Why you should care
If Poland can quickly turn around its educational system for the better, why can’t the United States and other countries?
Is it time for the student to offer the teacher a few lessons?
Twenty-five years ago, Americans like economist Jeffrey Sachs were running around Poland helping to turn moribund socialism into a vibrant market economy. Now, with the U.S. trying to fix its lagging educational system, it might just learn a thing or two from Poland, which in the past decade has moved sharply forward from the rear of the international pack and beats the U.S. on most performance measures. And it didn’t even spend a lot money to get there.
People were very eager to modernize.
— Izabel Olchonowicz, education consultant
Poland now has the fourth-highest number of higher education students in Europe, behind the U.K., Germany and France. Reading, once an obstacle, became an asset — more so than in the U.S., the U.K., Germany or France. And 19th place in math on a survey by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) has helped it produce some of Europe’s brightest talent in the technology field. The U.S. ranked a “below average” 27th.
“Our curriculum is mostly based on the effects of education — not just what students know but what they can do, and how they can use their knowledge practically,” Ewa Dudek, Poland’s undersecretary of state for education, tells OZY. Dudek believes Poland’s success comes from allowing students more scope for feedback on their education.
Of course, it’s much more than that.
It was 1998, almost a decade after the fall of communism, and the country was flying in the aftermath of Sachs’ market reforms. Deregulation and privatization made Poland’s economy one of Europe’s fastest growing.
But its schools lagged far behind and continued to rely on course materials barely changed since the Stalinist 1950s. Kids osmosed ideology and vocational training, grooming them for careers in heavy industry that had largely disappeared.
Leaders in the capital, Warsaw, saw a growing generation of underserved and uninspired students as an economic bear trap. Without drastic reforms, the country could kiss its decade of prosperity goodbye.
“We have to move the entire system — push it out of its equilibrium,” urged then-Education Minister Mirosław Handke.
Handke got his green light. With remarkable speed, in a year academia in Poland was unrecognizable. The demagoguery was ditched and in came a new form of general education that resisted specialization. Just a year after that, in 2000, Poland began to leap up the international league tables.
By 2012, the last time the OECD conducted its survey, Poland was one of the best teaching countries on earth.
In fact it’s the only one to have gone from below average in the chart, which now measures 510,000 15-year-olds in 65 territories, to above — with a GDP ranking just 46th globally. On key indicators — math, science, reading — it came from behind to rank well ahead of the United States.
It’s not about money.
How did Poland do it?
Back in 1998, Handke, a former chemistry teacher, was staring at a horrible formula. Polish children went to primary school for eight years before being funneled into vocational training at age 14.
Under the revamped system, primary school lasts six years, followed by three years of a new comprehensive lower secondary school, before a decision is made on whether to send a student to vocational training. Knowledge — reading, writing, ’rithmetic — is valued above technical skill. Foreign language — especially English — became a key component. In 2000 only 1 percent of kids received four hours or more of language classes. By 2006 that figure was 76 percent.
But it’s not about money. Poland spends around $5,000 per student annually from primary through tertiary education, but outperforms the United States, which spends around three times that amount.
Poland has its socialist past to thank for the rapid progress, says Izabel Olchonowicz, an education consultant: “People were very eager to modernize; they were waiting such a long time,” she says. “Right now is the result of that.”
The economy has continued to be strong. When Europe’s economies were tumbling in 2009, Poland was its only island of growth, getting a 1.6 percent lift. Poland is far better off than when Handke had his say.
Teachers might disagree. Poland remains a low payer — around $650 a month for teachers compared with the national average for all workers of $945. Slawomir Broniarz, the country’s most senior teachers unionist, warns that low pay might put Poland’s trajectory in doubt, primarily because of slipping standards of training. “We’ve asked many times for the reform of teacher training, because they are not good enough for these times. We need new attitudes, programs and better preparations for future challenges.”
“Teaching is very demanding,” says Olchonowicz, “and I think that what they get for it is not enough. It is not motivating, and if Poland needs to advance its education system, the salaries of teachers have to come with it.”
Poland’s rapid development of foreign language training may also have a negative side effect. Many Poles are leaving home to gain skills abroad. While that helps the technology sector if they return, many don’t.
But despite the cracks, Poland’s educational system is an example to most other countries, and proof that it’s not just money that makes good students.