The profound systemic changes initiated in Poland in 1989 barely affected the public education system. It was not until 10 years later that the system underwent a fundamental reform. The 1999 Education Reform was one of a number of public sector reforms based on the new ruling party’s guiding principles of free market solutions and decentralization. In January 1998, 3 months after the formation of government, the Minister of Education publicly announced the plan for a comprehensive reform of the education system. The need for change was justified first and foremost by overall low educational attainment levels and significant inequalities in access to education which limited economic and social development. The Ministry of Education identified the following 3 major goals of the reform:
Raise the educational attainment of society by increasing the number of graduates of upper secondary and tertiary education programs
Ensure equal educational opportunities through the development of a well-staffed and well-equipped network of schools, particularly in rural regions; financial assistance for students and improved provisions for students with special needs
Enhance the quality of education by modernizing the structure and content of the national curriculum in order to prepare students for lifelong learning and active participation in economic and social life
A key element of the reform was a change in the structure of the education system achieved through the introduction of a new school level – a 3 year lower secondary school. Lower secondary school provided general curriculum in addition to 6 years of primary school and served as an introduction to either academically- or vocationally-oriented upper secondary school. The education system reform was implemented swiftly to coincide with other simultaneous public sector reforms, including of the pension system, health care and public administration. In May 1998 a draft of the comprehensive education reformFootnote 2 was presented and in July the Sejm (Lower House of Parliament) amended the law. In January 1999 the law “Regulations for the School System Reform”Footnote 3 was passed, and in February an executive order was issued with the new national curriculum along with guidelines for its implementation. Meanwhile, the first classes of the newly created lower secondary schools were scheduled to begin in September 1999. The scarcity of time between the announcement of the reform, the legislative process, and implementation did not allow for proper consultations. Despite the Minister of Education and ministerial officials’ assurances that they were open to critical remarks, a true debate with such limited time was impossible.
7.3.1 Changes in the School Structure
The introduction of a new school level was the reform’s most spectacular change. The 8-year elementary level was reduced from 8 to 6 years and a 3-year lower secondary school (gimnazjum) was formed. This extended mandatory general education by 1 year, with obligatory education starting at the age of seven and ending at the age of 16. For their subsequent years of educationFootnote 4, students had the choice of attending a 3-year upper secondary school (liceum), a 4-year technical school, or a 2–3-year vocational school. The principle which required some form of institutional education until the age of 18 remained unchangedFootnote 5.
The newly established lower secondary schools were intended to contribute to the implementation of the substantial national curriculum reform and raise the quality of education particularly in rural areas. The new schools were to have larger catchment areas than the previously existing primary schools. They would be sufficiently large to make it economically viable to hire teachers-experts in particular subject fields (such as physics, chemistry, and biology) and finance the necessary equipment for workshops and labs. The introduction of computer classrooms in all lower secondary school was also a priority.
7.3.2 Curriculum Reform
Changes in the organization of schools were meant to enable a more efficient introduction of the most important element of the reform – the new curriculum. Before 1989 the education system was based on one syllabus and one textbook per subject. During the 1990s individual schools were allowed to run original teaching programs on an experimental basis. Yet very few teachers embraced the opportunity as they were not prepared and did not feel competent.
The 1999 education reform introduced radical changes to school syllabi. The syllabi were derived from the national curriculum which determined the general education goals (including transversal skills – Box 7.1.), guidelines concerning the learning content, and the general rules for the functioning of schools. The key principle underpinning the new national curriculum was an emphasis on the responsibility of the school for the implementation of the educational mission and goals. The guidelines for specific subjects were formulated in three points:
Education goals – competences and attitudes which should be developed
The tasks of the school – how the learning and teaching process should be carried out
Content – the content of school syllabi
Box 7.1 Transversal Skills in 1999 General Curriculum
In school a pupil is provided with the conditions to acquire knowledge, skills and habits, i.e. to develop competences as follows:
Understanding the relations between the past and the future, cause and effect, functional dependencies
Holistic and contextual perception of complex phenomena
Evaluation of one’s attitude and conduct, and that of others, according to accepted standards and universal values
Taking responsibility for oneself and others
Flexible response to change, seeking new solutions, standing up in the face of adversity
Maintaining physical and mental fitness
Presentation of one’s point of view, putting forth arguments and defending one’s opinion
Readiness to listen and take other peoples’ opinions into consideration. Conflict resolution
Making use of new communications technologies
Group work; negotiating and reaching agreement, making group decisions, applying democratic procedures
Establishing and nurturing contacts, building interpersonal relations
The guidelines of the national curriculum established standard requirements to be achieved by students at each stage of their education. They were also the basis for the proliferation of school syllabi and textbooks. It became possible to create many syllabi for every subject and to introduce different manuals. The choice of the syllabus and textbook was given to the teacher. This was a fundamental change for teachers, in that moving away from one centrally-defined syllabus increased their autonomy, but also their responsibility for the successful implementation of the curriculum. In practice, balancing the teaching of knowledge and skills proved to be a challenge for teachers. Teachers complained that the syllabi were overloaded with content knowledge and there was not sufficient time to practice skillsFootnote 6.
