A simple idea: All Balkan countries take the OECD PISA test – and the Commission includes it in its Progress Report


Sometimes a simple idea has the potential to have a lot of impact. Here is one simple idea for the day, split into three concrete recommendations:

a. the European Commission – and in particular DG enlargement – ask all Western Balkan countries to take the regular PISA tests of the OECD, as one important way to assess whether in the future their economies will be able to “withstand competitive pressure” – which is one of the 1993 Copenhagen criteria.

b. the European Commission includes the scores of PISA as one of its main indicators in the annual progress report section on economic criteria – and includes a table comparing the performance of countries in the region with the rest of the EU.

c. civil society organisations in Balkan countries use this as a trigger to launch a broader debate in their countries on the quality and importance of education in national debates. Both of which are currently – to put it mildly – sub-optimal for countries trying to converge with a much more prosperous European Union.

This morning I met senior people in DG Enlargement in Brussels and made this proposal. I also made it in many recent presentations with EU ambassadors and EU officials in Paris, Skopje, Zagreb, The Hague, Berlin, Rome, Ankara and Istanbul. And as a result of some feedback I am increasingly hopeful on the first and second recommendation above. (This in turn will help with recommendation three.)

For more on all this see our forthcoming report on how to assess in future progress reports whether a candidate has a “functioning market economy”. For those impatient now, here are a few core facts:

Background: candidates, potential candidates and PISA

It seems obvious: one of the most important factors contributing to future development of an economy is the quality of the national education system.  And one of the most straightforward ways to launch a debate on this is to look at the OECD’s PISA tests, taken since 2000, every three years in some 65 countries.

Take a look at some recent findings:

PISA results – mathematics 2012

Taiwan (top country)[1]

Netherlands (top EU15 country) 523
Estonia (top EU13 country) 521
Croatia 471
Serbia 449
Turkey 448
Bulgaria (lowest EU country) 439
Montenegro 410
Albania 394
Bosnia and Herzegovina

PISA results – reading 2012

Japan (top country)[2] 538
Finland (top EU15 country) 524
Poland (top EU13 country) 518
Croatia 485
Turkey 475
Serbia 446
Bulgaria (lowest EU country) 436
Montenegro 422
Albania 394
Bosnia and Herzegovina

PISA results – science 2012

Japan (top country)[3] 547
Finland (top EU15 country) 545
Estonia (top EU13 country) 541
Croatia 491
Turkey 463
Serbia 445
Cyprus (lowest EU country) 438
Montenegro 410
Albania 397
Bosnia and Herzegovina


These tables raise many fascinating and important policy questions:

1. How can Albania and Montenegro close the serious gap (serious even compared to other countries in the region)?

2. How can all these countries learn from Estonia or Poland, some of the best performers among former communist countries?

3.  Where would Macedonia, Kosovo and Bosnia and Herzegovina stand if they took the test? (Macedonia took the test in 2000: 381 in math, 401 in science, 373 in reading – abysmal scores I discussed in a recent Rumeli Observer; it is now taking it again for the first time this year).

Of course it would also be useful to have other credible education statistics from ALL candidates and potential candidates that allow for EU-wide and Europe-wide comparisons.
Here are some good statistics which already exist for the EU and some of the candidate countries. Again, they raise interesting policy issues.

They might also – if properly highlighted – trigger more important policy debates.



How many 4 year old are in primary or pre-primary education? In the EU

91.7 % of four year-olds were in pre-primary or primary education across the whole of the EU-27 in 2010. Participation rates of four year-olds in pre-primary or primary education were generally high — national averages of over 95 % in Belgium, Denmark, Germany, Ireland, Spain, France, Italy, Luxembourg, the Netherlands and the United Kingdom; as well as in Iceland and Norway. By contrast, Greece, Poland and Finland reported that fewer than 70 % of four year-olds were enrolled; lower rates were also recorded in the EFTA countries of Liechtenstein and Switzerland, as well as in the acceding and candidate countries of Croatia, the former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia and Turkey.”

Only national data are available for Croatia and the former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia (data for 2010), where rates stood at 57.4 % and 24.0 % respectively. More than half of the 25 level 2 Turkish regions reported that less than 20.0 % of four year-olds participated in pre-primary or primary education in 2011. The lowest participation rate was recorded for the southern Turkish region of Gaziantep, Adıyaman, Kilis (9.7 %), while the second lowest rate was recorded for İstanbul (10.9 %).”[4]


“The number of students aged 17 in education (all levels combined) in the EU-27 in 2010 was 5.2 million, equivalent to 91.7 % of all 17-year-olds. The age of 17 is important as it often marks the age at which young people are faced with a choice between: remaining in education; following some form of training; or looking for a job. The number of 17 year-olds in education relative to the population of 17 year-olds exceeded 80 % in the vast majority of the regions within the EU in 2011, and this pattern was repeated across all of the EFTA regions … As such, for one reason or another, the vast majority of young people aged 17 remained in the education system at or even after the end of compulsory schooling.”

