Tag Archives: PISA results

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

PISA: The abysmal results of Viktor Orbán’s educational “reforms”

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.

Natural sciences–blue; reading comprehension–yellow; math–orange

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.

December 6, 2016

Viktor Orbán on the success of his educational “reforms”

Viktor Orbán’s interviews, scheduled for every second Friday, usually portend some important announcements. The one held on February 4 began with this sentence by the reporter: “Let’s start with a domestic issue, specifically with the hottest one, education.” Indeed, it is an issue that might have far-reaching consequences for Fidesz’s long-term political future. Since that conversation took place, Mrs. Judit Czunyi, undersecretary responsible for public education, has been removed from her position, and all attempts at appeasing the restless teachers who have had enough of the humiliation they suffer at the hands of the government agency, the Klebelsberg School Maintenance Center (KLIK), have failed. It is also unlikely that the roundtable discussions initiated by the ministry of human resources will yield the kinds of results Zoltán Balog, the minister, was instructed by Viktor Orbán to achieve. The government hopes that with some minimal concessions and a promise of improvements in the functioning of KLIK the protesting voices can be silenced. Or at least this is what Viktor Orbán, who is the mastermind behind the overcentralized, conservative educational system introduced in 2010-2011, hopes. He is thoroughly satisfied with the current state of affairs, and he claims or pretends that the newly introduced system is a vast improvement over the former one.

Just as János Lázár’s statements on the size of Hungary’s public sector were full of untrue claims, Viktor Orbán’s assertions about the state of education in 2010 are equally unfounded. He made three claims: (1) “the Hungarian educational system was financially bankrupt, accumulating hundreds of billions of debt” prior to 2010; (2) “all international assessments showed that Hungarian children’s performance was continually deteriorating”; (3) since 2010 the government “has invested 700 billion forints in education,” which included 450 billion in development and the rest in raising salaries.

No one, not even the most critical opponent of the Orbán regime, maintains that all was well with Hungarian education before 2010, but today teachers as well as students would be happy if they could just return to those days. Critics were vocal then too, especially after 2008 when the government was forced to tighten its belt and education, like everything else, received less money than before. But let’s take a look at a graph that shows government expenditures on education in several countries in the region between 2004 and 2013. Hungary (red) currently spends the smallest percentage of its GDP on education. The decline in expenditures for the sector after 2010 is spectacular. Less and less money has been spent on education, and some of that most likely ended up in the pockets of swindlers hanging around Fidesz. It is enough to read about Árpád Hadházy’s (LMP) February 4 press conference, “Corruption Info,” in which he told details of the incredible corruption around European Union subsidies earmarked for education. The money spent on “development” that Orbán was talking about didn’t do much to improve the quality of Hungarian education.

Government expenditures on the countries of the region as percentage of the GDP

Government expenditures of the countries of the region as a percentage of GDP

I don’t know which international assessment of student performance Orbán had in mind when he talked about the steadily deteriorating student performance because there are several. I decided to take a look at the Program for International Student Assessment (PISA), a worldwide study by the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) of 15-year-old school children’s scholastic performance in mathematics, science, and reading. The first such survey was taken in 2000 and since then it has been repeated every three years. The last one is from 2012. Given the drop in Hungarian student achievement between 2009 and 2012, I dread the results of 2015, which will be released soon.

While in mathematics Hungarian students didn’t improve between 2000 and 2009 with a score hovering around 490, there was a slight improvement in science and a significant improvement in reading during the same period. In this last category in 2000 Hungarian students’ average was 480, but by 2009 it was 494. But then came 2012. Hungarian scores dropped in all three categories. In math from 490 to 477, in science from 503 to 494, in reading from 494 to 488. That meant that in math Hungary dropped from 29th to 39th place, for example. Hungarian students scored lower in all three categories than the mean scores. Moreover, they scored just a little lower than U.S. fifteen-year-olds. I bring this fact up because Hungarians like to think that their education is vastly superior to that of the despised Yankees.

If one takes a look at ministers of education appointed by Fidesz governments, one has the distinct feeling that education was not a priority for Viktor Orbán. Among the Fidesz holders of the office it is only Zoltán Pokorni (July 8, 1998-July 15, 2001) who is considered by everybody, even the socialists and the liberals, to have done a professional job. He started his career as a teacher and was one of the founding members of Pedagógusok Demokratikus Szakszervezete (PDSZ). But after he became chairman of Fidesz he resigned his post. The short tenure of his successor, József Pálinkás, was undistinguished. By 2010 Orbán found education and healthcare so unimportant that he abolished their separate ministries. The first minister of the new mega-ministry was a totally ineffectual medical professor. He was followed by Zoltán Balog, who had absolutely no experience with either education or healthcare. He is a Protestant minister.

The man who served longest as minister of education was Bálint Magyar (SZDSZ), who held the office twice. Once in the Horn government (January 1, 1996-July 8, 1998) and again in the Medgyessy-Gyurcsány government ( May 27, 2002-June 9, 2006). He was the one who began a thorough modernization of the whole system. Although at the time a lot of conservative teachers hated his reforms, today Piroska Galló, head of the Pedagógusok Szakszervezete (PSZ), admitted that it was during his tenure that the national curriculum came into being and emphasis was put on “competence development” instead of rote learning. The younger and more progressive teachers welcomed the new methods, but the older ones were unwilling and perhaps even unable to change their ways. A clearly conservative “educational expert” said the following about this period to Magyar Nemzet:  “During the former government the educational philosophy was liberal. One could choose from a lot of programs, which caused confusion….” Although it wasn’t compulsory, she herself, who worked as a teacher in a gymnasium at the time, “tried competence reinforcing teaching. This is not the only possible method, but it was successful.” Reluctantly, she had to admit that the improvements in reading had something to do with the “liberal” methods introduced by Bálint Magyar. He was also a great promoter of the use of computers in the classrooms, which again wasn’t exactly a hit with teachers who would have been forced to learn new skills.

In any case, after 2006, by which time the minister of education was István Hiller (MSZP), some of the more ambitious plans were scrapped because the government found the computerization of schools too expensive. In 2010 with the Fidesz victory everything came to a halt.

Yesterday on KlubRádió I heard a father who had just returned to Hungary from the United States. He himself is a computer scientist. He called his children’s school in a well-off suburb of Budapest “a computer museum.” Anyone who’s interested in hearing younger progressive teachers describing the situation in Hungarian schools should spend about twenty minutes listening to a discussion on Antónia Mészáros’s program on ATV last night. Perhaps after listening to the reasons for the present revolt we can better understand what the real problem is with Fidesz’s educational philosophy: it stripped the teachers of their independence and it tries to make children unthinking robots.

February 6, 2016