A new attempt at school reform

Every country is struggling with serious problems in the field of education. The story is familiar: children can’t read and write at their grade level. Students finish high school but are functional illiterates. Until recently, smug Europeans thought that these problems existed only in the United States, but by now they have to face the fact that they are plagued with the same kinds of deficiencies. It’s not that the crisis is new, rather that it’s only recently being recognized. Hungary is no longer isolated but part of the western mainstream. And there are nasty little tests comparing the children of different countries. Hungary, which was always so proud of its educational system, turned out to be nowhere near the top in these comparisons. The heart of the problem seems to be a huge education gap. Although there are some very bright students and some excellent schools, there are more students (bright and not so) who don’t get an adequate education. A small intellectual elite and a vast number of poorly educated people.

The economic consequences of this education gap are predictable. There is a large group of uneducated people with at best at eighth grade education who are permanently unemployed and live on government assistance. Most of these people are Gypsies, but there are impoverished, undereducated non-Gypsies as well. These people’s children seem destined for the same fate: at home there is not only a lack of money but also a lack of intellectual stimulation. When a child from such a family arrives in school he is already at a great disadvantage. Apparently the vocabulary of a child of a disadvantaged family at the age of four is a third of that of his more fortunate classmates. Something must be done with these people because otherwise Hungary’s long-term economic success is at stake.

The Gyurcsány govenment is tackling the problem. Some people are suspicious that the prime minister pulled out this newest program from the hat only to divert attention from the referendum. However, I heard an educational expert today who claims that the background work has been going on for at least a year.

The plan is as follows. As of next year the government will spend 130-140 billion forints for public education. One third of this money will come from the Hungarian budget, the rest will come from the European Union. The emphasis will be on early education and there will be incentives given to the families at the lowest end of the social scale: if they send their child to kindergarten they will receive 20,000 Ft. at the time of enrollment and an extra 10,000 per semester afterward. There will be incentives for teachers as well. As it stands today, just as in the United States, the prestige of the teaching profession is low. Only those at the bottom of the class will end up teaching in the country’s classrooms. Beginning salaries will be boosted substantially. If someone has a five-year degree (M.A.) he will receive an extra 40,000 Ft., for a three-year degree (B.A.) an extra 25,000 Ft. An additional 40,000 Ft will be given to teachers who teach "difficult children" in disadvantaged districts.

The government is also planning to expand the network of "welfare officers." The plan is to hire 300 extra people whose job it is to keep an eye on the situation within the family. In addition, the salaries of the welfare officers will be raised: they will receive an extra 1,000 Ft. per child.

We will see what happens. The government claims that Hungary spends almost as much as Finland on education but while Finland by all measures is producing the best educated population, Hungary is almost the last. Thus it is not just a question of money but of know-how. Or perhaps just those bleak Finnish winters (with the notable exception of this year).

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Varangy
Guest
Couple points: As anyone who has spent any amount of time in the Hungarian educational system will tell you. Hungarian pedagogy is, for the most part, horrendous. A vast overemphasis on simplistic rote memorization of facts. If you are smart and can memorize huge quantities of information for a short term, you will do well in Hungarian schools. If your memorization skills are not better than 99% of the population, prepare to suffer. Not to mention the overtly and unbelievably subjective practice of oral exams. I have witnessed one student get 3 medium-difficulty questions and pass with flying colors, while immediately after a schoolmate of mine was peppered with 25 insanely hard questions and barely scraped by. Everyone knows it is unfair, but no one will change it. Now onto the Gypsies, they clearly are not interested in schooling. I don’t think bribing them and vastly expanding the social work bureaucracy is going to do anything at all. Nor will paying the teachers more. How will this change their behaviour? It won’t. You’ll get the same results, but it will cost a lot more money. This is classic Big Government thinking — something is failing. So, let’s throw MORE money… Read more »
Viking
Guest

“Gypsies, they clearly are not interested in schooling” (Varangy).
Obviously not of work either, then the unemployment rate is 80%.
It always work to blame the minority for not “assimilating”.

John Hunyadi
Guest
Recently I read a summary of a study (I’ll try to find it again on the Web) that compared education across several countries and concluded that teachers’ salaries has no effect on educational outcomes. This is because most people enter the teaching professional for vocational reasons, not because of the salary. What does have a significant effect is the quality of teachers. In Finland candidates for teacher training go through a strict selection procedure. Once they begin teaching they are mentored by more experienced teachers. School staff also share ideas amongst themselves. What sticks in my mind about the WSJ article (which, in my opinion, offers very little informed analysis) is the comment about the Finnish language. You would think the isolated nature of Hungarian would also result in children here developing an interest in foreign languages. And yet, among EU nations, Hungarians have the second lowest rate of proficiency in foreign languages (according to an Eurobarometer survey – the British were last). I think the dubbing of TV and cinema in Hungary is partly to blame (contrast with the Netherlands or Scandinavian countries). I agree with Varangy about the problems with Hungarian pedagogy and oral exams. But I suggest… Read more »
John Hunyadi
Guest

“and vastly expanding the social work bureaucracy” Err, hiring 300 more people is hardly a vast expansion.

