I have written many times about the state of Hungarian education, which in the last 25 years has gone through multiple changes, not necessarily for the better. In the past I usually concentrated on the quality of education and teaching methods and bemoaned the fact that, as far I can see, life hasn’t changed very much in the last 60-70 years in the average Hungarian school. But now I would like to turn to the teachers, who are the focus of the latest drama in Hungarian education.
In 25 years there have been ten ministers of education, and policy has shifted back and forth. Sometimes policy favored modernization, at other times it looked back a hundred years for its models. The socialist-liberal administrations were the modernizers, and the policies they tried to introduce met with resistance from teachers and their union leaders. Although naturally we have no hard data on the political affiliations of elementary and high school teachers, I would guess that they are basically a conservative lot. Therefore, I assume that by and large teachers were quite happy with the results of the 2010 elections.
Since then, however, teachers who might have been supporters of Fidesz have learned what it’s like to be powerless vis-à-vis the state. After 1990 schools, just like in Canada or the United States, were maintained by local communities. School boards were established and parents became heavily involved in school affairs. Faculty, parents, students, and school boards decided jointly on who, among the applicants, would be the school’s principal. All that is gone. The schools were nationalized and all teachers became state employees. The state established a professional association that every teacher had to join. Its structure was determined in a law passed by the Hungarian Parliament. Most teachers didn’t even know they had become members of this association, Nemzeti Pedagógus Kar (NPK), because KLIK (Klebelsberg Intézményfenntartó Központ), the “employer” of all teachers, hid the application form on the back of a page that teachers had to sign to complete their employment contract. From its website it is difficult to ascertain how many teachers actually participated in electing the association’s officers.
The law that established NPK also stipulated that it must propose an ethical codex. And, indeed, the newly elected leadership came up with a 23-page document which includes the precept that one of the most important duties of a teacher is to practice his profession “in the interest of the nation.” For good measure, a teacher will conduct himself “on the basis of the unity of criticism and self-criticism.” The phrase “criticism and self-criticism” sounds ominous to those who lived through the Stalinist times of the Rákosi regime.
KLIK came out with a 97-page handbook describing the new process of internal self-assessment. Here’s how it works. The principal, who was appointed by the minister in Budapest, will designate three or four teachers whose job, in addition to their regular teaching assignment, will be to assess the work of their fellow teachers. Each teacher must be assessed every two years. Since there are 140,000 teachers in Hungary, this means 70,000 evaluations per year by these self-assessment groups. The evaluations will, of course, be stored centrally. These groups will be called Belső Ellenőrzési Csoportok (BECS), not what naughty internet meme creators called them–Pedagógiai Önértékelési Csoportok, whose acronym is a four-letter word that cannot be uttered in polite company.
Members of these groups will have to conduct interviews and fill out long questionnaires, a relatively onerous task. But the real problem lies elsewhere. The creation of such groups may poison personal relationships within the teaching staff. It rarely happens, but in this case the leaders of the two trade unions agree. Such “self-assessments,” they argue, will be ruinous to the atmosphere in schools. And that’s not all. Parents will also have to fill out long questionnaires, assessing the teachers’ performance. If the teacher gives a child a bad grade, it’s not inconceivable that the parent will write a damning assessment of that teacher. In light of this possibility, a teacher might be afraid to give a bad grade to the child, fearing repercussions. Moreover, it can easily happen that as a result of some subjective criterion (Is she really teaching in the interest of the nation or is she a subversive liberal?) a teacher will be found unfit, which will mean that she will not be able to teach in any school. After all, the teacher is the employee of one central authority, the Hungarian state.
According to TASZ, the Hungarian equivalent of the American Civil Liberties Union, the current Ethical Codex–part of which is the internal self-assessment scheme–is illegal. TASZ has already made suggestions to NPK on how to change the Codex. It is unclear at this point how much of the text will remain intact.
Meanwhile we just found out that on the latest PISA test, designed to measure the digital literacy of fifteen-year-olds, Hungarian students finished dead last among European countries. The results were not made public for a while because the officials of PISA didn’t want to believe the figures. Unfortunately, there was no mistake. Hungarian students obviously have little opportunity to use computers, either in school or at home. As a result, some of the students apparently didn’t even try to answer any of the questions. They just sat there doing nothing. Those who tried had difficulty finding the functions that would allow them to answer the questions. And some of them simply didn’t understand the text about a fictional Belgian village.
But even though Hungarian students have very poor to nonexistent computer skills, we can be happy. They have gym every day, and soon enough they will also have to sing. Every day. Undoubtedly Hungarian folk songs. I wonder how popular this latest brainstorm of the Ministry of Human Resources will be with today’s teenagers.