehensive effort to bring broadband internet to schools, which will facilitate teachers’ work. Finally, she said, there should be no concern about finding the funding needed to carry out the reform – some 900 million zlotys ($226 million) over the next two years – as that has been secured in the budget. Money has also been earmarked to raise teachers’ salaries, she added.


Down on the ground, teachers still feel uneasy about what the reform will bring.


“At first a lot of people didn’t believe the reform would be carried out. When they realized that it would be, the atmosphere at work became worse,” Katarzyna Spychala, deputy principal at one gimnazjum in Warsaw, told TOL.


She estimates that a third of the teachers in her gimnazjum will see their number of hours cut, while a few will need to leave because of the lack of work.  


Spychala was asked whether she would advocate cancelling the reform if PiS loses the next general election in 2019 – when the changes would have been in place for just two years. She answered in the negative. “We will have to work to improve it, but not to do away with it – that would bring even more chaos,” she said.


Rank-and-file teachers now feel they need to adapt. “When we didn’t know if the reform was going ahead, the motivation was way down,” Iwona Wus, a math teacher at Spychala’s gimnazjum, said. “We hope we will be able to make it under the new system,” she added.


Wus is, herself, preparing for what might come. “I’m doing post-grad studies in early education and teaching kids with special needs. Teaching young kids is not what I was ever interested in, but I must have a plan B,” she said.

Wojciech Kosc is a longtime TOL contributor based in Warsaw.

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