This indicates, for instance, a clear problem in Turkey:

“Among the acceding and candidate country regions, the proportion of 17 year-olds who remained in education was above 80.0 % in Croatia (national data) and three Turkish regions (including the capital city region of Ankara and two north-western regions of Bursa, Eskişehir, Bilecik and Tekirdağ, Edirne, Kırklareli). There were four Turkish regions where the proportion of 17 year-olds who remained in education was 50.0 % or lower — they were all in the south and east of the country, namely: Sanlıurfa, Diyarbakır; Mardin, Batman, Sırnak, Siirt; Ağri, Kars, Iğdir, Ardahan; and Van, Muş, Bitlis, Hakkari. The lowest ratio of 17 year-olds remaining in education was recorded in Van, Mus, Bitlis, Hakkari, where the share was only slightly more than one third (35.5 %) in 2011.

“An indicator that presents information about early leavers from education and training tracks the proportion of individuals aged 18–24 who have finished no more than a lower secondary education, and who are not involved in further education or training: some 13.5 % of 18–24 year-olds in the EU-27 were classified as early leavers from education and training in 2011, with a somewhat higher proportion of male early leavers (15.3 %) compared with female early leavers (11.6 %). Europe’s growth strategy, Europe 2020, has set an EU-27 target for the proportion of early leavers from education and training to be below 10 % by 2020; there are individual targets for each of the Member States that range from 5 % to 29 %.”

Tertiary education:

“Tertiary education is the level of education offered by universities, vocational universities, institutes of technology and other institutions that award academic degrees or professional certificates. In 2010 (the 2009/10 academic year), the number of students enrolled in tertiary education in the EU-27 stood at 19.8 million; this was equivalent to 62.7 % of all persons aged 20–24.

In candidate countries:

“In Turkey there was a particularly high concentration of tertiary students in Bursa, Eskişehir, Bilecik — this may be attributed to there being an open university in Eskişehir, where a high proportion of students are enrolled on distance learning courses. Otherwise, the ratio of students enrolled in tertiary education to residents aged 20–24 was below 60 % for all of the remaining regions in the candidate and accession countries.”

Tertiary attainment

“In 2011, for the EU-27 as a whole, just over one third (34.6 %) of 30–34 year-olds had completed tertiary education. These figures support the premise that a rising proportion of the EU’s population is studying to a higher level — in keeping with one of the Europe 2020 targets, namely, that by 2020 at least 40 % of persons aged 30–34 in the EU-27 should have attained a tertiary level education.”

Again Turkey is backward:

“Bati Anadolu (23.6 %) — which includes the Turkish capital city of Ankara — was the only Turkish region to report that more than one in five of its residents aged 30–34 had attained a tertiary level education. By contrast, the lowest ratios … were recorded for the north-east of Turkey (Kuzeydoğu Anadolu), where only just over 1 in 10 (10.2 %) of the population aged 30–34 had attained a tertiary level education.


One thing should be obvious: if PISA rankings and such tables are seriously discussed in candidate countries, everyone would benefit. And if the EU can manage to encourage a focus on such issues – through its own regular assessments – everyone would gain.

So let us hope that this simple idea will indeed be picked up.


[1] Shanghai, Singapore, and Hong Kong excluded as cities.

[2] Sic.

[3] Sic

[6] Croatia, 2002; Serbia, 2004.

[7] Albania, 2007.

[8] Albania, 2009.


Abolish the summer vacation: a realistic Big Goal for Kosovo

They are waiting for a BHAG: children in Kosovo

Governments of small states who want to send a positive message to the outside world need a BHAG: a Big, Hairy, Audacious Goal.  This is not a matter of public relations.  It is about actually doing something new, difficult and innovative, something that both transforms society and carries a larger message for the world about the will of this society to change.

The small country of Estonia (1.3 million people) had a BHAG: turning itself into an internet-savy, forward looking and information-technology-friendly society.  Thus Estonia created a national infrastructure of wireless internet access, free of charge, covering the whole country.  It set out to create early on one of the most advanced forms of e-government.  And while doing so it did not forget to tell the rest of the world about its experience.etf

A few weeks ago in November I went to Tallinn for a meeting of the European Council on Foreign Relations.  Many of the ECFR board members, including, to my surprise, some of the Swedes in our group, had never been to Tallinn before.  At the beginning of the meeting, which took place in the Museum of Estonian Architecture, an Estonian civil society representative gave a 10-minute video-assisted presentation about his country. It was short but effective and even a few weeks later it is easy for me to recall its main messages: that there was an Estonian “singing revolution” (in 1991), which led to independence; that Estonian governments pursued a vision of transparent e-government, including a paper-free government meeting room that has turned into an attraction for visiting delegations; and that Estonia set out to provide free wireless internet access throughout the country as part of a national vision of development. Of course, other Estonian Big Ideas, such as the implementation of its flat tax, have also contributed to its image of being not only open to but a leader in innovation.  This is not a bad record for such a small country on the edge of the EU.

