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Remaking Ukraine’s education system

Interview with Mykhailo Wynnyckyi, advisor to the Minister of Education of Ukraine. Interviewer: Kateryna Pryshchepa.

November 16, 2017 - Mychailo Wynnyckyj - Analysis

KATERYNA PRYSHCHEPA: You have said that despite popular complaints, schooling and level of school education in Ukraine are quite good or at least not bad. If that is the case, what were the reasons for introducing the new education law?

MYCHAILO WYNNYCKYJ: To answer this question I have to step back and talk a bit about philosophy. Before making an appraisal of educational quality, we should ask: “What is the goal of education?”. Do we want children to memorize certain amounts of information or do we want students to be competent? If we define the goal of education as imparting knowledge, then education in Ukraine is quite good. We can see that Ukrainian students who study abroad, for instance in Poland, quite often know more facts than their Polish counterparts. The problem is that they often do not know what to do with these facts. We would like to change the paradigm of education because we believe that skills – what you can do – are more important than how many facts you know. Nowadays, thanks to technology, the rise of Google and the internet in general, knowledge is free. That is why it is less important that young people know the date of Taras Shevchenko’s birth or the date of the battle of Poltava. What is more important is that a student understands why the works of Shevchenko are significant, who he was, why he wrote what he wrote… Or why the battle of Poltava was fundamentally important for Ukraine and developments in Eastern Europe in general.

How about the historical context? Isn’t it important to place the event in time with respect to other events?

Of course – context is key. But not the precise date.

If we talk about math, for example, there is a discussion whether kids aged six or seven really need to memorise multiplication tables given that calculators are now widely available. It is important that students know how multiplication works, but we might question whether it’s important for them to memorise the whole table. Changes in education will take a lot of time to implement. Firstly, we will have to retrain the teachers. The school books would have to be adapted, and so on.

Wouldn’t it be possible to introduce those changes incrementally without introducing a special law?

Not really. The new law is based on the principle of decentralisation. If the whole education system was to remain centralised, the Ministry of Education would be able to change the schoolbooks and school curricula with its decisions and introduce these changes with its orders. However, based on 25 years of experience, we decided that it would be impossible to introduce such important changes in this manner, as Ukraine is a big country. Therefore, we decided to introduce the principle of decentralisation, which means that decisions regarding school curricula will be made by school principals together with school councils and boards. School councils will include parents of the children who attend the school. The strategy is not without risks, which may attract some criticism in the future, as it will be possible for two schools in the same city to have different curricula. Moreover, schools will differ when it comes to education quality. It is easy to predict that in the near future we will have some very good schools in the countryside and some bad schools in the cities.

How to achieve that in the rural areas? Rural schools have traditionally been underprivileged in Ukraine.

It is important to remember that educational reform is not taking place in a vacuum. There are a number of other very important reforms that are taking place simultaneously.  One of them is decentralisation. The first thing that everyone coming to Ukraine sees now is that there is a massive number of roads being built all over the country. Thanks to that, Ukraine will finally improve communication between smaller towns and villages. This will have implications for the education system.  We have introduced a system of base schools which are tasked with gathering students from smaller villages located up to 20 kilometers away. With a proper road network, these schools will be able to function properly and the system will resemble that of western schooling.

We all accept that young children – up to fourth or fifth grade – need to be schooled very close to their home. But starting from the fifth grade, school curricula include specialised disciplines, which cannot all be taught by one teacher. At present, we often have the situation where one teacher in a small village school teaches a class of four or five students all the disciplines – from literature to physics – and this creates a clear disadvantage for these students. After the introduction of base schools it will become economically viable to have teachers specialise in different disciplines in a rural setting, and the quality of education for Ukraine’s rural children will improve. Education quality in rural areas is a priority issue for the Ministry of Education. But in order to achieve our goals, we need to connect many rural schools. Primary schools – the first to fourth grades – will remain in the villages they are currently based, but starting from the fifth grade, students from small villages will have to commute. Previously, these changes were hard to introduce due to the poor state of road infrastructure in Ukraine. Now, as road conditions are improving, the time of travel for school children will decrease significantly.

Was any specific schooling system used as a reference for reform in Ukraine? The Finnish system seems to be quite popular.

