Strong Performers and Successful Reformers in Education

A video series profiling policies and practices of education systems that demonstrate high or improving performance in the PISA tests

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Changing the structure of the school system to give better education opportunities for all

Over the past decade, thanks to a series of major school reforms, Poland has dramatically reduced the numbers of poorly performing students in its schools and cut by half the variations in performance among schools. In 2000, Poland’s secondary school students were still performing well below average levels in OECD countries. By 2009, they were up to approximately the same level as students in the United States.

The changes to the country’s school system that made this remarkable achievement possible were needed to help Poland adapt to a market economy, in place of the communist command economy that operated until 1989. Under the previous system, students entered primary school at seven and stayed until it was time to make career decisions at the age of 15. Weaker students were streamed into two-year basic vocational schools run by individual sector industries. Middle-ranking students were sent to two-year technical secondary schools to prepare as technicians. Only the top 20% of students went on to a three-year academic secondary program in preparation for university entry.

After the demise of communism, this system seized up. The industry sectors that previously ran the vocational schools backed away from funding them and from guaranteeing employment to their graduates. As new opportunities opened up in Poland’s fledgling market economy, parents sought better options for their children.

The government responded with a reform strategy that set three main objectives: raising secondary and higher education qualifications; ensuring equal educational opportunities; and improving the quality of education. In the late 1990s, a new lower secondary school program was introduced for children between ages 13 and 15, followed by three upper secondary options offering academic, technical and vocational tracks. Providing an extra year of academic studies for students who otherwise would have spent that year in vocational training removed the possibility for schools and teachers to channel students from disadvantaged social backgrounds into the “weaker” track.

Instead, schools were obliged to offer the same high-quality learning opportunities to all students at lower secondary level. In parallel, a new system of external examinations was implemented at the end of primary, the end of lower secondary, and the end of upper secondary schools, to ensure schools were moving in the right direction.

In another significant reform, the government introduced a new salary system for teachers in 2007. Previously, teachers had been paid according to how many hours they taught and how long they had been in the profession. The new system calls for salaries to be based on what tasks teachers are asked to do, what they need to do to accomplish them, and what results they achieve, as well as on their professional qualifications and experience. The new system also provides for flexibility according to location, and for bonuses in the event of a school achieving excellent results.