Functionally Illiterate: Why did Kosovo perform so poorly in PISA?

Reforms focusing on digitalization will not save Kosovo’s education system, which needs to build itself up from the basics.

Close to 80 per cent of Kosovo’s 15-year-olds are functionally illiterate. This means that they can technically read and write, but cannot apply those skills meaningfully to anything in their lives, be it school, play, or work. The OECD Program for International Student Assessment, PISA, ranked Kosovo 15-year-olds last for reading performance (together with Lebanon). Through a number of carefully designed questions, they assessed: “how well can 15-year-old students understand, use, reflect on and engage with written texts?” Similar results were obtained in math and science – with Kosovo ranked third from the bottom of the list of over 70 countries tested. How did this happen?

In summer 1999, as soon as the war was over, Michael Daxner, a UN education administrator from Germany, was put in charge of education in Kosovo, and he promised to revolutionize the education system. He wanted to do away with the sub-standard “parallel education” of the 1990s that Kosovo was forced into during the years of Serbian political repression. He put together a team of experts to write a new modern curriculum. While his team was working in an office somewhere in isolation, trying to overcome the language barriers between the ‘locals’ and the ‘internationals’ on the team, Daxner had to open schools, hire teachers, and approve textbooks. He could not train 20,000 new teachers and draft hundreds of books over night, so he re-hired all of the ones who worked in the 1990s and approved all the books used in the 1990s. While Daxner was making a “revolution” in education policy through a modern curriculum, he ensured full continuance of the 1990s educational practice.

But Daxner’s mistake was not in failing to revolutionize education. It was that he installed a very dangerous practice in the way education matters were dealt with in Kosovo, where policy makers designing education reform can remain completely isolated from the reality in the schools. So 10 years later, when the UN was long gone from education governance, Kosovo’s own education minister tried to address the lacking quality of education by drafting a newer, even more modern curriculum. He hired a team of “visionary” experts who again refused to take into account the realities of Kosovo schools and wrote a curriculum for where they thought Kosovo schools should be. The new curriculum framework was finished in 2011 and uses a lot of jargon to explain the competencies that students in Kosovo need to have by end of grade 12, in a way that is completely unhelpful to teachers and educators. Since this framework was not followed by subject curricula or textbooks, its piloting largely failed to produce any positive results. But it did produce negative results by taking up all the energy and resources from the ministry, in addition to making teachers confused and frustrated.

What is the reality in schools? Well, most schools are in rural areas and sorely underfunded. Most schools – including the ones in the cities – do not have libraries. Or if they do, they are poorly supplied and only with outdated literature. Most teachers are not well trained to teach: they either obtained their degrees in the underfunded ‘parallel’ system in the 1990s or attended the newly established Faculty of Education, which underwent five head-spinning reforms in its 10 year existence. Some teachers teach subjects that they do not have training for, so they can make up the lost teaching hours in their subject of training from a reduction of students in their rural school. Some teachers are too old and sick to teach, but since there are no early retirement programs they stick around. A test conducted by a German organization with mathematics and science teachers showed that a considerable number of teachers could not pass a simple test in the subject they teach.

With its recent history of segregated-parallel schooling, war damages, and lack of appropriate funding for education, Kosovo needs to start with the basics: provide schools with lots of books and provide basic, quality teacher training in literacy, mathematics, and science. This sounds simple, but it is harder to implement than a decision to hire a team of “experts” and throw donor money at them to draft a jargon-infused curriculum framework.

While it is the Ministry of Education that has made these bad decisions to implement education policies disconnected from the reality in Kosovo, the ideas for those policies came from elsewhere. Well-meaning, but very misguided, donors from the EU countries and North America spent millions and millions of euros on education in Kosovo. They insisted on cutting edge technologies, digitalization and latest teaching methods – ignoring the lack of basic skills and resources in the country.

Kosovo is not Finland, nor Estonia. It is not even Croatia or Albania – both of which scored below average but are doing much better than Kosovo. It is easy to ship computers into a school and check the box for a “digitalization” project. It is much harder to build student-relevant content to put in those computers, or to provide teachers with the content and pedagogical skills to teach their subjects.

All hope is not lost, however. The Ministry of Education did a courageous thing by taking part in PISA. They knew results would be bad, yet were willing to expose this to the world, maybe hoping that it will cause outrage (within its own ranks too!) and mobilize people and institutions to do something about it. Now comes the hard part of having the national debate on how to move forward and the herculean task of implementing a meaningful education reform. A bigger chunk of the public budget needs to be dedicated to education: supplying libraries, building new ones, implementing reading programs, and implementing math teacher training programs. Kosovo needs a reform that will go back to the basics and focus on literacy (in first and second languages), numeracy, and science – a reform that will build these basic skills right so they serve as the foundation of the knowledge that Kosovo youth need to acquire.

Dec. 7, 2016. Correctionsan earlier version of this article did not include the first name of Michael Daxner.


07 December 2016 - 14:06

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