According to the PISA international rankings, the Finnish education system is the leading one at present. What is important to remember is that it took Finland 20 years to achieve these results. Four very important changes were introduced there two decades ago. First, school infrastructure was improved; second, the school management was decentralised; third, teachers’ wages increased; and finally, the teachers’ training system improved. Teachers in Finland have very competitive wages but in order to become a teacher, one needs an MA degree, and the requirements of such a degree are quite high. The standards of teaching are equal throughout the country, no matter if the school is in the capital district or a in rural area close in the Arctic. However, to ensure such a high standard in areas with a small population density, students have to commute up to 50 kilometers to their schools.

I can say that we have tried to implement many solutions which are present in the Finnish system, but it would be unwise to expect immediate results. The effects of these changes will be felt in time.

How do you intend to measure the impact of the reform?

Next year (2018/2019 academic year), Ukraine will take part in PISA testing for the first time. This will allow us to evaluate the schooling and education system in general but also see the difference between the regions as well as between the cities and rural areas. I personally expect a lot of surprises. I expect that Ukraine will have rather good results in math. And the results of the 2018/2019 test will be a benchmark that will give us an idea as to the areas where the most work is needed.

What we are sure of for now is that we need a more decentralised system, we need to switch from pure knowledge to competence/skills oriented schooling. We also have to transition from the Soviet ten-year to a 12 year system.

What is the reason for introducing 12 years of schooling? To have older graduates?

In fact, yes. It is very hard for a young person at the age of 17 – actually I think it’s impossible – to make decisions about his/her future profession. The dynamics of university education, the very system of university autonomy and self-governance, and the mode of teaching called adult-learning is very hard to implement when the students are in fact kids. The university should be a community of adults (even if they are young adults). At the same time, the school curricula at present are overloaded. My daughter, who is a seventh grader now, is already facing a problem of lack of sleep. She is an ambitious student who wants excellent marks. And this is just not right. Because of the school load she does not have time for hobbies, sport etc. We have to stretch the teaching over more years.

Don’t you think that some schools will be able to overload twelve years of school as well?

It is possible, but a lot will depend on the parents. I went to school in Ontario, Canada. We had so many extracurricular activities organised by our own school – sport teams, clubs etc. We usually were back home from school around 6 pm, and did not spend more than an hour per day on homework. In Ukraine, students return home around 3-4 pm. If they have any extracurricular activities they are organised outside their schools. Many students do not have time for that because of the amount of homework.

Recent experience proves that students and parents can be very selective about their schools. And many parents want their children to have a more relaxed school schedule. Alongside the curriculum being stretched over more years, the curriculum itself will be changed.

How much time will the reform of the curriculum take?

There are several possible scenarios. One option is that the reform of the education system will be implemented gradually, and will be extended till 2030. But it can also be implemented over a few years. This is a question of political will. I believe that the decision regarding the speed of reform will be taken after the next elections. At present, we are running an experiment with the new curriculum in 100 schools around Ukraine and 100 more schools in Lviv. Starting from the 2018/2019 academic year, we are going to introduce the 12-year system nationally (with new curricula) for students starting their first grade.

Then, there are several possibilities. We could introduce the new curriculum for fifth and ninth graders in 2020/2021 academic year, or, alternatively, gradually year by year for the students who begin school in 2018/2019, which will mean that the full reform will be completed by 2030. This decision will depend on the minister.

Where will the money for the reform come from? How will you finance the improvement of school infrastructure?

We will need more changes than simple renovations. We will have to implement the same change as Poland, namely a physical separation of primary schools from the rest. For example, there are four schools located no further than a few hundred meters from the place we are sitting now, whereas we should have three primary schools and one well-equipped middle school in this neighborhood. Separating primary from middle schools is both an issue of curriculum and of hygiene. Kids in primary schools should not have to deal with upper-graders smoking in the school toilets.

Refurnishing the schools will be the next stage. I cannot guarantee that this is how it will be done, but I envisage that after the roads, the local government will start to invest in school infrastructure. I believe Ukraine will need five more years to get an acceptable road infrastructure, and after that the local communities will be able to invest in schools and medical facilities. I would very much like to have the curriculum changes fully implemented in the next four years and move to the separation of primary and middle schools next.

There is one big issue related to the new education law and it concerns language norms. Why did the government introduce compulsory instruction in Ukrainian?

