SKOPJE | In the past five years Macedonian classrooms have seen many changes. An additional year of mandatory education; “interactive” teaching in place of the rote learning of the past; new textbooks; a computer for every pupil – it all foretold a radical transformation of what most agreed was a woefully obsolete school system.
The view of many teachers and experts is that the reforms are taking hold much more slowly than expected. Many children have yet to see the promised computers, especially in rural areas. Teachers have been slow to adopt new methods, and many of those whose pupils have computers say they are now more like IT administrators than educators. There have been problems with the new textbooks.
Sometimes, the old ways are the best ways. A third-grader writes on a blackboard at Vera Ciriviri-Trena Elementary School in Skopje.
Some experts say teachers now have precious little time to digress from micro-managed teaching plans that, for instance, require computers to be used for 30 percent of class time. No nationwide assessments of the effectiveness of the reforms have been done, but small-scale studies indicate slow, if any improvement.
BOTTOM OF THE CLASS
Officials cited Macedonian pupils’ consistently poor performances in international tests as the main driver behind the reforms in primary education.
On the widely used PIRLS assessment of reading skills, for instance, Macedonian fourth-graders were ranked 29th of 35 countries in 2001, and 38th of 45 countries in 2006.
Results were hardly better on the TIMSS survey of eighth-graders’ math and science ability. Macedonia ranked 30th of 45 participating countries in 2003, six places behind Serbia. Macedonia came last among Southeastern and Eastern European countries at both the 2003 TIMSS and 2006 PIRLS assessments.
The most recent nationwide tests, in 2006, also flagged up poor results, says Beti Lameva of the National Examinations Center and national coordinator for the 2011 TIMSS assessment.
“We found the same weak results,” Lameva said, adding, “We really expected a lot more.”
Lameva also said teachers are picking up new knowledge in training sessions but have not learned how to incorporate their new skills in the classroom.
“Teachers still have not changed their way of teaching,” she said.
The center, then part of the government’s Education Development Bureau, helped steer the switch from an eight- to a nine-year education system beginning in 2007 – a keystone in the education reforms. However, so far there has been no research into the effects of the nine-year system on educational practices, center director Jusuf Arifi said.
At the same time, major curriculum changes and new teaching methods were introduced. Students now begin studying English in the first grade; a second foreign language is studied from sixth grade.
COMPUTERS VS. TRADITIONS
Another big, and expensive, innovation that promised to improve the quality of teaching was the “computer for every child” plan. Starting in 2008, every elementary and secondary school was supposed to receive computers at a cost estimated by the media at 60 million euros ($76.5 million). At some schools, however, many computers were stolen or broke down before the first year of the program ended. Other schools lock them up to prevent theft. The Education Ministry announced, but never released, a survey of how many computers were being used in schools. The ministry now plans to distribute 300,000 tablet computers to students in 2015 and says parents will be responsible for them.
Digitizing classrooms was seen as crucial to reforming outdated teaching methods. Yet computers have not always lived up to expectations, even at the math-and-technology-oriented Rade Jovcevski Korcagin High School in Skopje, known as one of the best schools in the capital.
“The classic way of teaching is still mostly being used in schools, but it is the most practical at the same time,” school principal Dragan Arsovski said. “I personally believe it should be improved. Innovative methods are being tried, but some have not had the desired effect. For example, the ‘computer for every child’ program did not produce the required results in the way it was implemented.”
Another innovation burdened with high hopes has also been slow to take root, Arsovski said.
“We have a problem with implementing interactive teaching because the material is too extensive and the teachers must work to annual teaching plans, and they’re also too extensive.”
Students are now encouraged to ask questions and interact with the teacher, rather than simply absorbing the teacher’s lessons. But as with the old rote-learning system, students are still expected to retain large amounts of information.
“There are a lot of things pupils don’t need to learn, like how many sheep there are in Australia and if they’re sheared in the spring. A larger revision of the taught subjects is needed, and to decrease the amount of material in each subject,” Arsovski said.
Elementary school teachers too are hemmed in by rules, said Snezana Karas, principal of Vera Ciriviri-Trena Elementary School.
The minutiae of setting up teaching plans according to set rules takes up so much time that teachers are becoming more like administrators, she said. And they get conflicting signals from different parts of the educational bureaucracy. Every three years inspectors visit schools to check that teachers are following the approved plans.
