Cross-Country Sharing of Poland’s Reform Experience: New Ideas for Education

December 16, 2014


Students in front of the University Library in Warsaw. Photo: Boris Balabanov/World Bank

  • Poland has had success in tackling complicated education reforms which led to a significant improvement in the performance of 15 year-olds in mathematics, reading and science in the Program For International Student Assessment (PISA) since 2000.
  • Countries in the European Union, such as Bulgaria are looking towards Poland to learn from its experience in education reform.
  • The World Bank is facilitating the sharing of Poland’s experience by matching countries that search for reform lessons from the past 25 years of the Polish transition. This exchange is made possible through the Bank’s “Poland as a Global Development Partner” program.

In the 1990s, along with many other fundamental changes, Poland began a painstaking analysis of its education system. Experts quickly focused on two major problems: only 7 percent of the population was enrolled in higher education, and vocational schools were not teaching basic literacy.

In short, those gaps meant that Poland was not training a workforce that could move the country toward a new, more vibrant, economy. But today, 25 years later, Poland is a country with a dynamic workforce whose competencies in reading, mathematics and science exceed OECD and EU averages.

In the late 1990s, educators and lawmakers in Poland began making major changes. One big change means Polish students now spend more time in school: the country expanded mandatory schooling from 8 years to 9, adding another year in the primary grades. 

Poland made other adjustments. The state began shedding central control of elementary school operations by transferring decision-making to newly reformed and empowered local governments.  And the government began focusing on adult education and on critical thinking skills, instead of memorization, for younger students.

Another major reform reorganized secondary schools. Poland delayed the selection of students into general secondary or into technical schools by a year from the age of 15 to 16,  offering a broader general education but still preparing students for the workforce by teaching them skills for specific careers.  The pressure for change was clear; as Poland’s economy was evolving, so was its demand for workers.

“It was apparent that neither basic vocational school students nor their teachers believed that much could be achieved as far as general skills were concerned,” writes Professor Zbigniew Marciniak, one of the key architects of the Polish education reform of the late 1990s, in a report for the World Bank.  “Emphasis was instead placed on basic professional skills. This contrasted sharply with the soft competences increasingly required by the labor market of the free economy. The public was becoming increasingly aware that general skills are of key importance when faced with the need to change job or even profession.”   

And, to make sure the reforms were working as intended, Poland also introduced independent national assessments that not only analyze student progress but also compare individual schools with each other.

At about the same time Poland was reforming its education system, the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development, the OECD, launched an international assessment of achievement and application of key knowledge and skills of 15 year-old students, the Program for international Student (PISA).  In 2000, Poland’s PISA results were below the OECD’s averages.  But 3 years later, Polish students’ results had improved, and on each PISA test since 2003, Poland’s scores have risen steadily.  In the last assessment cycle, conducted in 2012, Polish students placed an impressive 2nd in reading scores and 6th in mathematics in Europe.


" It was apparent that neither basic vocational school students nor their teachers believed that much could be achieved as far as general skills were concerned. "
Professor Zbigniew Marciniak

Professor Zbigniew Marciniak

Former Polish Under-Secretary of State at the Ministry of National Education

Sharing Knowledge

Polish education experts are eager to share their successes with their neighbors and fellow EU countries, though they are quick to point out that Poland, too, can benefit from an exchange of ideas. Polish educators hope to encourage leaders in other countries to pay attention to what’s worked and also to what has not.  Some of the Polish reforms, like the addition of an extra year of general education, have paid off spectacularly.

But not every reform has done as well, and a frank discussion of challenges can benefit everyone. With the benefit of hindsight, Poland is in a much better position to see which decisions worked, which did not, and which were made late.  To that end, in November 2014, experts from Poland, Bulgaria, and the World Bank, among others, met in Sofia to discuss education models.

Bulgaria has been making progress on PISA; in 2012, Bulgarian students did better in mathematics and reading than they did in 2006, but their scores were not significantly higher than in 2000. At the same time, students in nearby countries like Turkey, Serbia, and Romania scored better on PISA than did Bulgarian students, despite those countries’ lower spending per student.  Moreover, Bulgaria’s education system is one of the most inequitable in the EU, and kids in rural and less affluent areas need special attention to bring up their scores.

According to the World Bank, global research proves that quality early childhood interventions can break the transmission of poverty from one generation to the next.  For Bulgaria in particular, data from the PISA test in 2012 show that extending preschool education for vulnerable children by one year translates into gains in tests. And this is even more true for vulnerable kids from minority and poor families. More time for socialization and exposure to Bulgarian language in kindergartens makes them better prepared for school, and increases their cognitive and social skills.

These are the sorts of challenges Poland faced fifteen years ago.  And one of the things it did successfully, educators say, is focus on improving the schooling, and thereby the test scores, of traditionally low-achieving students.   Some suggestions for Bulgaria are to offer extra pre-schooling to vulnerable students, to re-vamp the country’s curriculum with an eye to improving basic skills like reading, math, and science, and to extend exposure to general curriculum by delaying the selection into vocational and general tracks.

Still, comprehensive education reform takes many years. Because of its presence in both Poland and Bulgaria, the World Bank can act as a facilitator in sharing experiences across countries.  The hope is that Bulgaria can grow from Poland’s experiences, and the two countries can exchange ideas about the best way to change an entrenched and slow-moving system.

Poland has meaningful experiences to share with its neighbors, and is poised to offer its ideas on reform to others. The country has a rich and recent experience in decentralizing government operations, in environmental protection and in economic restructuring, among other things.  Poland is positioning itself as a global development partner, in order to share knowledge from 25 years of recent reforms.  

The ongoing World Bank program, “Poland as a Global Development Partner,” shares Poland’s 25 years of transition with countries looking for reform lessons. This exchange, says Mamta Murthi, the World Bank Country Director for Central Europe and the Baltic Countries, encourages Poland to reach out globally to share its experiences. And it aims to encourage other countries to use that experience to further their own reform agendas.