What is wrong with education in Kosovo? An update

Get this man to Kosovo

A while ago I wrote an article proposing, seriously, that Kosovo becomes the first European country to abolishe its summer vacations. You find it here. The argument was that Kosovo needs a BHAG (a big hairy ambitious goal) to change its international image and to focus on a major problem it faces in the field of education:

“A BHAG transforms or (re)defines a country’s image when it changes local realities in a way that even a critical visitor – the foreign correspondent of a leading international paper, for instance – will accept as impressive. The key is that the policy idea is both fresh and sound and can actually be implemented. It precedes public relations. It is about creating the good story that can later be told.

Which brings me to a Big idea which I believe Europe’s youngest and poorest society, Kosovo, might do well to consider pursuing. It is inspired by Malcolm Gladwell’s last book (Outliers), as well as by ideas I had preparing recent presentations on Kosovo and the state of the Balkans in Vienna, in Valencia (for NATO parliamentarians) and at Harvard. For these I had to reread ESI reports and new material on the state of Kosovo. It was not encouraging reading, to put it mildly.

So here is the basic idea: Kosovo urgently needs to convince first its own citizens and then the world that it is serious about addressing one of its most crippling structural problems, a wide education achievement gap with the rest of Europe. It needs to do so urgently; with the limited resources it has at hand, it also needs to be innovative.

The basic problem is clear: today Kosovars are less well educated and less prepared to compete in the common European market than almost any other society in Europe. School enrolment rates (including at secondary level) are low and have not improved in the past four years. Two out of three young people leave the education system without any qualifications. More than 10 percent drop out of compulsory education. The vocational training system is in dire straits. And there is a lack of money, even if spending on education has increased as a percentage of GDP: it does not help that Kosovo’s GDP is in fact one of the lowest in Europe.”

The proposal was the following:

Kosovo should become the first country in Europe to abolish the long summer school vacation. Kosovo children should be able to spend more hours per day and more days per year in primary school than children anywhere else in the region. This additional time in school could be used to give Kosovo pupils one of the most solid basic educations in the region.

This proposal would address three major problems at once:

1. There is in fact a desperate shortage of space in Kosovo schools. As a number of recent reports noted, school infrastructure is stretched “almost to breaking point” (ETF country analysis, May 2008). The majority of schools in Kosovo operate in two shifts, and a significant minority even in three. Given the growth of Kosovo’s young population, demand for space will increase further.

So there is an urgent need to use space more efficiently. It seems a waste of resources to leave schools empty during the summer. It is also silly, given the need to import expensive energy, not to use the summer months for teaching as well.

2. At the same time, first shortening and then abolishing the long summer vacation could help young Kosovars catch up and – in some fields – overtake other European students, particularly when it comes to basic skills taught at primary school level.

One way to do this with limited resources would be to increase the number of hours and days students spend in primary and lower secondary school classes. Currently, due to space constraints, Kosovars probably spend less hours in school than pupils in most other parts of Europe. The goal should be to reverse this and to use any additional hours to increase teaching foreign languages and basic reading, writing and mathematic skills at an earlier age than in other countries in the region.

As Malcolm Gladwell points out in Outliers, citing the example of a public school in NY, the number of hours spent in school does matter a lot, particularly for those from a disadvantaged background.The tradition of a long summer vacation – “considered a permanent and inviolate feature of school life, like high school football or the senior prom” – is above all a problem for children from poorer families: it is vacation time that explains a large part of the “achievement gap” between richer and poorer children in different tests done in the US.”

For the full argument go here.

Now I received a very interesting comment by Hazel Slinn. Let me share it with you, in the hope that this debate continues:

“Your analyis is broadly speaking correct. However, the lack of progress is not only due to the lack of a BHAG. The Canadian government invested millions (six, I believe) in trying to establish a teacher education system and improved matters with the Ministry of Education. Last week I was in Kosova and it was as if they had never been there. Heartbreaking.

I would add something to your analysis, something that seems to be consistently overlooked – where and how is the space to be made for training the teachers? The Ministry of Education is excellent at producing intiatives. They produced, with the help of the Canadians, standards for teachers, stages for development, requirements and so forth. Policy papers as far as the eye could see. These were given to regional and local education officials who could then brandish them at semi-qualified, poorly paid teachers as a threat, that if they didn’t get qualified by the next school year, or the one after that, then they would have no job at all. However, there was no release to attend training, no scheme for requiring that the university should provide courses for teachers at weekends, or as you suggest, during holidays. Heaven forbid, one should ask a university employee (professor or cleaner) to be present at work when they can be earning money elsewhere. One of my close friends has been enrolled at the University of Prishtina for almost two decades – paying admin fees ever since 2000. The political problems, the war, the lack of money, the lack of time have all prevented her from graduating, so she risks losing her job every September because she is still unqualified, despite being a dedicated professional in everyone’s eyes except the authorities. She is not the only one. And because she is not qualified she is paid a pittance.

The example of Poland should be followed. They had a BHAG, back in 1990. They set themselves the target of training 20,000 language teachers for the year 2000. They were so successful they actually trained more and their language teaching these days is a model for all to admire. How did they do it? The required those of us working in higher education to train teachers in the evening and at weekends. We were paid a little extra for doing it, but it was only for the period of the project. Teachers in school had their timetables blocked so they had all their classes Mon-Thursday lunchtime. Thursdays – Saturdays they were ‘Ours’ – to do with as we wished, well not exactly, to train on a three year programme leading to a degree. Many went on later to add a Masters, which was not required, but they got quite into it.

Kosova is tiny compared to Poland, so why don’t they want to offer their teachers some proper training? It’s easier to hold power over them and make them feel afraid if they remain unqualified maybe? Sooner or later I hope someone will hear my voice. I have been suggesting this scheme since I first worked there in 2000. I sang this song to the UN Department of Education when they were running the show, I have tried to get someone in the Faculty of Education to understand the need to train those who are already in school and I have discussed it endlessly with teachers who are exhausted, underpaid and feeling inadequate.

I hope your idea for a BHAG works – perhaps one day someone will hear my plea. I hope I haven’t ranted too much – I do feel very strongly about this.”