Polish Lessons


If Smiley’s People is the source of your ideas about Iron Curtain mandarins, you’ll easily picture Zbigniew Marciniak. A formidably intelligent professor of mathematics at Warsaw University, he has the demeanour of a man at ease in a culture of intellectual brilliance.[1] As a self-confessed traditionalist, he cites Marx – “the pseudo-science of self-management is a classic example of the alienation of labour” – and retains the romantic view that some things are more important than money. He’s also a committed free marketer who now works at the World Bank. If this pragmatic idealism is a paradox, it is one central to the rise and rise of the Polish education system.

The rise began with the fall of the Berlin Wall. Education standards designed around central planning suddenly seemed fragile in the face of a free market economy, and Professor Marciniak realised change must take place. “If you want to know the level of education in a country,” he says, “look at its newspapers.” What he saw in the press was an indication of Poland’s two main challenges: very poor literacy among workers, the basic vocational school graduates, and few top graduates, with only 7% of people participating in higher education. In the context of the new openness to global labour markets, these two trends were disastrous for the prospects of many Poles. He became an important architect of the reforms behind Poland’s meteoric rise up the OECD PISA tables.

He also remained a key part of the system he sought to change in his role at Warsaw University and this revealed to him a change in philosophy among the young. “I had a Phd student,” he says, “I offered him a faculty position. He came to me – he looked a bit embarrassed – and he said ‘I’m sorry. I’ve been offered a job as a consultant.’ I asked him how much he would be earning. It was already three times more than I was being paid as a senior professor. ‘Ok,’ I said, ‘but let me tell you three things about this job. One, you’ll have a boss who’ll be more stupid than you, and nevertheless you’ll have to do exactly what he says. Two, you’ll never be able to do what you want to do, only what you are told to do. And third, you’ll go abroad, but when you go abroad you won’t be representing yourself, only your company.’ Nevertheless he took the job. Came back one year later and said ‘Professor Marciniak, you were right three times.’ But he wanted a house, a family.”

It was clear that national policies would have to balance the wishes of the old and the young, keeping core values of equality and access, whilst embracing competition and market mechanisms. At the secondary school level, they saw that students were underperforming “not because our kids were any less smart than other kids, but because our education system was worse.” Smart reforms were required to bring it up to speed. First came the extension of lower secondary schooling by a year, so that all kids would have one extra year of general school before specializing at 14. Then the curriculum shifted from a knowledge focus to a modern scheme driven by a few simple objectives and encouraging deep learning. Finally, a within-school market, where students elect which teachers they wish to study with, meant that teachers had to be good, or face taking no classes.[2]

The reforms worked. Before 1999, primary school in Poland was 8 years, followed by tracking into vocational or academic programs. Now, the primary cycle has been changed to 6 years, followed by 3 years of comprehensive lower secondary school or gymnasium for all students, before a vocational tracking decision is made. Even better, Poland now ranks 9th among all countries in overall reading scores on PISA, the only transition country from the old USSR to go from being below the OECD average on PISA to above average. The most important factors at play were the increased hours of Polish language instruction and delayed tracking of students into the vocational education stream. In 2000, only 1% of Polish students received more than four hours of language class, while in 2006, 76% of students received more than four hours of language class. Despite the increase in learning time, one of the most remarkable statistics in Poland’s success is the fact that its students and teachers spend fewer hours face to face than in any other comparable system. It may be the most efficient education system in the world.

At the university level, there was a vast increase in the proportion of Polish high school graduates from 7 to 40% of the population. “These are the levels in the leading Western European economies. We don’t want to be giving away our top jobs to graduates from other countries. There is an open labour market, this is what will happen.” The reforms were met with some resistance by universities, who argued that it would lower standards. “Of course!” he says, but the trick is to maintain standards at the most elite universities, while creating new types of higher education provision to provide further opportunities for academic and skills development for those who would typically have gone straight into work.

Unemployment in Poland is now at around 8%. And Professor Marciniak is happy with this. “It means that our graduates will have to think about job creation, and will have to be innovative. We want an education system that produces employers, not employees.” He feels it’s a mistake to listen too much to business leaders. They will always want the education system to create employees for them, which leads to stultification and a failure to renew or progress. That’s not in the interests of the employees, or the country. By the end of the talk, the room is abuzz with talk of Bulgaria’s poor standing on international comparisons, and the reasons why they need to do more to compete economically on the global stage. Professor Marciniak closes by reminding us that GDP is not the only light by which to navigate an education system.

“I went to a small town in the South of Poland on the occasion of the school’s 70th anniversary. There was a maths teacher there that I wanted to meet, a very shy guy. He worked with lower than average students, and turned them into really top mathematicians that would win Olympiads. So I got there, and we had the celebrations – all of the people from the town were there, they’d all been to the school as it was the only one. Big business people, politicians, and they were excited because I was there, Vice Minister for Education. And I got up on stage and said well done to the school, but most of all I’d like to celebrate this maths teacher, and I called out his name and asked him to stand, and all of his kids – all of the kids in the school – started clapping and cheering. Then all of the others, the alumni, the business men and politicians, they stood up too and clapped and cheered. And this teacher, he didn’t know that he was so loved, he didn’t know he was so important to the town. He came up on the stage, he could not stop crying. It was amazing. You won’t get this working in a bank, no matter how much you earn.”

[1] I’m reminded of this culture when approached by a fellow delegate who cites as evidence of Bulgaria’s great success in education (Bulgaria recently having come bottom of the PISA rankings for Europe), the number of chess grandmasters and gold medals won in Science Olympiads.

[2] This seems like smart policy-making. Between school competition is often vaunted as a powerful mechanism for overall improvement. This is despite the fact that (a) kids are rarely able to change schools, and (b) in-school variations in teacher quality are typically greater than between school variations.

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