Global Perspectives: How Poland Moved into the Top Ranks of International Performance

By Austin Delaney and Jackie Kraemer

The most cited examples of educational transformation are drawn from East Asian jurisdictions like Singapore and Shanghai. The experience of Poland over the last two decades, however, provides a European example of dramatic educational change. In the early nineties, emerging out of the Communist era, more than sixty percent of adults living in rural areas in Poland had only a primary school education. Now Poland is among the top performers on the latest PISA assessment of student performance. In fact, Polish student academic achievement on PISA between 2000 and 2012 showed the third highest level of improvement of all PISA participating countries.

Poland PISA results – going in the right direction

In the five rounds of PISA administration, Poland has made considerable progress in improving student learning outcomes. When the first PISA assessment was administered in 2000, Poland performed poorly, scoring well below the European Union average in all three subjects (mathematics, reading and science). By 2012, the country was ranked in the top 10 on science and reading and 13th in mathematics. The proportion of low-performing students in mathematics decreased from 22 percent in 2000 to 14 percent in 2012 and the proportion of high performers in mathematics increased from 10 percent in 2000 to 17 percent in 2012. Poland is one of only four European Union countries with less than 15 percent of students who were low achievers in mathematics, a key benchmark target of the European Union’s Education and Training 2020 strategy.

Poland’s Performance on PISA 2012

Poland Mean Scores 2012

Notable about the PISA results for Poland is the consistent trend upwards, as the graphs below clearly show. A consistent trend of improvement suggests that the policies and practices Poland implemented should be of interest to policymakers focused on improving student performance in their countries or states. The graphs highlight two major jumps in student performance, one from 2000 to 2006, and the other from 2009 to 2012. The two stages of improvement were likely driven by different educational reforms: changes in the structure and governance of the education system in the first instance, and reforms in teaching, vocational education and early childhood education more recently.

Poland Pisa TrendsV3

First stage reforms – PISA 2000 to PISA 2006

The design of the basic structure of the Polish education system in the Communist era (1945-1990) was significantly different from the structures of education systems in most countries. Poland had what is described as an “8-4 or 8-3 structure”, with primary school made up of eight grades starting at age 7, rather than the standard six grades in most countries. At the end of primary school when students were 14-years-old, they completed a demanding test called the kuratoria. Students scoring in the top 20 percent on this test were allowed to attend a secondary school whose programs focused on academic subjects preparing them for university. Students scoring in the next 30 percent on the test entered technical secondary schools and students scoring in the bottom half entered basic vocational schools. This early streaming limited opportunities for students to participate in academic secondary and higher education. Students in technical schools and basic vocational schools had no pathway to higher education.

The Polish education reforms of 1999 enacted seismic changes to the education structure. Primary school education was changed to a six-year format for students aged 7 to 12, a lower secondary school – the gymnasium – was introduced for students between ages 13-15, and optional paths in upper secondary were introduced including the academic lyceum (3 years), a new specialized lyceum (3years) which offered general vocational education as well as an academic program, technical lyceum (4 years) which offered technician level vocational education alongside an academic program and basic vocational school (2-3 years). The new structure delayed the streaming of students by a year and provided an extra year of compulsory academic studies, particularly beneficial for struggling students who otherwise would probably be assigned to vocational training. The impact of these changes was seen very quickly. By 2004, roughly half of Poland’s students went to an academic lyceum, a significant difference from the Communist era when only the top 20 percent of students attended academic upper secondary schools. That same year, a quarter of students attended the new technical lyceum, 14 percent of students attended specialized lyceum and the remaining 14 percent attended basic vocational schools. The introduction of new lower secondary schools with a new curriculum that included compulsory courses in reading, mathematics and science also enabled a broader development of academic skills in Poland.

