I highly doubt that Hungary’s abysmal PISA results will prompt any kind of reform that would eventually produce a viable educational framework. The reluctance to tackle the problem is already apparent. One Fidesz politician after the other offers reasons why a competence-based system is simply not suited to Hungarians.
The most radical solution came from a registered civic organization called Magyarországi Szűlők Országos Egyesülete (MSZOE), about which we know practically nothing save the name of the editor-in-chief of its website, Sándor Keszei, who is also the organization’s president and spokesman. His solution to the problem is the boycott of the PISA tests because the results “discredit Hungarian students.” Who is responsible for these results? The teachers, “who cannot teach our children to read, write and count by the end of the eighth grade.” This year, he continued, has been a bonanza for the teachers’ unions because they successfully fought for higher wages, less supervision, and greater autonomy for school principals. They are currently fighting for fewer compulsory courses because they want to spend less time in school. The moral of the story is that neither the teachers nor the students work hard enough. If they did, the results would be significantly better.
Of course, Sándor Keszei’s opinion is neither here nor there. We don’t even know in whose name he is spouting off. But when János Lázár says practically the same thing it can have grave consequences. For example, the growing dissatisfaction of the teachers, who in the past were heavily pro-Fidesz. Ever since the government’s introduction of an entirely new regimen and curriculum their dissatisfaction has been growing. And now they, not the “national curriculum” which they have to follow, are being held responsible for the low scores. As Lázár said at his “government.info” last week, the government provided the framework for a successful educational system. Now it is up to the teachers “to fill this framework with content.”
But this is exactly the bone of contention between the government and the teachers’ unions and other civic groups concerned with education. Teachers must strictly adhere to the directives that come from above. I understand that supervisors check the notes of students to see whether their teachers are using certain key phrases. The teachers aren’t providing the content; the government is. Moreover, teachers complain that because the requirements of this framework are so rigid, no time remains to explore any applications of the material they are teaching.
I can’t stress enough that the retooling of Hungarian education after the Fidesz takeover was not done by educational experts. It was the handiwork of Viktor Orbán. Curiously, from what we know about Orbán as a student, he crafted a system that is antithetical to his own personality. As a kid he was very hard to handle and got into all sorts of scrapes. He was enraged by disciplinary action. In high school he was anything but a model student. On the contrary, as he himself admitted, his command of certain subjects was so inadequate that his only chance at a university education was to apply to law school. How it is that forty years later he promoted a strict, confining school experience is beyond me.
Of course, Orbán needed a couple of enablers to put his ideas into practice. One was Rózsa Hoffmann, KDNP undersecretary in charge of education, who shared at least some of Orbán’s general educational philosophy but, as we learned later, knew that the over centralization he advocated wouldn’t work. Or, this is what she claimed afterward. As we know, the centralization ended in total chaos and led directly to the teachers’ revolt that broke out at the beginning of 2016.
Rózsa Hoffmann’s ideal was a classical liberal arts education taught by rote. Orbán the political illiberal didn’t see the point of offering the majority of Hungarian students a liberal arts education. What he tried to do was to merge Hoffmann’s notion of strict rote learning with the ideas of László Parragh, chairman of the Hungarian Chamber of Commerce, who emphasized learning practical “blue-collar” skills and reducing the number of hours spent on academic subjects. In this view, Hungary should have a small highly educated class who can hold their own talking about philosophy, the arts, literature, and history and a large class of manually skilled workers who learn so few academic subjects that in the modern, high-tech world their prospects are practically nonexistent.
Parragh has been quiet but Hoffmann, who had to relinquish her post after the 2014 elections, decided to air her views. Let me quote what she had to say.
The PISA tests are very interesting and eye-catching, but they are far from the ideal classical erudition which traditionally characterizes Hungarian public education. Therefore, considering them as absolute measures would be a mistake. The Hungarian educational system will never be the same, as it shouldn’t be, as some overseas country’s which achieved spectacular results in this competition. If these countries sent their students to a large European museum where one needs knowledge of the arts, history, and the Bible, Hungarian students would win because of their higher general learning. Therefore, I don’t think that the objective of Hungarian public education is that our students lead the way in competitions that measure only competence because this would not reflect our values.
This is the woman who was responsible for public education between 2010 and 2014. As Gellért Rajcsányi, a conservative journalist who works for mandiner.hu, noted, Rózsa Hoffmann lives in a fantasy world. As do the small minority of “privileged parents, students, teachers, and politicians who project their own circumstances and possibilities onto a much more complicated and sadder reality.” If they don’t wake up, they will lead the country to ruin.
Although the current undersecretary in charge of education, László Palkovics, was in the first couple of days realistic and admitted the seriousness of the situation, he soon backtracked. He now blames Bálint Magyar, who was minister of education twice, once between 1996 and 1998 and again between 2002 and 2006, for the 2015 test results. I guess Palkovics received word from above that no retreat is acceptable. He should find a scapegoat–the liberal Magyar, who in fact tried to introduce competence-based education, which was fiercely opposed by the conservative teachers like Rózsa Hoffmann herself who had been brought up in the old methods of learning by rote.
It’s easy to point the finger at the opposition, the test, teachers, lazy students. The reality is that the Hungarian educational system is the major culprit, and nothing will be done about it as long as Viktor Orbán is the chief school superintendent.