7.3.3 Promotion and Training for the Reform
The Ministry of Education made a considerable effort to disseminate information about the reform to all interested parties at the local level, especially teachers and parents. The Ministry continually emphasized the key role of teachers, not only in the short-term implementation of the reform, but also in the long-term process of the continuous development of the education system. The Minister of Education expressed this in his introduction to a publication presenting the future reformFootnote 7:
The reform of the education system is never a fully completed task, but rather a framework for an inspiring process. We do not wish to destroy what is good. We wish to help those who are striving for improvement. Hence it must be clearly underlined, that it is the awareness of the achievements of individual teachers, headmasters, but also local authorities, (…) that gives us the mandate, but also the obligation to proceed with this swift and comprehensive reform.
To reach the teachers, the Ministry set up a cascade training program under the heading of “New School” (“Nowa Szkoła”). During the first stage of the program 2750 trainers were trained to provide professional development programs for teachersFootnote 8. The trainers organized meetings with teachers’ councilsFootnote 9 to discuss changes in the curriculum. They covered topics which included increased autonomy and responsibility of schools for the creation of teaching syllabi, interdisciplinary (cross-subject) integration, the establishment of school assessment systems, and preparation for external examinations. The Ministry estimated that approximately 70% of teachers participated in the training programFootnote 10. At the same time, information meetings were organized by regional teacher development centers. From April to June 1999, over 200,000 teachers participated in 6363 such conferencesFootnote 11. The Ministry of Education in consultation with academic authorities defined the requirements for teachers professional development courses and made a special fund available in the form of grants to universities on a competitive basis. In the effect of three cycles of the grant program 15,000 teachers completed post-graduate courses and some 80,000 teachers participated in shorter in-service training coursesFootnote 12.
An important element of the Ministry’s information campaign was the so-called “Reform Library” (“Biblioteczka reformy”). It included 40 booklets (A5 textbook format, a few dozen pages each) that presented the essential issues concerning the reform in a clear and simple manner. They covered teaching syllabi, the school network organization, financing, manuals, assessments and examinations, teachers’ work, and supervision. The circulation of each booklet was 75,000 copies and they were sent free of charge to schools, libraries and teacher training centers. Despite the efforts, fears were not entirely dispelled nor were people fully reassured. Surveys among teachers showed that they were immensely concerned by the planned changes; they felt especially insecure due to the change in the terms of employment. Over 50% of the respondents in a national sample of teachers in 1999 believed that the reform should be put on holdFootnote 13.
The school textbooks market de-monopolization policy was introduced at an early stage during the 1989 overall economy transformations. Hence, when the 1999 education reform was introduced, several professional, competing publishers already existed, although the state company (WSiP), the only provider of textbooks before 1989, still held a dominant position. The reform, and specifically the possibility of choosing a syllabus and textbooks by schools, created unique opportunities for publishing houses to develop and improve their market position.
In the brief period between the announcement and the implementation of the reform, the publishers made an enormous effort to equip teachers with new textbooks for the classes that initiated the reform, especially the first year of the lower secondary school, at the start of the 1999–2000 school year. Before being cleared for use in schools, all textbooks had to be evaluated by experts designated by the Ministry of Education. One-hundred seventy-nine titles were on the list of accepted new textbooks announced before the beginning of school year 1999–2000. The list did not include exercise books or teachers’ manuals. It was estimatedFootnote 14, that in total over 500 titles issued by 150 publishers were available.