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.

Kosovo policy makers thus need to find a way – despite limited budgetary resources – to make rapid and serious progress in addressing education problems while convincing the rest of the world that in this field the situation in Kosovo is not only not hopeless but that the rest of the region might even learn something from Kosovo.

Learning from Kosovo in the field of education policy?

You can certainly see why this would be both a surprising and fascinating topic for articles in the European press – and conversations in European capitals – in a few years time.  It sounds counter-intuitive enough to be interesting.  But is it possible?

On the other hand: who would have thought that one could learn so much from Estonia even one decade ago?

In fact, being forced to think outside the box can sometimes help identify good ideas. The proposal is simple: Kosovo should become the first country in Europe to abolish the long summer school vacationKosovo 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.  This can be measured by comparing students’ scores on tests at the beginning and at the end of long summer vacations:

“the wealthiest kids come back in September and their reading scores have jumped more than 15 points.  The poorest kids come back from the holidays and their reading scores have dropped almost 4 points. Poor kids may out-learn rich kids during the school year. But during the summer, they fall far behind.”

It is not hard to think of Kosovo pupils as the “poor kids” in comparison to any European country. The average Kosovo household probably owns fewer books than the average Slovenian or Irish household. Vacation time is probably used less often for further education in (still largely rural) Kosovo than in most other European countries. There are also fewer private schools and other education opportunities for children during the summer.

Thus a long summer vacation is a luxury Kosovo should reconsider if it wants to become a competitive economy.  And there are examples for this: while the average school year  in the US is 180 days long, it is some 190 days, in Finland, and 243 days lin Japan (German Länder also have shorter summer vacations; see the article by Michael Barrett below under recommended reading.)

3. Finally, there is a need for a clear and compelling vision to mobilise Kosovo society around the need to dramatically raise educational standards. Currently the realistic goal of Kosovo education policy is to avoid falling further behind. There is already now a huge achievement gap, – and it must not grow even larger.

Not falling behind is not the same as catching up. What Kosovo needs is not merely to prevent the gap from growing: it needs to close it! And the best way to do so is to invest significantly in providing the best possible primary education to children at a very young age.

This would require major efforts: more teachers, adjustments in teaching standards, further revisions of curricula (to focus more time on core skills at an earlier age).  There will be many who would argue that for this or that reason it would be impossible to do.

But if more teachers are required, why should more teachers not be trained? This certainly seems one of the most obvious investments to make in Kosovo’s future. Given extremely low employment rates – especially for women – there is no shortage of potential primary school teachers. Still, government incentives are necessary.

A radical and innovative step such as this would also send a clear signal that Kosovo society is serious about catching up. It is a radical and realistic idea. And if it works, it is only a question of time until some neighbours will come and see whether there is something that can be learned here.

Thinking about a prosperous future for Kosovo requires thinking outside the box.  Current trends will not lead to closing the gap. Kosovo is not in short supply of strategic documents on education: there are strategies for developing higher education, for developing pre-university education, vocational education strategies, a national strategy for entrepreneurship education and training, an adult education strategy, and many more.  However, as one very recent assessment noted:

“None of the planned activities in the operational plans accompanying the strategies have been implemented as foreseen.  This is due not only to unrealistic planning but also to low programming and implementation capacities at all levels of the sector, central and regional.” (Lida Kita, European Training Foundation working paper, May 2008)

Further strategies are being prepared, and a new study is planned to “enable Kosovo authorities to depart from fragmented strategic documents” and move towards a “strategic framework for lifelong learning.” There is a very active and committed young Minister of Education, Enver Hoxhaj. There are some committed donors.  So not all is as bleak as the status quo and current trends would suggest. But Kosovo still urgently needs a Big Idea, and becoming an innovator in the field of education policy seems a very good way to start. Questioning the need for a long summer vacation, and defining the national target as a primary education system as good as anywhere else in Europe, seems a good point to start.

PS: Next week I will travel to Kosovo to give a presentation, show a film, and hopefully to test this idea with policy makers and friends, including the current Minister of Education. If there is any interest to explore this further, there might be some ESI discussion paper on this in the coming year.

Further reading: