Education in Hungary

Three years ago PISA (OECD Programme for International  Student Assessment) tests showed that 25% of Hungarian 15-year-olds are functional illiterates, i.e. they can’t comprehend the not exactly challenging texts put in front of them. In the intervening three years the situation hasn’t changed. Gloom and doom and, let me add, surprise accompanied these results because Hungarians still mistakenly believe that their education system is world class. I have always had my doubts, admittedly based largely on my not so happy memories of my own school years. Just like Hungarian history, Hungarian education has also had its ups and downs. Mostly downs, in my opinion.

Anyway, the reaction to the PISA results three years ago was the typical Hungarian denial. The results cannot be true. The tests are skewed. They are not tailored to Hungarian thinking. The texts must be biased: they are about things Hungarian kids have never heard of. Of course, all this was self-deception. Now, three years later, Hungarian educational achievement is equally low. Practically the same as it was the first time around. Why is it low? Perhaps one day I will spend a little time studying the range of hypotheses. Here I simply want to call attention to how the Hungarian media try to perpetuate the self-deceit by trumpeting good results as extraordinary.

A few days ago the results of an entirely different international comparative study came out based on a different age group and sampling different countries. The test is administered by the Lynch School of Education at Boston College and the name of the test is Progress in International Reading Literacy (PIRLS). Anyone interested in the 2006 results, which were released last month, can see them at Here the students had just entered their fifth year of schooling, and on average the Hungarian kids were 10.8 years old. The Hungarian children did relatively well: out of forty countries they finished in seventh place.

Well, this result sent the Hungarian media into ecstasy. Just a few quotations will suffice, I think. If you take a look at the PIRLS results on the given link, Hungary ended up behind Russia, Hong Kong, Canada (Alberta), Singapore, Canada (British Columbia), Luxembourg, Canada (Ontario), and Italy. Lumping the three Canadian provinces together puts Hungary in seventh place. Yet one paper reported that Hungary was in fifth place and another claimed that Hungary was in fourth place. A third one triumphantly announced that Hungary beat the United States and the United Kingdom, as if this were a real achievement. Another paper described the Hungarian children’s performance as "outstanding." Yet another headline proudly proclaimed: "We are among the forerunners!" Another claimed that "our children are among the most advanced." And finally: "our children shined."

By the way, and only as an aside, here’s a statistical anomaly. In the study as a whole, girls did better than boys. But, to quote the results, "for interpreting, integrating, and evaluating, girls had higher achievement than boys in all the participating countries and provinces except Hungary and Iran." Oh dear.

In any event, while this so-called good news, if in a somewhat exaggerated fashion, was just being absorbed by the Hungarian public, came those cursed PISA tests again. It turned out that the fifteen-year-olds still have problems with reading comprehension. Moreover, they are not as good as one would hope in mathematics or sciences either. That was a cold shower. Now the country can spend a few weeks trying to make sense of all this. At the age of ten the children understand the texts but somehow by the age of fifteen they forget how to read? Or, if one is optimistic: is it possible that the new reforms in teaching methods actually bore some fruit in the younger generation? The SZDSZ and later MSZP led ministry has been trying for a number of years to switch Hungarian education from learning facts to learning to think. Actually, the process already began during the Horn government when Bálint Magyar (SZDSZ) became minister of education. However, in 1998 when the Fidesz won the elections, all the reforms were put on ice. Thus four years were wasted. After 2002 the process continued, but the change is slow and painful. The teachers are the greatest obstacles: they are still stuck in the old Prussian school system. More and more facts, more and more memorization. In the meantime, students are not taught to use their heads. One day I will give some horrible examples of questions on history tests at university entrance examinations. Dates, names, dates, names. No wonder that most students hate history. When Bálint Magyar, minister of education, first came out with matriculation questions that required some thinking a relative of mine who had taught history for years said: "I guess we will have to get used to it. They are rather strange." They were not at all strange: they simply required some thinking.

And finally, the winner of the latest PISA tests is once again Finland. A few days ago I mentioned that 77% of Finns speak a foreign language as opposed to the European Union average of 44%. It seems that the Finns are doing something that all countries should copy. According to some, the secret is that there are practically no differences in schools as far as quality is concerned. All children must attend schools within their school districts, and the classes are mixed. That is, the more and the less talented children are not segregated. In Hungary the situation is entirely different. Already in elementary school, especially in Budapest and in bigger cities, there are entrance examinations. Thus in every city there are elite, mediocre, and really poor schools. But children learn at different rates, and sending a child to a mediocre school just because at the age of ten he didn’t perform as well as some others and therefore is destined to receive an inferior education is for me at least an unacceptable proposition. Apparently one reason for the poor performance of Hungarians on the PISA tests is because there are huge differences between elite and ordinary schools.

Of late Mónika Lamperth, minister of social welfare, has been talking about the unfairness of the system and suggested stopping the practice of dividing the nation into intellectual haves and have nots. I agree with her suggestions, but I already see the opposition to changing this system. And where would this opposition come from? From those intellectuals who are the beneficiaries of the current system and who can have a serious impact on public opinion. Just wait until all the intellectuals and newspapermen come out to oppose district schools like in Finland. They will surely kill the idea and with it perhaps Hungarian education.