St. Nicholas (Mikulás) brought a birch rod instead of sweets today. How inconsiderate of the Program for International Student Assessment (PISA), a study conducted by the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), to release its latest results on the scholastic performance in mathematics, science, and reading of 15-year-olds on December 6. The first such study was undertaken in 2000 and it has been repeated every three years.
Hungarian children have taken part in PISA since the very beginning. Their performance was never exactly sterling, but thanks to the efforts especially of Bálint Magyar (SZDSZ) as minister of education, the scores of Hungarian students improved a bit, at least in reading comprehension. While in 2006 they scored 482, in 2009 they got 494. In math and science, however, there was no appreciable difference between 2006 and 2009. Then came the 2012 results, which were really bad. Hungarian children did worse in all three categories than three years earlier.
In December 2013 Viktor Orbán’s undersecretary Rózsa Hoffmann, of the Ministry of Human Resources, announced that the 2012 PISA results “support the urgent necessity of the renewal of public education.” As we know, the Orbán government began in earnest to “reform, ” or as its critics say “destroy,” public education by nationalizing all schools, taking away the autonomy of teachers, introducing five-day physical education and religious or ethical education, reducing the number of foreign language classes and computer science, and piling endless hours of rote learning on overworked students and teachers. All that eventually led to the “teachers’ revolts” we talked about so much this past spring.
In 2013 one couldn’t say with certainty whether Viktor Orbán’s initial educational “reforms,” undertaken in the first two years of his administration, had a major impact on the abysmal 2012 PISA results. Today there can be no doubt. Retro-reform is a disastrous idea. Returning to the teaching methods of the 1960s and 1970s will not do. Failure is guaranteed, especially as measured by a test like PISA, which focuses on how students can apply their knowledge in real-world contexts. It’s hard to apply things learned solely by rote.
The first reaction to the latest results was disbelief followed by anger. Critics of the educational “reform” can now point to hard data. The media called the test results a national tragedy and a disgrace. Not only did Hungary’s students fail. So did Viktor Orbán, whose ideas were put into practice by Rózsa Hoffmann and her successors, claims the Demokratikus Koalíció. MSZP’s Ágnes Kunfalvi, the party’s educational expert, is calling for Zoltán Balog’s resignation. Meanwhile László Palkovics, undersecretary in charge of education in whom Viktor Orbán found the perfect man for the job of transforming the country into one large factory of blue-color workers with minimal educational attainment, is trying to explain away the results.
So what happened in the last three years? Students’ reading comprehension fell from 488 to 472; their knowledge of sciences from 494 to 477. Only their math score of 477 remained the same, which is less impressive if we consider that in 2009 it was 494. Hungarian students’ test scores are considerably under the OECD averages.
The government is consoling itself with the results of another test, Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study (TIMSS), according to which Hungarian fourth and eighth graders performed way above average. This is all very nice, but what can students do with knowledge that they have no idea how to apply?
The teaching methods in Hungary, I’m convinced, have changed very little in the last 150 years. I assume by now children don’t have to sit with their hands behind their backs for 45 minutes, which is certainly an improvement. But rote learning is ingrained in the system, especially among older teachers, whose percentage is steadily growing. Undersecretary Palkovics, just like his predecessor Hoffmann in 2013, claims that the second wave of reforms he introduced haven’t yet had a chance to exhibit their beneficial effects. He added that this was the first time the test had to be performed digitally, which may have negatively influenced the outcomes. Well, that is an indictment of the present state of Hungarian education. I wouldn’t mention it if I were in his place.
Válasz, a conservative weekly and internet site, desperately tried to give a balanced picture when it comes to responsibility for the poor scholastic performance of Hungarian youngsters. It rightly pointed out that the state of public education is a reflection of the condition of the society as a whole. Yes, but to what extent is the Orbán government responsible for the sick Hungarian society everybody is talking about nowadays? Válasz is correct in noting that public education is a very complicated affair which cannot be turned around overnight. It called attention to some of the core problems of Hungarian education: segregation, great differences in school quality, and the poor educational background of parents of a great number of students. It is also true that given the low prestige of the teaching profession, on balance the quality of teachers is poor.
The problem is that the Orbán government has been in power for over five years and by now, if their policy was sound, there should be some sign of improvement. But I’m afraid the trajectory of the “reforms” is fundamentally wrong, leading to undereducated adults who will not be able to fill the kinds of high-tech jobs our modern age requires. Moreover, the growing number of parochial schools, especially outside of Budapest, only intensifies segregation. Unfortunately, this aligns with government policy. Zoltán Balog is convinced that Roma kids are better off in segregated schools because they allegedly receive more attention there.
444.hu was a great deal more critical than Válasz. In their opinion education is the greatest failure of the Orbán government. Unfortunately, I don’t see any recognition of this fact by those politicians who have been busy in the last five and a half years ruining the already flagging educational system. I found a handy chart that lets you compare Hungary’s performance to other countries in every possible category. You will be surprised.
I think it would be time for Palkovics and Co. to swallow their pride and at least talk to those educational experts who think that the present course should be abandoned and an entirely different approach slowly introduced. However, knowing Viktor Orbán’s unwillingness to admit his mistakes, I fear he, Palkovics and Parragh, president of the Hungarian Chamber of Commerce who thinks he is an educational expert, will decide that all’s well, that they should proceed on the already chosen road to eventual great success. In fact, Magyar Idők yesterday announced that “Hungarian students are outstanding” according to TIMSS results. But if one reads a little further, one also learns that although 12% of fourth graders’ knowledge of math is excellent, the percentage of students who are below grade level is also high (8%), which puts Hungary in the group of poorly performing countries.
But how can the government improve the situation when the minister responsible for education doesn’t think that functional illiteracy even exists? Or when the chief of staff of the prime minister’s office comes up with the preposterous idea that being a good Christian and a good Hungarian is more important than acquiring knowledge since it might soon become outdated? I’m afraid it’s hopeless as long as Viktor Orbán is in power.