Tag Archives: László Parragh

Hungarian politicians and learning: Not a good mix

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.

Rózsa Hoffmann and her colleagues would have a heart attack facing such a classroom

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.

December 14, 2016

Teachers’ revolt is brewing in Hungary

I have the distinct feeling that something is afoot in Hungary, something the self-satisfied Orbán government is not prepared for. I see the beginnings of a movement that may well overcome the current apathy and resignation of Hungarian society and produce active resistance to the Orbán regime.

What do I have in mind? Primarily, the revolt of the teachers and the healthcare workers. It looks as if dissatisfaction in these professions is so great by now that a few brave people’s call for action has already moved thousands.

Today I will talk about the revolt of the teachers. It all started with a letter the teaching staff of a Miskolc high school wrote to the head of the local school board on November 27, 2015, complaining about the chaos created by the changes in the Hungarian school system since 2010. It is a well-known fact that the Hungarian education system is in shambles, almost exclusively as a result of the badly conceived and executed nationalization of all public schools.

Viktor Orbán’s harebrained ideas, as implemented by an old-fashioned schoolmarm, Rózsa Hoffmann (KDNP), have been a resounding failure. The third culprit in undermining the educational system is László Parragh, president of the Hungarian Chamber of Commerce and Industry, who convinced Viktor Orbán that blue-collar workers don’t need much education beyond being able to handle a hammer. The regime wants to lower the number of gymnasium graduates and increase the number of trade school graduates, who have minimal exposure to academic subjects. The Orbán government also wants fewer college graduates.

But back to the dissatisfied teachers. The letter that was signed by the whole staff of the Ottó Herman Gymnasium in Miskolc spent only one paragraph on their salaries, which have increased somewhat, along with their duties. Instead, they emphasized “the serious problems in the educational system that need immediate remedy.” Tinkering will not do. The whole system is faulty. The new centralized system doesn’t work. Both children and teachers are overburdened with classes that convey mostly useless information that doesn’t prepare students to become thinking individuals. Let’s sit down and honestly discuss what can be done. That is more or less the gist of the letter.

The teachers' room at the Ottó Herman Gymnasium where teachers are supposed prepare for their classes

The teachers’ room at the Ottó Herman Gymnasium where teachers are supposed to prepare for their classes

The head of the local school district who received the letter was sympathetic enough, but he couldn’t do anything. The system is so overcentralized that these problems can be remedied only at the very top. Eventually, the complaining letter was sent to Mrs. Czunyi née Judit Bertalan, undersecretary in charge of public education, who bears a suspicious resemblance to Rózsa Hoffman, her predecessor, both in looks and in methods. Since then, not a word from the ministry.

So, on January 7 the Ottó Herman Gymnasium’s principal and teachers decided to go public. The students immediately assured their teachers of their support. They were proud of them because now they can learn about democracy not just from their history books but also from their teachers’ action. On the very same day two organizations assured the school of their support: the Independent Student Parliament (Független Diákparlament) and the Network for the Freedom of Teaching (Hálózat a Tanszabadságért / HAT). The latter organization, whose members are teachers themselves, hope that the government will take the contents of this letter seriously. Just to give you an idea of the general dissatisfaction, even officials of the Orbán government-created Klebelsberg Intézményfenntartó Központ (KLIK) secretly assured the teachers of their agreement. And that’s not all. The president of the pseudo-association of teachers, Nemzeti Pedagógus Kar / NPK, created on the model of Mussolini’s corporatist scheme, announced that although the teachers of Ottó Herman Gymnasium don’t want to have anything to do with NPK, he is ready to support the initiative. He himself is a principal in Győr who complained to the local paper that KLIK has completely run out of funds. Schools are underfinanced. The situation is so bad that there are cities where teachers can have only one piece of chalk a day, or where there is no money for toilet paper.

Meanwhile more and more teachers, principals, and schools have joined the protest. Teachers of an elementary school in Törökbálint took it upon themselves to track the progress of the movement. They began a website, tanitanek.com (I would like to teach), where individuals, schools, and principals can register to support the initiative of the teachers in the Miskolc gymnasium. As of now 7,810 people have signed up.

The teachers in Törökbálint have their own initiative as well. One of the “innovations” of the Orbán government’s educational reform is something called “belső önértékelési csoport” (BECS). Teachers are supposed to supervise and assess each other’s work. One can imagine what effect such a practice can have on a small community. In any case, the teachers in this particular school are basically refusing to adhere to this demand. They already have 2,644 individual supporters and 44 schools, including some parochial schools, like the Lutheran Gymnasium in Budapest.

The word is spreading. Several schools in Budapest, Debrecen, Pécs, and elsewhere joined the teachers of the Ottó Herman Gymnasium. The most interesting development occurred yesterday when the Baranya Megyei Szakszervezetek Akcióegysége (Action Unit of Baranya County Trade Unions) added its name to the supporters. That means that workers in the processing industry, policemen, steel workers, and social workers are now also involved. Talks have been going on between one of the teachers’ unions and two healthcare activists, Mária Sándor and Tamás Dénes. Mária Sándor is trying to organize healthcare workers, and Tamás Dénes is working to create a united front of doctors, demanding fundamental changes in healthcare.

It looks as if this is a grassroots movement that should not be ignored by the government. But it seems that for the time being Viktor Orbán doesn’t sense the looming danger. There are about 140,000 teachers and about 100,000 people who work in the healthcare system. Yet János Lázár, in his regular Thursday kormányinfo (government info), instead of offering some soothing words, said: “Those people who don’t like their employer can express their disapproval at the time of the parliamentary elections.” What if these people, the majority of whom I suspect voted for Fidesz, actually follow his advice? And he added that instead of criticizing the present system, the teachers should concentrate on the quality of their teaching, which has resulted in declining test scores ever since 2002. “Teachers cannot act as if they had nothing whatsoever to do with this.” Not a good way to handle a potentially dangerous situation for the Orbán government.

The Orbán government’s vision of academe: A huge engineering school

Before I embark on the Orbán government’s latest strategy for Hungarian higher education, let me briefly introduce the past and present cast of characters tasked with overseeing universities. The first major change in Hungarian education under the Orbán regime was to nationalize all the public schools that hitherto had been the responsibility of local communities. This task fell to Rózsa Hoffmann (KDNP), whose idea of a good school hearkened back to the second half of the nineteenth century: rote learning, discipline, uniformity. The government created a mammoth organization to administer these schools. It was the new employer of teachers nationwide, who thereby became state employees. Hoffmann was also responsible for higher education, but here she was even more obviously found wanting. Viktor Orbán, I think, would have been happy to relieve Hoffmann of all her duties, but it wasn’t that simple. She was one of the few Christian Democrats in the government. So a compromise was reached. Hoffmann remained undersecretary for pre-university education, and a new position was created for István Klinghammer, former president of ELTE, who took care of higher education.

Klinghammer was entrusted with a complete overhaul of the system, and within a year and a half he had apparently drafted a respectable proposal. The strategy was accepted by all those concerned, including all the college presidents. It sounded rather promising until László Parragh, president of the Hungarian Chamber of Commerce and Industry, vetoed the plan in November 2013.  And Parragh’s opinion is of great importance because he has Orbán’s ear when it comes to “practical education.” The government should invest money only in fields of study that will create something material that adds to economic growth. Apparently, the other “expert on education”–Zoltán Balog, minister of human resources and a Calvinist minister–also disliked Klinghammer’s plan. I guess it was still too liberal and not practical enough. Klinghammer’s proposal was not even submitted to the cabinet. He was unceremoniously dropped.

In 2014 came the new Orbán government and with it a new undersecretary in charge of higher education, László Palkovics. I have the feeling that in Palkovics Orbán found his man. He is an engineer with a distinguished academic career who in 1995 left academe to hold important positions in Hungary and Germany at Knorr-Bremse, a manufacturer of braking systems. At the same time he is a loyal Fidesz man who is always ready to answer a call from Viktor Orbán. Since for Orbán only the practical aspects of higher education are important, a man who in his career often combined academe with business was a perfect person for the job.

