The experience of Poland over the last three decades provides a European example of dramatic educational change. In the early nineties, more than 60 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 2000, Poland ranked below average in all three subjects. By 2012, Poland ranked in the top ten countries in science and reading and 13th in mathematics. In 2018, within Europe, Polish students were third in math and science, following Estonia and the Netherlands, and fourth best in reading. In all three categories, Poland has improved since the 2015 round of PISA.
Poland instituted two major rounds of reforms in the structure of the country’s education system, the first in 1999 and a second round after 2009. With a change in political leadership in 2015, some of those reforms are now being undone however and it remains to be seen how students will perform on future PISA rounds.
The 1999 reforms abolished the eight-year primary school structure that had existed during the communist era. Under that system, primary school led to a high stakes exam at age 14 that determined whether a student would enter academic or vocational secondary school. The new structure put in place in 1999 includes a six-year primary school and a three-year lower secondary school, which extended common schooling by a year for all students. At the end of the new lower secondary school, when students are 15 or 16, they choose among four options for upper secondary schooling, all of which offer the opportunity to take the matura exam needed for university entrance. Poland successfully raised the academic bar for all students by requiring a common foundational educational experience through grade nine.
This structural reform was accompanied by the development of new external national exams to monitor student performance at every stage of education (after the 6th, 9th, and 12th/13th grades). A new core curriculum was introduced for primary and lower secondary school and the academic requirements of technical and vocational upper secondary schools were strengthened. The new curriculum provided frameworks that allowed schools and teachers flexibility to adapt curriculum for their own students as long as it was aligned with the national frameworks.
The second round of reforms, initiated in 2007, focused on strengthening teacher education to support the new roles of teachers required by the new curriculum, expanding compulsory schooling to include 6-year-olds in a new kindergarten year, expanding early childhood education for all 3-5 year-olds with a goal of 90 percent enrollment for 4- and 5-year-olds by 2020 and adding new regulations and oversight to ensure the quality of care for children under age 3. In addition, the vocational education system was radically reshaped. The training areas were updated and broadened to meet the needs of the global economy with a strengthened role of employers in setting standards and evaluating students.
In 2015, the socially conservative Law and Justice political party (PiS) came to power and remains in place today. The party closed the new middle schools in the name of returning to a more traditional system of schooling with only primary and secondary schools. This has been very unpopular with teachers, many of whom lost their jobs with the closing of middle schools.
PiS also recently instituted a new compulsory exit exam for grade 8 students leaving primary school to determine secondary school options. New pathways at the secondary level include vocational options intended to be more responsive to the needs of Poland’s fast-changing economy. The new structure is being introduced gradually and will be fully implemented in 2023-24.
In addition to structural changes, the Polish government recently introduced a new national core curriculum at both the primary and secondary level that reduces focus on the sciences and adds more curriculum time to history and patriotic education. VET reforms in 2018 are designed to better alignment vocational program offerings to the economy and to strengthen employer involvement in designing curriculum and work-based learning opportunities.
$1.126 trillion, $29,600 per Capita
Unemployment: 4.9%, Youth Unemployment 11.8%
Polish 96.9%, Silesian 1.1%, German 0.2%, Ukrainian 0.1%, other 1.7%
Services: 57.4%, Industry: 40.2%, Agriculture: 2.4%
Upper Secondary Graduation Rate: 88.2%