“When the inspectors come they want to see the yearly planning, the thematic planning, and the teaching material for the day,” Karas said. Yet when staff of the Education Development Bureau visit classrooms, they tell teachers not to be so rigid. “They assure the teachers that they can have more freedom,” Karas said.
One of the only systematic attempts so far to assess the wide-ranging educational reforms was carried out three years ago by the Education Development Bureau in cooperation with the independent Macedonian Civic Education Center. In the UNICEF-supported survey, experts examined the first-, second-, and third-grade teaching programs at 15 pilot schools where teachers had undergone training to apply the new methods. The aim was to compare the pilot schools with 15 control schools. The results were not encouraging.
Gorica Mickovska of the Macedonian Civic Education Center said overall the survey confirmed that Macedonian pupils learn more by memorization than by understanding, although she cautions that the results may not be representative.
“The general conclusion was that the pupils cannot pull out the information from a text, either explicit or implicit. The results were lower compared with the expectations for the kids at their age. They generally have a problem with understanding the texts they read,” Mickovska said.
Education Development Bureau director Vesna Horvatovic is another expert who says merely delivering computers to schools is not enough to change entrenched teaching methods. Although many teachers have not given up the traditional lecturing method, she believes they will gradually be won over.
“The modernization of schools with computers and smart boards is a revolutionary beginning, after which there is no turning back. We are quite aware that we can’t make all 16,000 teachers perfect, but what has been set up as a standard cannot be undone,” she said. “We’re not discouraged by the fact that there is some proportion of teachers who don’t work professionally.”
The new textbooks commissioned by education officials have also taken their share of criticism, especially when factual errors and cultural blunders were found in some of them.
The new textbooks also introduce some complicated subjects at too young an age, said Vlado Timovski, dean of the pedagogical department at Sts. Cyril and Methodius University in Skopje.
“I can’t understand why a fourth- or fifth-grader must learn about the EU and European integration in social studies class, or rather learn so many facts about something that is so abstract for them,” he said.
Some educators worry that so many changes in classroom methods, technology, and textbooks are actually setting students back, to the point that some teenagers can’t do basic arithmetic.
The principal of Mihajlo Pupin High School in Skopje said the skills of entering freshmen are declining year by year.
“We have had issues with kids having problems with multiplication and division, and also reading problems,” Eftim Pejovski said.
“Lately, we’ve had problems with kids who can’t write all the letters of the alphabet.”
The number of such children is not large, but the fact that such badly prepared students even make it to high school is alarming, Pejovski said.
The traditional, lecture method is most prevalent in secondary schools, while interactive teaching is found more often in the lower grades of elementary school, the Education Development Bureau concluded after a three-month survey earlier this year.
More modern methods may be starting to have an impact in the classroom. The bureau asked nearly 1,500 fifth-graders about their teachers’ expectations in the classroom. Almost half said their teachers preferred them to answer questions in their own words, based on the teacher’s explanations, while 21 percent said they were expected to repeat the lesson exactly as delivered.
Teachers also complain that in order to satisfy school inspectors’ demands for hard data they are forced to administer many more written tests than in the past.
The patchy nature of the reforms is easy to see at rural schools, many of which lack even basic amenities.
One village teacher confessed that all the reforms can be a heavy burden for teachers and children alike.
“From my experience I can see that the pupils are burdened with textbooks and teaching. There are a lot of lectures and no time for revision,” said Kenan Ismaili, a teacher at an elementary school in the village of Dracevica, near Skopje.
“We’re expected to set more tests, so we test the children and have less contact with them.”
It is too early to evaluate the ongoing reforms, Ismaili said.
Although Dracevica is only a short drive from the capital, the electricity supply is unreliable. The elementary school moved into a new building this year but still lacks running water. Children fill bottles at the village tap to use for flushing toilets.
“Regarding village schools, I believe that the [reform strategy] was a bad investment because conditions in village schools are at the minimum. For example, we have no computers here because there is no infrastructure,” principal Ali Nafiz Asani said.
Story and photo by Zaklina Hadzi-Zafirova, a journalist in Skopje. This article was produced for the Reporting Education project, which is funded by the Open Society Institute’s Education Support Program.