The majority of new textbooks proposed innovative solutions in terms of both method and form. This encouraged teachers to verify their own pedagogic and didactic methods and to seek new solutions. They received support, as the appearance of new textbooks on the market was accompanied by manuals with methodology, lesson plans and teaching aids that could be copied, handed out to students, and used in class. However, publishers found it challenging to reach teachers with information on their offerings for school syllabi and textbooks. As a result, publishing houses organized and participated in various didactic conferences, supplementing the reform campaign of the Ministry of Education and contributing to the development of the teachers’ know-how.
The introduction of external, standardized examinations at the end of every stage of education was a change of great significance and with great consequences. Exams at the primary and lower secondary school level became mandatory, as opposed to the final secondary school exam (Baccalaureate or Matura). However, since the latter replaced the university entrance exam, all students who aspired to continue their education at a higher level nevertheless took the exam. The reformers intended the system of tests and examinations toFootnote 15:
Assess students’ acquired skills and knowledge defined in the national curriculum;
Allow for comparisons in the performance of schools and individual students;
Indicate the consistency and quality of learning.
Tests and examinations were to be above all tools for reflection and self-assessment for schools. They were to assist the process of drawing conclusions concerning the performance and quality of schools. The intention was to use test results for external evaluation (supervision) only to a limited degree, and the conditions of a given school were to be taken into consideration. Nevertheless, quite quickly, due to the ranking lists published in the press, the tests became the basis for a public (informal) evaluation of school performance, the comparison of schools, and even the assessment of particular teachers. Another reason for this was the results of the post-lower secondary exam (along with the scores on the school-leaving certificate) were crucial for recruitment to secondary schools. A good result meant admission to a renowned upper secondary school, which in turn increased the chances of a good result on the baccalaureate exam and the opportunity to enroll free of charge at one of the best state universities. In large cities, selective recruitment for lower secondary schools emerged, despite the existence of school catchment areas guaranteed by law. For instance, schools introduced classes with an extended foreign language program, and during the recruitment process students were tested for linguistic abilities, though the results of their post-primary exam were also considered. Gradually, preparing students for examinations became one of the most important tasks of every teacher. Consequently, students frequently practiced taking exams and “learning for tests”.
7.3.6 Management, Financing, & Quality Assurance
The education reform was implemented alongside the administrative reform, which introduced a three-tier structure of local administration with delegated responsibility for running schools at different levels. Primary and lower secondary schools were run at the municipal level, upper secondary at the county level, and higher vocational schools at the provincial level (voivodeships)Footnote 16. The local authorities received funds for the financing of education from the state budget in the form of a subsidy. Its amount was calculated based on the number of students. However, the funds were not ear-marked in the local budget and thus could be dedicated to any goal. In practice, the subsidy usually only covered teachers’ wages. The local authorities had to cover the remaining costs from their own resources.
One of the most important initial tasks of the new authorities was to configure a school network in their catchment area. The municipalities needed to establish lower secondary schools and make decisions concerning the further functioning of significantly smaller (6, instead of 8-year) primary schools. The county authorities took over upper secondary schools, including vocational schools, which catered to the needs of former industrial enterprises and not current economic needs. Because education financing was dependent on the number of students, the funds allocated to small rural schools were insufficient. Many of them were closed, and pupils had to be transported to larger establishments.
The reform of the education system, aligned with the public administration reform, also handled the issues of supervision. The task of controlling the legal and educational aspects of school activities was entrusted to Education Boards (Kuratoria Oświaty) placed within the structure of the provincial (voivodeship) government administration. School performance was periodically assessed via self-assessment (including opinion surveys among parents and students), expert on-site visits, and external examinations. Overall, three bodies had an impact on the functioning of schools: local authorities (material teaching conditions), Education Boards (supervising regulatory aspects, especially the adherence to the national curriculum), and school principals (coordination of the learning process). This setup occasionally caused tensions, especially in organizational matters with financial consequences (e.g., class sizes, extracurriculars, etc.).