Palkovics gave a long interview to Index from which it became evident that the man can think only in terms of his own field. All his examples came from engineering. Moreover, he vowed that “the state will not finance useless diplomas.”

If I understand Palkovics correctly, universities should be centers of research and development financed by private companies. Currently, private companies and universities apply together for certain state and EU funds, “but the question is how useful these projects are for the university or the economy. … Because this kind of cooperation is only beneficial if they produce actual products that can have market value.” At the moment the faculties don’t quite understand what their role will be in this new reality. He explained that they should produce not just a “study” but a “mechanical drawing.” Palkovics expects the universities to “fill the holes in their budgets” after there are no more EU projects.

tubes

Apparently the bulk of Palkovics’s 77-page proposal on the future of Hungarian higher education is about such schemes. So, it’s no wonder that the reporter asked what will happen to universities teaching the arts and social sciences. “They will not be able to develop marketable products.” Palkovics sees no problem here whatsoever. It seems that “this strategy can be applied to all fields,” but we get no answer about how this will be implemented in the real world. In Palkovics’s simple utilitarian view, teachers or social workers are useful only because of their indirect impact on economic growth. So, we can ask, are philosophy professors useful? Do they have any impact on economic growth? If not, perhaps philosophy departments can simply be phased out. Philosophers tend to be political troublemakers anyway, so their disappearance would only be a boon to the Orbán government.

On Palkovics’s watch entering college or university will be tougher than it is now. Perhaps the greatest hurdle will be the command of a foreign language on a fairly high level. Palkovics downplays this obstacle. In his opinion, “anyone who cannot pass an intermediate language exam after eight years of elementary school and four years of high school is just lazy.” But a few seconds later he indirectly admitted that he himself did not manage to learn a language in high school. As he said, he “learned three languages completely on [his] own as an adult without teacher or school.”

No free education, he said, should be provided for anyone who after graduation must be satisfied with a job that is beneath the level of his educational attainment. And he comes up with a telling joke: “What does an unemployed guy with a B.A. ask another fellow with a B.A.? –May I serve it with a bigger coke and a bigger potato?” Here he is targeting not allegedly unqualified students but fields of study. I take his statement to mean that no free education should be provided for anyone who wants to major in a field for which there are no readily available jobs. I assume he would argue that engineers can always be employed, art historians may end up flipping burgers. STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math) is in, the arts and social sciences are by and large out.

While it seems that fewer Hungarian students will be admitted to university in the future, Palkovics is looking forward to an even bigger influx of foreign students which is, by the way, quite high right now: 7.5%. He wants to increase their number twofold “to fill the capacities” from which the Hungarian “inferior” students are barred.

I don’t know how you feel reading all this but I shudder. While according to a high school teacher in Pécs “the government wants to create talking robots” out of children between the ages of 14 and 18, Palkovics is designing a higher education system that will, I fear, produce what Hungarians call “professional barbarians” who have no background in the arts and social sciences and whose job will be to provide industry with mechanical drawings. And since Hungary doesn’t need an abundance of these barbarians, paying foreigner students will fill “the capacity.” A horrid world is opening up in front of our eyes. And yes, Palkovics is the perfect man to help further Viktor Orbán’s state where people produce things and think mighty few “unproductive” thoughts.

Yet another lunacy: Law on teaching foreign languages

The other day I happened upon a very funny 10-minute video. In Hungary bakers must put a big, ugly paper sticker on every loaf of bread before it goes into the oven. But only bread; other baked goods don’t have to have the sticker. So, a journalist wanted to know why the distinction between bread and, let’s say, brioche. No one the journalist asked could give an answer. People in the industry just shrugged their shoulders. At the end, he asked an official of the Bakers’ Association who naturally had no rational explanation for this idiocy either but said that “there must be order in this world.”

