In-depth | Education

Will Kosovo’s education system flunk its exams again?

By - 07.05.2018

Reforms delayed by ‘stagnation’ around implementation.

When the results of the 2015 international PISA test came out in December 2016 they painted a dispiriting picture of Kosovo’s education system. Seventy-seven percent of the Kosovar 15-year-olds tested failed to reach level 2 (out of 6) in the reading section, meaning they were unable to grasp the main idea of a text and interpret it.

The situation was no better regarding mathematics and science: 78 percent failed to reach level 2 in math, and 68 percent in science. The results placed Kosovo bottom in the region, and in the bottom five of the countries tested worldwide.

The disappointing results were quickly met with widespread reaction. Arsim Bajrami, who was Minister of Education at the time, described them as “expected results” and “an indicator of the situation in the education sector, which is not good.” Isa Mustafa, then prime minister, called for the “mobilization of all necessary funds” for education. The Parents’ Council meanwhile demanded concrete steps from institutions.

Education experts declared that the situation was urgent, demanding radical action, while the United Syndicate for Education, Science and Culture (SBAShK) also called for a mobilization of all factors for change, but urged that teachers not be blamed for the situation.

The Ministry of Education, Science and Technology (MEST) immediately stated that it had taken concrete steps to address the education system, because it had been “aware of the difficulties that would be faced in this test.” Indeed, before the results had been released, a new national education strategy was already being drafted; in early 2016 the ministry gathered more than 70 education experts, including ministry staff, independent experts and members of local and international NGOs to form a work group.

They eventually produced The Kosovo Education Strategic Plan 2017-2021, which was approved by the government on December 7, 2016, the day after the publication of the PISA results. With a suggested budget of 177 million euros, due to be spread across five years, central and local governments and schools across the country are now obliged to implement it.

But 18 months later, and with pupils around the country having just completed the second round of PISA tests in Kosovo, is there any sign of genuine reform?

Absences in organization and financial support

A report published in March by the Kosovo Education and Employment Network (KEEN), a strategic coalition of four Kosovo-based civil society organizations focusing on education, employment and social policies, found that there is “stagnation” in the implementation of the strategic plan.

One of the key issues highlighted in the report is that no concrete actions have been taken by MEST to secure necessary financial means, despite the fact that only 9 million euros were needed to implement the reforms planned for 2017.

The report claims that this is partly related to “issues of an organizational nature,” which require special commitment by MEST in order to implement the strategy, as well as a “high level of coordination with other central and local level institutions.” KEEN also emphasized the difficulties it faced in accessing data, due to the fact that responsible institutions either were not collecting it or did not provide access to it.

One of the key issues highlighted in the report is that reforms have been hampered by a lack of financial support, with no concrete actions having been taken by MEST to secure necessary financial means, despite the fact that only 9 million euros were needed to implement the reforms planned for the year 2017.

A lack of adequate budget allocation to fulfill the strategy’s action plan was admitted by Minister of Education, Shyqiri Bytyqi, who said in March that this had been found to be the key challenge in an internal report assessing the strategy’s implementation. However, according to the minister, “there were improvements in multiple sectors regarding the implementation of the plan.”

K2.0 contacted the advisor to the education minister, Valmir Gashi, to ask for more information on these improvements and what concrete steps have been taken to implement the education strategy, but received no reply.

Strategic solutions

The 2017-2021 education strategy — Kosovo’s second such high-level plan that covers the whole sector — puts a focus on ‘quality assurance in education,’ in contrast to previous infrastructure focused approaches. It foresees steps that need to be taken for achieving multiple objectives, which would trigger an increase in the level of quality in the education sector.

One of these steps foresees the employment of ‘quality coordinators’ within every school in Kosovo. Their role would be to oversee whether curricula are prepared in accordance with the specified procedures and whether classes are organized properly, as well as evaluating changes in the level of quality.   

Dukagjin Pupovci, director of education quality and teacher training NGO Kosovo Education Center — one of the organizations within KEEN — believes that these quality coordinators would help to create a mechanism for internal assessments within schools. He says that, according to his organization’s data, almost 140 quality coordinators have been appointed, whereas 560 coordinators are provided for in the 2018 budget. It’s a figure, he says, that demonstrates the lack of implementation of the strategy to date.

Another point in the strategy where implementation is lagging is reforms of the Education Inspectorate. To eliminate any possibility of bias in the internal evaluations conducted by quality coordinators, the strategy also foresees external evaluations by this body.

