Maciej Lis is Senior Economist at the Institute for Structural Research (IBS), Warsaw.
Over the past 25 years, Poland has made tremendous progress on the economic front — closing by half the GDP per capita gap with developed countries. However, it now needs new engines of growth to keep the pace, lower the high youth unemployment rate — at 24 percent — and make better use of the available labor. One way to achieve this would be improving human capital, which is also essential for further structural change — such as reducing the agricultural sector's role, modernizing industry, and enhancing productivity in services.
Laying cobblestones in Krakow. Photo credit: Flickr @Let Ideas Compete
That is why it's encouraging to see better international educational test scores in recent years in Poland for 15-years old (PISA) and the working population (PIAAC), on top of higher enrollment rates in tertiary education over the past 15 years. Yet, some concerns must still be raised about the overall quality of education and skills preparation for a workforce in an increasingly high-tech, dynamic, globalized world. Keep in mind that although educational systems strongly influence the formation of skills, it might take 10 to 20 years for a higher quality education to be felt in the labor market. Thus, an accurate diagnosis of current educational output is crucial for not only assessing the impact of educational changes but also the anticipated future shape of the labor force — and thus the country's future growth potential.
High Marks for Progress in Most Areas
Let's start with the good news. In the latest round of PISA (Programme for International Student Assessment) testing, Polish 15-year-olds were counted among the best in the OECD in terms of achievement in math, reading, and science tests (see Figure 1). These achievements occurred after a period of little progress in scores between 2003 and 2009. That said, Polish teenagers were already in the forefront of the European Union (EU) as early as 2003. Polish high school students outperform not only their peers from Western and Eastern Europe but also their older colleagues. This means that today's 15 -year-olds would outperform the gymnasium (junior high school) graduates from 3, 6, or 9 years ago, if travelling in time were possible. Moreover, the most recent improvements in skills extends to top, medium, and weak students — in other words, a reduction in the percentage of students who cannot cope with even the simplest problems was accompanied by an increase in the percentage of those being able to solve complex problems. In earlier PISA testing rounds, it was mainly the weaker students who improved.
Figure 1: Major educational advances except in problem-solving
(PISA scores in Poland, Finland, U.S., and whole OECD: 2000-2012)
The improvement in skills of Polish students is affirmed by the results of the PIAAC (Programme for the International Assessment of Adult Competencies) study, which investigates the skills of the population aged 16-65 (see Figure 2). The gap between Poland and the OECD average disappears for the youngest cohort (16-19) in all three dimensions studied — problem solving, numeracy, and literacy. Still, Poland has a ways to go to catch up with Finland.
Figure 2: The younger the better
PIAAC 2012 results by age group
Problem Solving Poses a Major Problem
The not-so-good news is that solving creative problems is much more difficult for Polish students, according to an additional PISA module (see Figure 1). They are clearly below the OECD average, with the top gap in the OECD between results from other tests and creative problems solving. In other words, math and reading test results would imply that good as well as weak students would score much better when solving creative problems. Moreover, Poland is behind the United States in this module, although it is ahead in the other modules. Even the PIAAC score in problem-solving puts Poland below the OECD average except for the youngest cohort (see Figure 2). Complicating factors might be Poland's lower level of urbanization and lower level of technological saturation compared with not only top scorers like Korea and Japan but also regional neighbors like Estonia and the Czech Republic.
One other educational measure — Poland's specific gymnasium final exam — raises additional worries (see Figure 3). The raw scores of the exam cannot be easily compared among cohorts, owing to fluctuations in the level of difficulty of tests in subsequent years. However, this problem could be dealt with by using appropriate statistical techniques that would yield comparable results over time. The conclusions are not very optimistic: the results in math and science have worsened since 2008, although those for the humanities have remained stable
Figure 3: A mixed report card at the gymnasium level
(Standardized gymnasium test score in Poland)
Origins and Outlook
What might be driving the improvements in some areas? First, the education system has benefitted from greater demographic changes in recent years, resulting in fewer schools (especially primary schools in rural areas), smaller class sizes, and the typical merging of gymnasiums with secondary schools (rather than with primary schools) in one building. Second, although commuting to schools in larger agglomerations is more cumbersome and costly, it enables children from vulnerable backgrounds to catch up more quickly. Third, the core syllabus for gymnasiums has been sharpened and made more cohesive between successive levels of education. Fourth, there might be a delayed benefit of the rising tertiary education enrollment in the 1990s and the sharp rise in the percentage of university graduates aged 25-29 — up from 8 percent in 1995 to 42 percent in 2012 — given the vital role of family in skills formation.
Certainly the overall better report card for Polish teenagers bodes well for their and Poland's future. However, it is far too early to declare the educational system a great success, given the disappointing results on problem-solving skills — an essential tool for succeeding in the labor market — and employer complaints about ill-equipped youth (a reflection also of problems with vocational schools and even universities). But improvement on the skills front will be much tougher than adjusting the educational syllabus to international standards, a situation that many countries have to contend with.