The results of the external independent evaluation (centrally instituted national tests which must be passed to graduate from school) demonstrate that over 90 per cent of students taught in schools with the Ukrainian language of instruction pass the compulsory final exam in Ukrainian literature and language. At the same time, in Transcarpathia only 23 per cent of students in Hungarian schools and 30 per cent in Romanian schools pass this exam. This is a compulsory exam to get into university in Ukraine. These are catastrophic results. We have a situation where children graduate from public schools in Ukraine and do not speak enough of the state language to get a minimum passing grade in the final exam.

The new law institutes that primary schools will continue to teach in the language of their choice, but Ukrainian will be introduced gradually year by year into the curriculum, so that school graduates are able to pass all final exams in Ukrainian, and to enter university regardless of the language they speak at home. The law provides that all schools can continue to teach in any language of the European Union, but the role of Ukrainian in the school curriculum should be gradually increased from grade to grade.

Why will Ukrainian be introduced in the fifth grade?

Here we followed the same logic as with the primary-middle school separation. Research in psychology of education suggests that by the fifth or sixth grade, students are ready to move to a more advanced curriculum – including separate disciplines, they are ready to travel further to school and so on. The atmosphere in primary school has to be very special – close to home, with instruction in the same language as that spoken at home. It has to be less strict in terms of grading, class setting etc. But starting from the fifth grade, schooling needs to become more structured. And that is when Ukrainian will be gradually introduced as the language of instruction.

Does the law define what disciplines should be taught in Ukrainian?

There is no such list of disciplines, as the very system of disciplines will be revised. The new law provides that the state will set the skills that schools will have to teach, but it will be the task of the schools to create an appropriate curriculum.

Does the law set the minimum number of hours to be taught in Ukrainian weekly?

No. Because if the ministry starts setting the hours for the precise classes, it will ruin school autonomy.

So in theory, schools can ignore the law? How can the state control teaching in Ukrainian?

Based on final and intermediate exam results. If the school graduates do not pass the exams, the ministry will intervene. But the schools will have a high degree of freedom in achieving the requirements.

So will it be possible to teach the same discipline in two languages?

Yes, absolutely. The only trick the MPs introduced in the very last moment into article 7 of the law on education is the phrase: “languages of the EU”. As Russian is not a language of the EU, the law will cause a closure of schools with Russian as the language of instruction, and this might cause problems.

The Minister of Education declared that Ukraine is ready to subject the law to the analysis of the Council of Europe’s experts. What if the experts conclude that closing schools teaching in Russian violates Ukraine’s obligations as a member of the Council of Europe?

It is possible.

What will the government do if that is the case?

We will think about it if such an opinion is made. But Ukrainian lawyers believe that the European Charter for Regional or Minority Languages covers European languages and does not cover Russian. So it is a matter for discussion. The Russian Federation did not sign the Charter and does not provide its citizens of Ukrainian origin the possibility to study in Ukrainian.

During the past 3 years, I have travelled extensively to the eastern regions of the country. Whenever I meet with parents in the Russian-speaking regions, I am inevitably asked when the ministry will institute stricter rules on teaching in Ukrainian. Parents in these regions want their children to study in Ukrainian, as they understand that their children will not be studying in universities in Russia, and in order to get into Ukrainian universities one has to speak Ukrainian.

There is also a question of human resources. Schools in Hungarian- or Romanian-speaking districts will need to recruit a significant number of teachers who can teach in Ukrainian. How should this be done?

This will be a task for the local authorities according to the principle of decentralisation.

Does the reform of the education system include a reform of teachers’ training?

Institutes of advanced teacher training from every region will be key to implementing the new system. They will have a lot of work to do, as many teachers will have to be re-trained. There are several options that are currently being discussed; there is a scheme that has been implemented in Azerbaijan, where within one year all teachers in the country had to pass an exam. By the end of the year, all the teachers who passed got a significant pay rise. The system reduced the number of teachers – due to retirement or otherwise – by about 20 per cent.

A more moderate option is to have a series of regular exams for teachers, and to make their wages dependent on attestations.

Mychailo Wynnyckyj is an advisor to the Minister of Education of Ukraine.

Kataryna Pryshchepa is a PhD student at Graduate School for Social Research, Institute of Philosophy and Sociology of the Polish Academy of Sciences.

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