The Global Search for Education: Reform Practices in Poland

Posted by: C.M. Rubin, The Global Search for Education

August 21st, 2015

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The Global Search for Education (GSE) is a regular contributor to the Edmodo Blog. Authored by C.M. Rubin, GSE brings together distinguished thought leaders in education and innovation from around the world to explore the key learning issues faced by today’s nations. Look for a new post every Friday and join the Global Search for Education Community on Edmodo to share your perspectives with their editorial staff.

2015-04-02-1427948540-8632205-cmrubinworldpolandphoto20500-thumbA recent report, Opening up Opportunities: Education Reforms in Poland by Maciej Jakubowski of the Evidence Institute, University of Warsaw, illustrates why Poland has one of the best education systems in Europe and why their reform practices are working. Poland’s OECD PISA rankings moved from below to above the OECD average and is now close to the top-performing countries. Before 2000, Poland’s students had one of the lowest achievement levels in Europe. Notably, Poland is “one of the few European countries that achieved strong improvement of student improvement over the last decade.”

The report notes the most significant reform practice was the 1999 extension of comprehensive education by one year. Support for pre-school education was expanded, as well as the curriculum for vocational schools. Other reform tactics included reducing the size differences between secondary schools (secondary schools used to be the largest across OECD countries but are now the smallest), decentralization, increased school autonomy, professional development, and the introduction of national exams. The report cites yearly national exams, a new curriculum focused on learning results, and a new data-driven system of school evaluation as further strategies which fostered higher quality schools.

While Polish adults still trail behind adults in the Czech Republic (CR) in terms of skills, the students in Poland are now ranking higher than those of Hungary, Czech Republic, and Slovakia. This indicates improvement to come for the adults in Poland, as well. Jakubowski’s report does not merely focus on Poland, but also on how other countries can benefit from Poland’s example, and how Poland can also continue to improve. It is still not competitive with the top ranking OECD countries worldwide, but it is certainly getting there.

Maciej Jakubowski, who currently works as a consultant for the Public Education Evaluation Commission in Saudi Arabia and as an assistant professor at the Faculty of Economic Sciences, Warsaw University, recently joined GSE to discuss Poland’s improvements. He also served as an under-secretary of state (deputy minister) at the Polish Ministry of National Education between 2012 and 2014, and was responsible for the Ministry’s budget and school funding, international cooperation, research, and building the long-term education strategy.

2015-04-02-1427984158-7579338-cmrubinworldpolandphoto21500-thumbWhat can other countries do to follow Poland’s lead?

Every system needs to provide as many opportunities as possible for both students and teachers. Our reforms began when Poland still had a hierarchically managed system that provided only limited opportunities for many students. Over the years, we decentralized governance and finances, increased teacher autonomy, and opened education paths for students. Now teachers enjoy freedom while they also have much more responsibility. Students know that their success depends solely on how hard they will be working. We empower teachers and students, and at the same time, we assess learning outcomes at all levels. The national examination system is based on standardized tests that are the same for all students in the country and play a crucial quality monitoring role.

Are we starting to see any changes now in Hungary, Czech Republic, and Slovakia?

These three countries have quite different systems, but they all select students into different programs very early. It seems to be very difficult to reform systems that provide the best opportunities for the most talented students. Elites are usually supporting selective systems, as it is a key to their own success. People tend to focus on opportunities for the best and don’t see how damaging it is for the rest of the students to see very early that the best opportunities are not for them. There is some discussion about abandoning or postponing early selection in these countries, but I don’t think there is a political momentum for reforms like those implemented in 1999 in Poland. I hope the evidence we have now will help people understand that it is crucial to provide opportunities to all students as long as possible, while abandoning early selection.

2015-04-02-1427984026-5634594-cmrubinworldpolandphoto85001-thumbWhere do you see Poland moving in the next several years?

We have modernized key elements of the school system and we already see good outcomes. For example, we introduced the new curriculum focused on learning outcomes. We have a new data-driven school evaluation system. We encourage teachers to create networks that will become part of professional development. These are all positive changes that will have to be fully implemented in the next years. However, the most important change in my view is the lowering of the compulsory school starting age from 7 to 6 and the increased support for preschool education. This year, all 6-year-olds will go to school, while preschool education is already free for 5-year-olds. Last year, the government also started to heavily subsidize preschool education for 3- and 4-year-olds, and we hope to reach 90% enrollment rate. We will see the benefits of a stronger start in the near future, but at the same time we need to re-think the content and structure of early education. We know, for example, that our youngest could perform better in mathematics, but the way we teach it in the first grades is still unsatisfactory.

What would it take for Poland to improve even more?

As I said, investing in early education is the key to further improvements. I believe that continuing modernization of assessments and school evaluation could further improve quality, but it is necessary to strengthen their link with professional support systems. One remaining weakness of our schools is that our teachers tend to see students as a homogeneous group. Even if they see how varied are their talents, in most cases they still teach the whole group in the same way. We have to provide more support for the weakest students, and at the same time, we need to better recognize different talents and find multiple ways to make them flourish within the comprehensive school system.

Continue the conversation in the Global Search for Education Community on Edmodo


C.M. Rubin and Maciej Jakubowski

C.M. Rubin and Maciej Jakubowski


C.M. Rubin is the author of two widely read online series for which she received a 2011 Upton Sinclair award, “The Global Search for Education” and “How Will We Read?” She is also the author of three bestselling books, including The Real Alice in Wonderland, is the publisher of CMRubinWorld, and is a Disruptor Foundation Fellow.