“This would create an information database that would allow us to monitor the reasons why certain schools are performing badly and take measures to prevent further decline and to enable improvements,” Pupovci says.

Kosovar Youth Council director, Agnesa Qerimi, believes that reforming the Education Inspectorate is desperately needed, with more inspectors and better training required. Photo: Atdhe Mulla / K2.0.

Agnesa Qerimi, director of the Kosovar Youth Council (KYC), highlights that reforms to the Inspectorate are much needed. In the past, she says her organization has encountered cases in which inspectors have refused to deal with complaints that were within its competences and others where inspectors had revealed the identity of people who have filed anonymous complaints.

Qerimi emphasizes the need to increase the number of inspectors and to work on their professional preparation.

In an effort to help deal with some of these issues with the Inspectorate, a draft law is proposed that would increase the number of inspectors, increase the organization’s budget, and give inspectors the ability to carry out wider assessments.

In late March, members of civil society and the Parliamentary Commission for Education held a meeting in which they discussed the importance of the Draft Law for the Education Inspectorate.

Minister Bytyqi stated that the Education Inspectorate would have a special role, as it would help MEST in its efforts “to increase the level of quality in Kosovo’s education sector.”

Among other things, he said that the draft law aims to give the Inspectorate competences for “overseeing the delivery of the curriculum.” The Minister suggested that up until now “in 70 percent of cases, the Inspectorate of Education has dealt with the analysis of job vacancies and not with the implementation of legislation.”

However, the Draft Law for the Education Inspectorate has been in the planning stage since March 2016 and is yet to be approved, with Pupovci claiming that institutions are blocking these reforms.

Pupovci also believes that the Inspectorate should be an independent agency, outside of the Ministry’s jurisdiction, while Minister Bytyqi and the current head of the Education Inspectorate, Defrim Gashi, are both against this idea, claiming that “the ministry has no other body that can go down to the classroom except the Education Inspectors.”

Licensing and specialization

Another key area that the education strategy looks to tackle is teacher training and engagement.

Qerimi believes that this is a particularly vital engagement of teachers, as current methods are not producing concrete results. “The PISA results show that students are not able to understand what they read and also show how able the teachers are to implement the curriculum,” she says.

Pupovci thinks that one way of bring about an improvement in this regard it to make a direct link between levels of training and teacher pay. “In our country, promises of pay rises are made during election campaigns, and, naturally, they are not fulfilled,” he says, before saying that even when decision makers do raise wages, money is wasted as the advancement of teachers is not based on their performance.

According to Pupovci, this makes for a situation in which teachers do not take training seriously, showing little commitment to it and attending less because they are not assessed. He believes that an improvement in teacher performances would be seen if it were possible to award teachers with different licenses for different levels of qualifications.

This is another point raised in the 2017-2021 education strategy. The document foresees that teachers will be able to reach a second level of qualification, which would reward them more financially, with the aim of incentivizing training and encouraging commitment to performance.

Director of the Kosovo Education Center, Dukagjin Pupovci, feels that plans to award higher qualified educators with better pay are not being implemented due to politicians not wanting to clash with teachers, or give up on clientelistic employment practices. Photo: Atdhe Mulla / K2.0.

“However, politics interferes here again,” Pupovci says, claiming that politicians are not implementing the licensing system because they do not want to come into conflict with teachers. “Employment in the education sector is hugely political; [politicians] always try to employ their militants in the education and healthcare sectors.”

One of the impacts of such political appointments in the education sector is a lack of accountability for performance. “School principals must be free to monitor, advise and seek accountability from all their teachers,” Pupovci states, adding that political appointments of both principals and teachers currently makes this impossible at times. “Often there are cases in which someone [a teacher] is employed through politics and principals cannot criticize their performances.”

One of the action points in the education strategy that would help to overcome such issues is to professionalize the role of school principals, requiring all principals to possess a new specialist qualification. The aim of this objective is to eliminate political influences on principals, as their positions are often used for political bargaining. However, this is another element of the strategy that as yet remains unimplemented.

A strategy in line with Kosovo’s economy and conditions?

In addition to issues over implementation, there are also those who believe that Kosovo’s policy making has been poorly executed.