The organizational changes also required the appointment of new principals and the exchange of principals among existing schools. Principals were selected through competitions, which gave them great confidence and higher status in local communities. New principals, especially those of lower secondary schools, tried to promote a school culture based on quality and cooperation. The increased autonomy of schools and teachers in making decisions concerning school syllabi rendered the task easier. According to the recommendations, schools were to be open to cooperation with local communities, especially with parents. Every school was to have a statute, mission statement, educational program, scoring rules, and other principles guiding school life. The objective of the recommendations was to create teams of teachers who would work together to fulfil common goals. In many schools the recommendations were deemed to be nothing more than cumbersome red tape. However, certain schools bloomed thanks to the implementation of the guidelines. (See Box 7.2).
Box 7.2 Case Study of Successful Reform Implementation
Research work conducted in 20 selected lower secondary schools in 2006 by a group of sociologists from the Warsaw University enabled the identification of a school where the reformers’ recommendations to create a friendly school culture based on partnership were fully achieved.
The school principal was a very active and resourceful man. He had travelled a lot and was familiar with the school systems of many countries. When the decision was made to introduce lower secondary schools in the spring of 1999 he started to recruit teachers. For 3 months prior to the start of the school year, they discussed the basic strategy for the operation of the school. The school year opening was a big event, attended by teachers, parents, local officials, and entrepreneurs. After the event, finding sponsors willing to support the school was never a problem.
The school had its own internal rules and regulations (agreed with the Parents’ Council), which were observed to the letter. The students’ rights were respected. The class leaders formed a consultative body that the principal met with once a week. Students were motivated to learn and develop their competences in a culture of high expectations. No serious cases of negative student behavior were noted. Absenteeism – a problem in most Polish schools – was almost non-existent, nor was grade repetition. Although the area, like other rural communes, was affected by high unemployment, low parental educational attainment, and low average income levels, student test results were significantly higher than the average in the region.
In Poland many schools attempt to develop practical and social skills by ensuring a well-organized system for involved, innovative and cooperating teachers. Yet in the majority of schools, teachers hold traditional lessons focusing mainly on transferring knowledge they perceive to be is indispensable for achieving good results in exams. This, in turn, reflects directly on the public opinion of the teacher and the rating of the school.
For many teachers the reform meant a change, but for some it resulted in job loss. This was due to the reduction of years in primary school from 8 to 6, the closing of small, rural schools, and higher requirements for lower secondary school teachers (university degree). Additionally, new principles of promotion were introduced. Higher levels could be achieved after required job tenure and through participation in professional development courses. A promotion to the next level meant a higher salary.
Surveys of teachers demonstrated their anxiety during both the planning and implementation of the reform. There was a particularly high sense of insecurity linked with a change in the terms of employment. In 1999 over 50% of respondents from a national sample of teachers indicated the reform should be stoppedFootnote 17. The attitude of teachers towards specific solutions within the framework of the reform was studied at the request of the Ministry of Education at the end of 2000Footnote 18. The study also included students, parents, and representatives of local school authorities. From a broad set of issues, we selected a few below that seemed especially important (Table 7.1).
TeachersFootnote 19 of both types of schools gave a very positive response to the possibility of choosing textbooks and teaching syllabi (90% positive responses). The new internal assessment system, in which the teachers as a team determined the rules, criteria and grading scale, was also very well received (80% and 86%). Teachers of primary schools assessed the introduction of lower secondary schools much worse (only 41% positive) than their colleagues who worked in the new lower secondary schools (72% positive). The survey also inquired about the school syllabi used by the teachers. The overwhelming majority (98% in primary schools and 95% in lower secondary) used syllabi developed by experts and approved by the Ministry of Education. One in four teachers partially modified the syllabus to adopt it to their students’ needs. Only the most creative teachers (2–3%) devised their own teaching syllabi.
Four years after the launch of the reform, Professor KonarzewskiFootnote 20 interviewed a representative sample of 950 teachers from primary and lower secondary schools. Their opinions on the effects of the reform are summarised in the table below (Table 7.2).
Teachers of rural lower secondary schools were the only group that reported more positive than negative impacts of the reform. At the same time, teachers of rural primary schools were the most skeptical group. The difference in opinion could be due to the fact that lower secondary schools were new, better equipped, and often located in modernized buildings with qualified teachers who were willing to innovate. On the other hand, primary schools in villages were in declining physical condition, while the number of students, classes, and teachers dwindled. Small schools were in serious danger of being closed.