Poland’s Education System

Poland Flow Chart1

In addition to the new structure, a new national examination system was rolled out in the 2002-2005 period. This included a standardized national assessment at the end of primary education and examinations at the end of lower secondary and upper secondary education. The results of the primary school assessments are made available only to the schools and the information is used by schools as a diagnostic tool to improve teaching and learning. This test is not used to determine which lower secondary stream primary school graduates can enter. Instead, students and their families are informed of the areas they have mastered and which areas they still need to work on. The national examinations at the secondary level do have stakes for students, however the lower secondary examinations determine what type of upper secondary school students are offered and the examination at upper secondary education (Matura) is used as an entrance examination for university education. A key difference from the pre-reform era is that the Matura examination is now open to students in all upper secondary schools, opening the pathway to higher education for all students. Students in basic vocational schools could add an additional two-year program onto their studies in order to prepare for the Matura. In addition to Polish literature and a foreign language, mathematics was also made compulsory in the Matura, aiming to expand the technological and scientific skill base of the country.

The curriculum was also altered considerably in this period. In addition to removing ideological content left over from the Soviet era, Poland introduced the General Education Core Curriculum in 2004 which laid out general objectives that all students must meet along with the subject areas and topics that the curriculum must cover. Teachers were allowed to create lessons or choose among approved commercially developed curricula. The aim of this approach was to change the traditional teaching philosophy in the schools and empower teachers to be more independent and innovative.

The dramatic scope of this first stage of education reforms in Poland required implementation over a number of years and impacted different cohorts of students as the reforms rolled out. Students that took PISA 2000 preceded the reforms, however students in the 2003 round started their education in the old primary education system but attended the new lower secondary education. Students in the 2006 round had attended both primary and lower secondary education in the new system, as shown in the diagram below. Poland’s PISA scores went from below average in all three subjects to average in math and science and above average in reading. In fact, in reading Poland ranked 9 of 57 countries in 2006. During this same period, PISA scores for U.S. students slipped slightly in science and math and stayed about the same in reading. Poland was the only Eastern European country to increase its reading score consistently between PISA 2000 and PISA 2006.

Source: World Bank Knowledge Brief: Successful Education Reform: Lessons from Poland (November 2010)

Complementing the reforms to the structure of the education system and the instructional system were significant changes to how schools are governed in Poland. In the Communist era, management of the education sector was centralized. In the 1990s, the national government transferred managerial control for close to 40,000 schools and educational institutions to different levels of government. The responsibility for managing and financing preschools and primary schools was transferred to municipal governments (gminas) and the responsibility for secondary schools, including specialized secondary schools and in-service training facilities, was transferred to the county level governments (powiats) and state governments (voivodships). In Poland, there are 16 states, over 300 counties and over 2000 municipalities. Most major cities are both a county and a municipality. The national Ministry of Education retained a supervisory role for national regulations such as the required hours students must be in school, standards and curricula, and school inspections and performance ratings. Most public expenditures on education comes from grants to local authorities from the national government.

Second stage reforms – PISA 2009-2012
The reforms in Poland’s education system in the 1990s and early 2000s saw Polish PISA scores in science and mathematics converging to the OECD and EU average. However, from 2009 to 2012, Poland emerged as a top-performing country, particularly in reading and science, a more unexpected achievement. This more recent jump in student learning outcomes as measured by PISA could be due to both the cementing of the structural and governance reforms enacted earlier as well as significant new reforms in vocational education, early childhood education and teacher quality throughout the 1990s-2000s.

Vocational Education
In the Communist era, vocational education, training schools and workers’ universities in Poland were geared towards specific industries (e.g., mining, agriculture). But with the restructuring of the economy, many state-run companies were closed down. Vocational education was transformed from a very specialized system, with training focused by industry and occupation, to a broader experience covering more sectors of the economy, more general education subjects, new program areas like entrepreneurship, foreign languages, and IT studies, all to meet the needs of the improving Polish economy whose companies were now competing in a global marketplace.

New upper secondary basic vocational schools and specialized and technical lyceums along with new tertiary vocational options created a series of vocational pathways for young people resulting in high quality certifications. Upon completion of the upper secondary options, students can now work towards a matura and enter university education if they choose to.

For those 16-year-olds who have completed lower secondary school and are not in the academic track, Poland provides apprenticeships lasting two or three years. Polish apprenticeships combine workplace experiences with classroom training at a basic vocational school and lead to a vocational diploma. The Polish Association of Crafts and the Federation of Polish Employers have developed networks of companies that provide work placements.

