We can learn from those doing it better

Poland’s gains in mathematics and science on the 2012 Program for International Student Assessment (PISA) has made big news in the United States. The impressive achievements by 15-year-old Polish students contrast starkly with the scores of American youngsters. Scores for American students have remained flat since the tests were first given in 2003 to more than 500,000 students in 65 countries, representing 80 percent of the world’s economy. As a result of these divergent trend lines Polish students now outperform their American peers in both math and science by a significant margin.

I was a high school teacher in Poland in 1990-91 and again in 1994-95. In 1990-91 I taught in a town of about 15,000, and in 1994-95 I worked in one of Warsaw’s elite high-schools. The children of the students I taught are now the generation of students in Poland who are outpacing much of the world in academic achievement. After reading the new PISA report I am not surprised by Poland’s academic success. The students I taught had many of the attributes for success that now benefit their own children.

These included families that cared deeply about education, and who believed that education was the pathway for upward mobility. By doing well in school, children could do more with their lives. This was a belief I saw in the parents of both students in small town Poland and among Poland’s elite.

Poles also take great pride in knowledge, acquiring it, and showing it off. I was always amazed, and more than slightly embarrassed, by how much more Poles knew about American and English literature, the history of mathematics and how to use math (Poland is the home of Copernicus), and science (especially the natural sciences) than I did. I spent hours with Polish families and students in the forest hunting mushrooms, talking about the wildlife we saw, and being asked what this tree or that plant was called in English.

Poles also respect and admire teachers. I saw this in many ways while working in Poland in the 1990s. Parents and students would constantly approach me and other teachers with kind words and formal greetings of respect. I was always called “Mr. Ryan,” and was never addressed by my first name. Parents of students would invite teachers to their home for dinner or just to participate in conversation. I also saw small towns come up with creative and affordable apartment packages to entice top teachers from larger towns to work with their children. These teachers were seen as valuable assets to their community.

Poles in the 1990s were also opened to doing things in new and radically different ways. For example, the Polish parliament in 1989 voted for pursuing “Economic Shock Therapy.” This policy triggered the sudden release of price and currency controls, withdrawal of state subsidies and immediate trade liberalization within the country, and included the large-scale privatization of massive public-owned factories and assets. In one fell swoop the economic foundation for communism was tossed aside for market-based capitalism.

Poles also embraced bold reforms to their education system in the 1990s that included decentralizing some of the decision-making around education from central government control to individual schools, to creating new and more rigorous national academic standards, to allowing the creation of private schools, to crafting better systems to identify struggling students and getting them needed help, to providing support for new teachers, and building new schools in place of those built before World War I. Poland also put in place a number of reforms to their higher education system that made Polish universities far more competitive with other Western universities, and as such raised expectations for Polish high-school graduates.

Education researcher Andreas Schleicher summarized the changes in Poland for the Wall-Street Journal thusly, “Poland launched a massive set of reforms, while we cannot say for sure they caused the improvement, they certainly are…a sort of plausible explanation.”

Finally, Poles were very quick to learn from other countries that seemed to be doing it better than they were. They would swipe good ideas that could benefit their schools and their students. This is something Americans should do as well. Lets learn from those doing it better than we are.