Rron Gjinovci, director of education monitoring NGO Organization for Increasing Quality in Education (ORCA), is doubtful that Kosovo is clear on the path that it needs to take in order to improve the education system, since he thinks that the country does not have clear development priorities. “We do not know whether in 2025-30, Kosovo aims to be an agrarian country, an industrial country, a service country, etc.,” he states.

According to Gjinovci, this is important because a lack of a clear economic development plan makes for a situation in which you cannot discern the needs of the education sector. He immediately goes on to say that this does not imply that the education sector must be completely in service to the economy, but it must be in accordance with it.

He adds that this absence of joined up policy making also means that it can be hard to measure the effectiveness of education strategies. “There is no harmony between education and the economy, so you cannot assess which strategies are [intrinsically] good and which ones are bad,” Gjinovci says.

Qerimi is also critical of Kosovo’s policy making, arguing that education policy is characterized by a lack of coherence and cooperation between different layers of education, particularly between pre-university and higher education sectors.

“Practical education has turned out to be unimplementable because schools lack sufficient space, laboratories, equipment, as well as mentors to monitor the sessions.”

Agnesa Qerimi, Kosovar Youth Council.

Furthermore, she adds that current policies, including those in the latest strategy, do not consider the specific conditions in which the Kosovar education system functions. To illustrate this, she takes the example of the framework curriculum for high schools, highlighting practical learning as an issue.

“[Practical education] has turned out to be unimplementable because schools lack sufficient space, laboratories, equipment, as well as mentors [teachers] to monitor the sessions,” she says.

Qerimi believes that the lack of implementation of curricula is especially notable in professional schools. A 2017 KYC report titled Shaping the Future of Schools and Vocational Training highlights that vocational teachers do not cover their responsibilities as mentors and that professional schools have not developed a system of mentoring practical work. The report blames the Law for Education and Vocational Training for not explaining the role of mentors properly.

Whether or not previous education policies have got it right or not, Pupovci says that often they have simply been outright contradicted. He points to strategies for higher education, which have long called for an improvement in education quality.

“The response of the government from 2008 until now has been to establish six public universities,” he says, highlighting that this need has not been mentioned in various strategies relating to education to date. “We are able to see the problems we now face in the quality of higher education in Kosovo.”

Next set of tests

The government’s approach to the latest round of PISA tests last month has also come under scrutiny.

Initially, in January this year, MEST announced that it had sent a request to the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), which organizes the PISA testing, asking to postpone the assessments for next year, a request that was denied. As a result, Minister of Education Shyqyri Bytyqi announced another approach to try and improve results: “We know which schools will be tested by PISA, and those schools have begun to prepare for additional lessons.”

Rron Gjinovci from the Organization for Improving Quality in Education believes that the Minister’s approach to the new set of PISA tests is misguided. Photo: Atdhe Mulla / K2.0.

Gjinovci opposes such an approach, arguing that this will eventually obstruct education reforms. “When we have guests, we mobilize and clean the house, so that they don’t see it as it is when we stay indoors for 24 hours a day. The same goes for education,” he says.

The ORCA director is of the opinion that we must not take ad hoc measures, but should analyze the results of the test, as they show the performance of teachers in those schools. Gjinovci believes that a good result in the PISA test will prevent the minister from implementing reforms. “Mobilizations of this kind do not work in favor of his long term work,” he says.

Pupovci goes further, suggesting that this special focus on the schools being tested could lead to a situation in which Kosovo is eliminated from the assessments. He further states that the PISA test results must not be considered to have primary importance, and that the focus should instead be on prioritizing the overall situation of the education sector.

“This is not an Olympic race,” he says. “We cannot train our pupils in the last two weeks so that we do better than this or that state. This is an international instrument which serves to orient us.”

Qerimi says that ahead of the PISA testing last month, the Ministry’s preparation of two similar practice tests that students subsequently undertook was an attempt to improve the situation to the point of being ranked one or two positions higher in the international rankings than last year. “If this is our objective, then we are far from improving the education system,” she says. “If we develop our pupils for many years to come, the PISA test won’t be a problem for them.”

Pupovci agrees, believing that with the current education strategy there is now a clear path that institutions must take to improve the education system. According to him, dozens of approved plans and strategies have highlighted weaknesses and offered solutions and now there needs to be serious efforts made to implement them.

“I understand that it is a very difficult task, he says. “But if we do not work at them, those problems will never be solved.”K

Edited by Jack Butcher and Jack Robinson.

Feature image: Atdhe Mulla / K2.0.