The US exchange student who studied in Poland entered a nation undergoing an educational metamorphosis, a process that Finland and South Korea went through decades earlier. Poland was a poor, beleaguered country for most of the twentieth century: blitzkrieged by the Nazis and then under the Soviet Union’s thumb for more than half a century. When the USSR collapsed in the early 1990s, the future looked bright for Poland, and for most of the ‘90s their economy and infrastructure was improving dramatically. The growth was unsustainable, and there were growing fears that collapse and inflation were coming, which would usher in a return to Soviet-esque conditions.
Poland’s Minster of Education in the late 90s made an unorthodox series of educational reforms. After traveling the country and drawing from his several years abroad in the United States, he compiled a 200-page bright orange handbook in order to get Poland through the transitional phase.
The reforms involved making the system more rigorous, introducing accountability in the form of standardized tests, raising expectations of what students were capable of achieving, and preserving the teachers’ autonomy to select texts and design curriculum. Accountability going hand-in-hand with greater freedom for teachers are hallmarks of the Polish system, a theme also present in the Finnish system.
The reform was controversial and met with strong disapproval, as reforms often do. In 2000, Poland, eager to become a respected member of the developed world, had its fifteen-year-olds take PISA. The results? Poland was at the bottom of the stack among developed countries. When the world’s students took PISA again three years later, Poland’s rankings jumped significantly in all three subjects. They’d been the butt of jokes, but not anymore—far less so after 2012, when Polish teens kept pace with high-performing countries like Finland and Canada. The first round of students had grown up under the Communist regime. Poland and the rest of the world were able to observe the extent to which the educational reforms were helping. By 2012, students had started in school under the new educational system, and their high school graduation rates were seven percent higher than the United States’.
Poland’s case shows us that quality education is possible even in a poor country with a haunting legacy of oppression and bloodshed. What is more, it can happen quickly. Looking back on the period of reform, Poland’s Minister of Education says its teachers were the lynchpin that made a world of difference, and they are key to continued success for Poland. It’s safe to extrapolate this to the rest of the world, considering the theme of good teachers has emerged not just in Poland, but in Finland and South Korea as well. Top performing nations prize good teachers.