In the Communist era, the issuing of vocational education qualifications to students was the sole responsibility of school principals. However, the lack of transparency and the potential for abuse undermined the reputation and quality of vocational education in Poland. In the new system, regional examination commissions with employer and trade union representation are responsible for the certification, evaluation and issuing of vocational qualifications. Students take their examinations at an accredited examination center which can be a school, a training institution or a workplace. The examinations measure the knowledge and skills that students need to perform professional tasks and begin employment in their respective profession or industry.

Early Childhood Education
Pre-primary education was not well-developed in Poland before the 1990s. At that point, less than half of all three- to six-year-olds were enrolled in any type of pre-school. The limited participation of children in preschool education was due to the stagnant budget, precarious economy and the high cost of private kindergartens. In 1997, Poland made publically funded “kindergarten” compulsory for 6-year-olds. An optional transition year or zero year (Zerowka) which aims to assist children in making the transition from preschool to primary school was also added. The Ministry of Education provided funds for local governments to offer preschool to 3-5-year-olds and set new benchmarks to reach 90 percent enrollment by 2020. Since then, Poland has made significant strides against this benchmark. Early childhood education for 5-year-olds increased by 33 percent between 2005 and 2011. Enrollment rates for 3- and 4-year-olds have almost doubled since 2004, representing a 22 percent increase for 3-year-olds and 26 percent for 4-year-olds. The quality of preschool education has also improved, with efforts to raise the salaries and the educational backgrounds of preschool teachers and better monitoring and regulation of public nursery schools and childcare institutions for children age 3 and below, including documentation of the teaching process in these institutions.

Teachers and Teaching
Within the framework of the new core curriculum implemented in 2008, teachers can develop their own lessons and materials, or choose from approved programs. Innovative teaching methods are encouraged. This has impacted teacher education and training by changing the focus to include instructional strategies, not just the traditional emphasis on subject content and knowledge. In addition, a new system to evaluate the quality of teaching in the new lower secondary schools was introduced. The capacity of teacher professional development in Poland was enhanced with the establishment of the Centre for Education Development, a center of excellence in teacher professional development. And recently, the OECD TALIS survey found that Poland has one of the highest rates of participation in professional development networks, mentoring and peer observation among participating jurisdictions.

Schools in Poland have established pedagogical councils made up of at least three teachers as well as members of the school’s management. Councils are responsible for the approval of the school action plan, decisions related to marking and promotion of students, and issue opinions on the organization of school activities. Councils also focus on creating a professional work environment for teachers. For example, teachers spend 513 hours in front of classes teaching in Poland, significantly below the OECD average of 703 hours, allowing teachers to spend more time in preparing classes alone or with other teachers.

A new salary system for teachers was introduced in 2007. Previously, teachers were paid based on the number of hours they worked and the number of years in the profession. The new system calls for salaries to be based on teaching quality, innovative teaching practices, strong commitment and exceptional performance as well as their professional qualifications and experiences. The new system also provides for bonuses for schools that achieve excellent results.

Poland has made a tremendous economic, social and educational transition over the last 25 years, dramatically improving economic opportunities and the quality of life in the country. During this time, Poland has risen rapidly in the international education league tables, witnessing a five-fold increase in university enrollment, and attained a reputation, to cite one commentator, as an “Eastern European Education Powerhouse”. That can be seen as the amount Poland spent per pupil almost doubled during this period when Poland’s economy grew dramatically in the years following the break from Communist rule. This allowed Poland’s spending on education as a percent of GDP to stay about level, actually decreasing from 5.5 percent in 2004 to 5 percent in 2010.

The abolition of early tracking, the extra year of common lower secondary education, and the ability for students to move across streams and into tertiary education could have significantly contributed to the improved Polish performance on PISA, a lesson that the rest of the world should take note of. Some states in Germany have also delayed streaming of students and, like Poland, have seen better PISA results. And systems such as Singapore, which have provided multiple pathways to tertiary education which Poland has started to do, lead the international league tables. Broadening the offerings in vocational education to expose students to the world of work across a variety of occupations within an industry coupled with workbased learning opportunities simulated in training centers or through apprenticeships are something to keep an eye on as Poland’s vocational system matures. Other reforms including the broadening of the core curriculum, the revisions in teacher pay systems, and the expansion of early childhood education have further strengthened the country’s education system and established Poland as a top-performing country on international examinations.