Book Club: How Poland Went From Communist Backwater To Top-Tier School System

In 1997, when Mirosław Handke became Poland’s minister of education, he was an outsider. A chemist with a white mustache and dramatic, black-slash eyebrows, he looked like an Eastern Bloc version of Sean Connery. Handke was accomplished in his own world at AGH University of Science and Technology in Kraków. He’d published more than eighty papers on the obscure properties of minerals and become the head of the university, one of Poland’s best. However, he knew next to nothing about education policy or politics. His cluelessness would serve him well, at least for a little while.

By then, Poland’s 38 million citizens had undergone years of economic shock therapy, designed to catapult the country into the West after the fall of communism. So far, deregulation and privatization had worked, making Poland one of the fastest growing economies in the world; unemployment had been steadily falling, along with inflation.

Now the country was on the precipice yet again; without urgent social reforms, the health care, pension, and education systems could suck the life out of the Polish economy, sending inflation soaring again and jeopardizing Poland’s trajectory from a Communist backwater to a European power.

Most damning of all, Polish adults did not have the skills to compete in the modern world. Only half of rural adults had finished primary school. The Poles would be relegated to doing the low-skilled, low-wage jobs that other Europeans did not want.

Faced with this existential crisis, Handke studied the education systems of other countries, including the United States, where he had lived for two years. He traveled around Poland meeting with teachers, researchers and politicians. In the spring of 1998, he and his boss, the new prime minister, Jerzy Buzek (another chemistry professor), announced a series of reforms the likes of which they might never have contemplated if they’d had more experience with the political sensitivities of education.

“We have to move the entire system—push it out of its equilibrium so that it will achieve a new equilibrium,” Handke said. He was still teaching chemistry, this time to thirty-eight million people.

To get to the new equilibrium, the country would enter what scientists called a transition phase. This phase would, as Handke put it, “give students a chance.” It had four main parts, laid out in a 225-page orange book that was distributed to schools all over the country. First, the reforms would inject rigor into the system. A new core curriculum would replace the old, dumbed-down mandates that had forced teachers to cover too many topics too briefly. The new program would lay out fundamental goals, but leave the details to the schools. At the same time, the government would require a quarter of teachers to go back to school to improve their own education.

Along with rigor came accountability. To make sure students were learning, they would start taking standardized tests at regular intervals throughout their schooling—not as often as American kids, but at the end of elementary, junior high, and high school. Those tests would be the same all over the country, for all of Poland’s several million children.

For younger kids, the tests would help identify which students— and teachers and schools—needed more help. For older students, the tests would also have consequences, determining which high schools and then universities they could attend. For the first time, all students would take the university entrance exam at the end of high school, and the exams would no longer be graded by local teachers. That way, universities and employers would be able to trust that the results meant the same thing from place to place.

The Poles couldn’t know it yet, but this kind of targeted standardized testing would prove to be critical in any country with significant poverty, according to a PISA analysis that would come out years later. Around the world, school systems that used regular standardized tests tended to be fairer places, with smaller gaps between what rich and poor kids knew. Even in the United States, where tests have historically lacked rigor and purpose, African-American and Hispanic students’ reading and math scores have gone up during the era of widespread standardized testing.

Why did tests make schools fairer, generally speaking? Tests helped schools to see what they were doing right and wrong, and who needed more help. That insight was a prerequisite, not a solution. Rendering problems visible did not guarantee they would be fixed, as thousands of U.S. school districts had proven under the testing mandates of No Child Left Behind. But identifying problems seemed to be a necessary first step in places with wild variation in what kids knew.

The third reform was the most important one: to literally—not just rhetorically—raise the expectations for what kids could accomplish. To do this, the reforms would force all kids to stay together in the same academic environment for an extra full year, through the equivalent of freshman year in high school. Instead of getting streamed into either vocational or academic programs around age 15, a practice known as tracking, students would go to the same junior high schools, together, until age 16. The difference was only twelve months, but it would have surprising consequences.

In Poland, delaying tracking meant creating four thousand new junior high schools, virtually overnight. There was no other way to accommodate all the students who would normally have gone off to vocational school at fifteen.

Handke might have stopped there. A new core curriculum, a stricter testing regimen, and thousands of new schools would represent a massive disruption, the likes of which no American state had ever seen in such a short time.

But there was an obvious problem. The Poles had recent, traumatic memories of communism. It was politically impossible to impose changes like this from the central government without granting other freedoms in exchange. To extract more accountability, Handke decided to reward schools with more control.

That autonomy was the fourth reform. Teachers would be free to choose their own textbooks and their own specific curriculum from over one hundred approved options, along with their own professional development. They would start earning bonuses based in part on how much professional development they did. In a booming country where people were judged by how much money they made, the cash infusion would telegraph to everyone that teachers were no longer menial laborers. The principal, meanwhile, would have full responsibility for hiring teachers. Local authorities would have full control over budgeting decisions, including where and how to open the new junior high schools.

In other words, the new system would demand more accountability for results, while granting more autonomy for methods. That dynamic could be found in all countries that had dramatically improved their results, including Finland and, for that matter, in every high-per- forming organization, from the U.S. Coast Guard to Apple Inc.

All this change would happen, Handke declared, in one year.

Adapted from the book The Smartest Kids in the World—and How They Got That Way by Amanda Ripley. Excerpted by arrangement from Simon & Schuster. Copyright 2013.

Amanda Ripley is a journalist and the author of The Smartest Kids in the World—and How They Got That Way and an Emerson Senior Fellow in Washington, D.C.

Prime Minister Jerzy Buzek, second from right, following an almost-one-hour speech in parliament in Warsaw Monday November 10, 1997. His cabinet members ,left to right, Health Minister Wojciech Maksymowicz, chief of the government office, Wieslaw Walendziak, Foreign Minister Bronislaw Geremek, Education Minister Miroslaw Handke. (AP photo/Czarek Sokolowski)

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