International Opinion

The Global Shift, Part 2: The Case of Poland

By Robert Rothman — January 22, 2015 4 min read
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In my last post I highlighted a new report from the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) that analyzed the 450 education policies adopted by industrialized countries over the past few years. I noted that several nations revised curricula to focus on a broader set of competencies, such as the ability to use knowledge to think critically and solve problems.

In this post I want to focus on one nation: Poland. Poland is an interesting case. Unlike some jurisdictions, which transform their education system when they are in trouble, Poland made its change from a position of relative strength. The country was doing well, but to Poles, it was not good enough.

As Amanda Ripley recounts in her excellent book, The Smartest Kids in the World, Poland undertook a major education reform in 1999, at a time when the country was reeling from its transition from Communism to capitalism. The reform included four components: a new curriculum that was intended to inject greater rigor into instruction; mandated standardized tests at intervals in students’ careers; greater autonomy for schools; and, most significantly, an extension of the common curriculum. No longer would students at age fifteen be tracked into vocational or academic paths; instead, the decision was put off a year, a change that had significant implications.

Poland’s reform coincided with the introduction of the Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA), a test of reading, mathematics literacy, and science administered every three years to fifteen-year-olds by OECD. In the first administration of PISA, in 2000, Polish fifteen-year-olds performed just below the OECD average in reading, at about the same level as Greece and Germany (where “PISA shock” led to major reforms). But once the reforms kicked in, Poland’s performance began to climb. In 2003, Poland performed at about the same level as the United States in reading, just above the OECD average, and above the U.S. in mathematics. And the country’s performance continued to climb. By 2006, Poland’s reading score had risen by 29 points (on a 1,000 point scale) since 2000, putting the country well above the OECD average. Performance in mathematics had risen as well. And the performance was becoming more equitable: the difference between students in low-performing schools and those in higher-performing schools narrowed substantially.

Yet as Maciej Jakubowski, the former under-secretary of state (deputy minister) for education, notes in an interview with the Huffington Post, the country was not satisfied. Although they had made structural changes, “the curriculum was still outdated, focusing too much on knowledge acquisition and too little on critical thinking, analysis, discussion and problem solving.” In response, Poland in 2008 undertook curriculum reform to spell out learning outcomes for all students. As Jakubowski explains:

The attention was put not only on acquiring knowledge but also on understanding scientific facts and methods, being able to state hypotheses and verify them through observation and experimentation. We emphasize now the ability to present and characterize facts, the ability to analyze and interpret texts, and the ability of expression. In addition, the emphasis is now on inter-disciplinarity, hands-on classes and experiments.

The 2012 PISA results provided some evidence of the effects of these changes. Poland increased its performance substantially again, to the point where its mathematics performance was on a par with traditional high performers Finland and Canada. Jakubowski said the results were a “nice surprise” that helped the government respond to those who had criticized the reforms.

Jakubowski also notes that the reforms had been difficult to implement. The 1999 reforms, which were structural in nature, created some political tensions, because institutions do not want to change structures. But while the 2008 reforms were less contentious politically, they required a more substantial effort, he says:

Politically, it might be more difficult to change school structure or teacher policy, but it takes even more effort to convince all teachers to shift away from an outdated teaching approach they have used for many years to something new. It seems that the reformers managed to do that and that students also welcomed these changes.

The implications for the United States are obvious. This country is going through a curriculum change that is as profound as Poland’s. But here, the federal government, and for the most part, states, have far less authority than Poland’s government to support the implementation of the reform. Making it possible for all teachers to be able to teach students to use knowledge to think critically and solve problems, communicate effectively, and collaborate with peers will be challenging. But as Poland’s experience shows, it pays off.

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