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We have a success, so it's time to speed up!

January 13, 2014

Xavier Devictor Rzeczpospolita Newspaper

Another good mark! Countries across the world recently received the results of their PISA tests, which assess how well they do in educating the next generation. Poland ranks among the best in the European Union in all areas: reading (third position, behind Finland and Ireland), maths (fourth position, behind Netherlands, Estonia, and Finland), and science (third position, behind Finland and Estonia). This is even more impressive when one looks at where Poland started from: just twelve years ago, Polish students were half a year of schooling behind their OECD peers, they are now half a year ahead of them! Poland should be proud of its performance, which is the result of two decades of deep reforms.

The PISA tests are a global benchmarking tool published by the OECD to assess key knowledge and skills of 15-year olds, with a focus on mathematics, reading, science, and problem-solving. The tests measure not only knowledge, but also the extent to which 15-year olds can apply it, both inside and outside of school. Around 510,000 students from 65 countries took these standardized tests, which makes it possible to compare the performance of the corresponding education systems.

Poland is ahead of Germany, France, the UK, Sweden, Italy, the US … well done!

So, what’s next? Let me ask four provocative questions.

First, is being among the best in the EU enough? Unfortunately, probably not. Poland needs to benchmark itself against the global best. And increasingly, the global best are not in Europe or North America. By far, the best performing countries are in East Asia (Singapore, Taiwan, Hong Kong, Korea, Japan, Shanghai …). Even Vietnam is now joining this high-performing group, and has rapidly risen to only one small notch behind Poland in mathematics. In a world of global competition, Poland needs to aim high and to continue making progress. 

Second, are all Polish children doing well? Unfortunately not. Socio-economic background plays a significant role in students’ performance. In fact, the difference between the PISA performance of privileged students (those from the “top 20 percent” in terms of socio-economic status) and underprivileged ones (those from the “bottom 20 percent”) corresponds to two and a half years of schooling! The Polish education system is actually more unequal than the OECD average, and far from creating a level playing field, schooling contributes to transferring inequalities to the next generation. This is unfair, and it is also inefficient and ineffective for the economy in this world where competitiveness depends on skills. Schools that educate poorer children need to be given the means to help compensate the disadvantages these children start with.

Third, what would it take for the good test results to translate into good jobs? The generation that has benefited from the last two decades’ of improvements in the education system is now entering the labor market. And the numbers show that this is a difficult and painful entry. Youth unemployment stands at about 27 percent, above the EU average. This suggests that more may need to be done – in particular to develop the “soft” skills that employers increasingly value (such as teamwork or problem-solving), and to equip with solid and marketable skills those who choose to further their education not at university but through the vocational system.

And fourth, what about the other workers? Polish youth are better educated than their peers in the EU. But other OECD studies show that Polish workers as a whole perform far worse than their EU counterparts on numeracy, literacy, and problem-solving. In other words, there is a large group of older workers who did not have the chance to get an education as good as their children, and may be struggling in an increasingly knowledge-based economy. Good education needs to be complemented by a solid system of life-long learning, which can help those already in the labor market with upgrading their skills on a continuous basis.

The reforms of the education system are paying off. Of course, much remains to be done, but an excellent foundation is now in place. Congratulations to one of the EU champions! Let’s now rise to the next challenges.

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