Every bureaucracy tends to overregulate, but what has been going on since the Orbán government came into power defies imagination. Regulation on top of regulation in all aspects of life, which naturally makes not only the individual’s life ever more complicated but also negatively affects business activity and hence economic growth.

As we know, Hungarian education suffers from overcentralization and useless bureaucratic constraints. More and more paper work to satisfy the authorities at the top of the pyramid overburdens the teaching staff. Striving for absolute uniformity of teaching material kills the individual initiative of both teacher and pupil.

After “reforming” public education, the Ministry of Human Resources began work on a new law governing higher education. This project, however, was recently put on ice since the proposed bill that had been hammered out by István Klinghammer, the newly appointed undersecretary of higher education, was torpedoed by László Parragh, president of the Hungarian Chamber of Commerce and Industry. Parragh has peculiar ideas about the purpose of  higher education–ideas, however, that Viktor Orbán finds attractive. Parragh’s “veto” meant that the entire draft had to be pitched.

Then there was the new law on adult education, a task that fell to the officials of the Ministry of Economics. This is the law, in effect since September 1, that prompted an outcry in the community of teachers of foreign languages. There are large language schools for which, it seems, the law is tailored because they are the only ones who can fulfill all the requirements stipulated in the law. The Ministry refuses to divulge the names of organizations that were consulted in connection with drafting this bill, but eventually it became clear that there were only three: the association that represents large language schools, Parragh’s Chamber of Commerce and Industry, and the National Chamber of Agriculture. There is an association that represents smaller language schools called Nyelvtudásért Egyesület (Association for the Knowledge of Foreign Languages) whose aim is to promote wider knowledge of foreign languages. No representatives of this association were invited to participate in the preparation of the bill. In addition, there are the thousands of private teachers who are either freelancers or who teach in high schools during the day and in the evening have a few pupils.

languages

According to the law, no distinction is made among these groups. All of them must put up 1 million forints as insurance that they don’t run away with the money of their pupils. All of them must follow the same curriculum, the same books, the same lecture structure. All of them, even private teachers, must have separate toilet facilities for the students. All such teaching facilities must provide daily data on the number of students entering their courses as well as school attendance and the number dropping out. The rules even dictate that the teacher must have a copy machine and a printer, two separate pieces of equipment. As one private teacher pointed out, since he has a multifunction printer he is not eligible. The same teacher complained that there is not one word in the law about teaching online, which constitutes a good portion of his teaching activity.

There is one exception to all of these rules: those teachers who concentrate on specific language competencies. For example, special vocabulary for doctors, for mechanical engineers, computer scientists or for that matter pastry chefs or bricklayers. Here I see the hand of Parragh who has no appreciation of anything that is not practical.

If this law remains in its present form, Hungarian foreign language teaching will receive another blow. Only very large language schools will remain, where apparently the classes are too large. According to some teachers, as many as sixteen pupils make up an average class. I know from personal experience that one learns nothing useful in such surroundings. It is possible that smaller language schools operating with only a handful of teachers will not be able to fulfill all the requirements because, as it is, they are struggling to keep their heads above water. They might have to throw in the towel, and their teachers will most likely go to work for the few large schools. As for the private teachers, they will either stop teaching or go “underground.”

The incompetence of the people who have joined the ministries since Fidesz won the election in 2010 is really staggering. First of all, I don’t know why the Ministry of Economics was entrusted with drafting a law that deals primarily with education. Yes, one could argue that the knowledge of foreign languages has something to do with business, but teaching is teaching. Moreover, not only adults turn to language schools or private teachers. Many high school students find that what their high schools offer is simply not enough to pass the language exams necessary to acquire a university degree.

These incompetent bureaucrats feel so powerful and knowledgeable that they don’t ask experts in the field to help but instead listen to lobbyists and leaders of business or agricultural trade associations who surely are unfamiliar with the topic of foreign language teaching. Moreover, I even doubt that they understand what the professions they represent actually need. Let’s hope that the outcry that this law spawned will result in some changes. If not, its consequences will be dire, the profession predicts.