John Hunyadi
Guest
I’ve found another study, discussed in an Economist article of December 6th last year, from the OECD’s Programme for International Student Assessment. I quote (from the Economist): “The improvement prize went to Poland, an also-ran in 2000. That reflects not increased spending, but successful reforms in 1999, which ended the practice of early selection on ability. By the second study, in 2003, the gains were already noticeable—and so marked that OECD statisticians cautioned privately that two data points do not make a trend, and decided to wait and see what happened next time. Further improvements have dispelled all doubts, making Poles the poster children for the proposition that early “tracking”—allocating pupils to different sorts of schools or programmes—hurts weak ones without benefiting the rest. “We have learnt that you can really make a change by bringing weaker performers into more demanding streams,” says Barbara Ischinger, the OECD’s director of education. Letting schools run themselves seems to boost a country’s position in this high-stakes international tournament: giving school principals the power to control budgets, set incentives and decide whom to hire and how much to pay them. Publishing school results helps, too. More important than either, though, are high-quality teachers: a… Read more »
John Hunyadi
Guest
OK, so here is the study I’ve was referring to above: “How the world’s best performing schools systems come out on top” by McKinsey. Again referred to in an Economist article that begins by pointing out that significant increases in spending on education in Britain, the US and Australia over the past few decades have not resulted in higher outcomes (ie pupil achievement). Referring to the McKinsey study: “Schools, it says, need to do three things: get the best teachers; get the best out of teachers; and step in when pupils start to lag behind. That may not sound exactly “first-of-its-kind”: schools surely do all this already? Actually, they don’t. If these ideas were really taken seriously, they would change education radically. …Studies in Tennessee and Dallas have shown that, if you take pupils of average ability and give them to teachers deemed in the top fifth of the profession, they end up in the top 10% of student performers; if you give them to teachers from the bottom fifth, they end up at the bottom. The quality of teachers affects student performance more than anything else. …In Finland all new teachers must have a master’s degree. South Korea recruits… Read more »
Odin's lost eye
Guest
I was someone who has tried to teach 16-18 year olds remedial mathematics. These young people were not dim, but they had been so badly taught some 10 to 12 years before due to the horrendous deficiencies in the UK schooling system that their mathematical abilities were nearly zero. I would like to make 8 points. 1. ‘Learning by rote’ is sometimes necessary (mathematical tables etc.) 2. They have to be taught the ability to transfer knowledge gained in one discipline to another. 3. Teachers do not have to have ‘firsts’ they have to have a love of teaching especially at the primary level. The knowledge they are imparting is not ‘Rocket Science’. They have to instill the wish to learn in their pupils, either by love or fear, or both. There is a piece of Egyptian ostraca dating back to about 1000 BCE written as a punishment by a child learning to be a scribe. This said many times that “the quickest way to a boy’s brain is through his back”. To me this showed that these ideas were known 3000 years ago. 4. Schools have to instill self-discipline on their pupils and not tolerate the wild behavior I… Read more »
Varangy
Guest

Clearly, Viking and John Hunyadi have not had any first-hand, personal experience with Gypsies.
It is a politically incorrect, but not a racist fact, that the vast majority of Gypsies:
1) are not inclined to seek nor value education
2) are not inclined to seek nor value lawful employment
The irony is that Tibi cigány (mentioned here: http://frappansklise.tumblr.com/post/26708338) will profess the same!
That is NOT to say, that Gypsies haven’t suffered unfairly at the hands of non-Gypsies. NOR to say that there are no exceptions to the general ‘rules’ I have stated above.
The irony is that, if you have spent time with Gypsies, you know how they view non-Gypsies. Non-Gypsies are thought to be willing ‘marks’ solely b/c they are non-Gypsy. Gypsies look down at you and me, b/c we walk side by side with our girlfriends/wives etc etc and not in front of them, and also, we don’t beat them when they ‘get out of hand’!
Most of you have never heard or read this before, but I assure you this is true.
Even more ironic is that Gypsies believe that we, the non-Gypsies, the ‘gajo’, are UNCLEAN!

Viking
Guest

Varangy,
I do have 1st hand experience of Romas. I have even employed Hungarians of Roma descent. I even let one build my first house here in Buda. My biggest problem was never with the Romas, it was with the non-Roma Hungarians that had a major problem that I let Romas work for me. Including the Hungarian part of my family.
So far I have been cheated by more non-Roma Hungarians, than by Hungarians of Roma descent.

Varangy
Guest

Fair enough. What I wrote is not mutually exclusive with your experiences.
BTW you could call that Hungary’s national sport (after water polo): the cheating of foreigners in Hungary. My uncle, a dual-citizen, constantly warns his non-Hungarian business acquaintances on doing business in Hungary. His experiences, (remember he is Hungarian) is not if every foreigner will get screwed, but when…

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