(All photos courtesy of Maciej Jakubowski)


29 responses to “The Global Search for Education: Reform Practices in Poland”

  1. Matt Marino says:

    One interesting aspect to consider is the social and cultural differences between countries that make it hard to offer a one size fits all program.

  2. Pam Hubler says:

    I wonder how much the reduction in class sizes helped with the improvement in student achievement? I love that they professional development and based curriculum on learning outcomes. It’s interesting to see that the proper focus, no matter where in the world, can make significant changes.

  3. Susana Turowski says:

    This is great. We need to continuously provide meaningful learning opportunities for students.

  4. Cecilia Monserrat says:

    Teacher training is one of the most important problems. I’m happy most of the teachers understand this: better teachers, better education.

  5. Really, it’s the way to go and an example to follow.

    It’s a pity that in my country politicians don’t reach an agreement to establish guidelines that last through different governments and the school system change every few years.

  6. Antoinette Green says:

    I think these are key points for any country. It is critical to differentiate instruction in the classroom and provide support to struggling learners.

  7. Both teaching and learning are the same thing in the process of a topic’s acquisition. It’s essential for the school community to go on growing in reaching new challenges to keep our will alive and offer good quality skills.

  8. Denise Hickey says:

    Early opportunities are so important!

  9. Judi says:

    I love reading about countries that have made education a priority. Yes, it takes money, but isn’t the future generations worth it?

  10. Michael Albert says:

    I think it is interesting that the country, started the reform with preschool, and built it up. although, taking a bit longer seems to achieve better results.

  11. Rhonda says:

    I like the fact that they are putting more into early childhood education and vocational education. Not all students are university focused and that’s okay! On the point about the other three countries, I have always had a hard time with the idea of putting kids on tracks toward certain types of education or careers. I can’t imagine having that choice made for kids before they have an opportunity to explore and develop.

  12. Great blog! Thanks for sharing!

  13. Judie says:

    I like that teacher autonomy is listed as being important, and I believe that the teacher is the one who sees the most in the student. I think it is also important that “students know that their success depends solely on how hard they will be working.”

  14. Luca Raina says:

    I’m agree. Teacher’s networking is the kay to success!

  15. Sarah EAton says:

    I agree that expanding Preschool is an important step in closing the achievement gap.

  16. Carrie Renfro says:

    We are building the 21st century world as we use data to drive instruction and teach to a new kind of learner. Congratulations!

  17. Nancy Swanson says:

    I agree with the education of the pre-school child. I also like that in the blog post they said,”I hope the evidence we have now will help people understand that it is crucial to provide opportunities to all students as long as possible, while abandoning early selection.” Education needs to be offered to all students.

  18. Rory says:

    The investment in education reform is a must. Having a vision will greatly increase the likelihood of success!

  19. Merewyn Patrick says:

    Very happy to hear that a nation can respectfully use a national standardized test. Would have liked to have known how the teachers are encouraged to get all children to grow.

  20. Kimberly Breeding says:

    This is a great article! It shows that there is a shift, worldwide, in education for the better. It takes work but the benefits are positive. I think that there are many countries that are realizing you cannot teach the way they did a century or more ago. Times are changing and with that the way people of all ages is changing as well. Will what worked for one place work for another? Maybe maybe not but unless we start to try we will never know! Loved this article.

  21. Providing many learning opportunities as possible for students and teachers is essential to great headway in education. Yes, I totally agree, it does bring about teacher autonomy and it’s a move toward “establishing” independent learners.

  22. Ruth says:

    It’s great to see the positive change as a result of the reform actions.

  23. Martina Westermann says:

    I agree that teacher networks can greatly enhance professional development. Connected teachers feel inspired and supported by those who are in the same boat.

  24. Greg Macer says:

    You can see first hand in Poland the success of early education. I can’t agree more that starting children earlier 3-4 year old preschool is going to go a long way to improving students success rates. It’s interesting to see how they both embraced teacher freedom AND national testing to monitor student success. I imagine that there focus isn’t on how to increase test scores and more on how to improve student engagement in their own learning.
    Way to go Poland, making education a national priority and changing it because you realize the importance of education to the future of your national success. I can only hope we can follow your lead.

  25. Heather Scott says:

    Many ideas worthy of consideration for the U.S. school system.

  26. Jen K says:

    I love the idea of autonomy for teachers and offering more opportunities for students – vocational, etc. We have to remember that not all students are college bound and that teachers work better when they have the chance to do what they feel is best.

  27. Susan Davis says:

    Education Reform is needed. Their is such a disconnect in education. It is imperative that we began to look at best practices both far and wide. If you go into a business, let’s just say “Google””, they have a strategic plan that makes that company a success. In education we often have strategic plans, however, things become so political that people often stray away from the focus. There are successful models that are working. We need to look at Poland and other countries and find those things that are working and share them globally.

  28. Sarah Harwood says:

    Education really is important! I love that the education system expanded giving everyone more of an education. I love that we can share positive experiences from around the world, not just negative ones.

  29. Shaina Arora says:

    Wow..!! Great information Thanks for sharing it …

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