Romania: Change for Change’s Sake?

change for change's sakeBucharest, ROMANIA | Thirteen-year-old Ionut Sim may well be one of the first generation of Romanian students to finish middle school after grade nine instead of grade eight. He would then aim for a highly coveted spot in a three-year “theoretical” high school or attend a less prestigious vocational school depending on his final average, as well as his results on a new standardized exam.

These are some of the proposals contained in a new draft law on education which, if voted on this year, could introduce radical reforms to the Romanian education system as early as the fall of 2009.

The law has been long-awaited by teachers, parents, and students alike. There are high hopes that it will bring much-needed stability to a system marred by 13 years of erratic changes. Still, many are left wondering if the law will bring about substantial improvements, or if the proposed reforms represent yet another round of cosmetic changes to a troubled system.

Guinea Pig Generation

For now, the prospect of spending another year in middle school seems too far-off for seventh-grader Sim to be concerned with. Instead, he is currently struggling with a much more immediate problem: the national standardized semester tests in Romanian language and literature and mathematics, which were introduced for the first time this year. Eighth graders must also pass additional tests in history or geography.

The grades on these tests count towards a student’s final average, but they are also worked into another average, consisting of the student’s grades on the standardized tests alone. Both averages are equally weighted in the high school admissions process.

“It was much better with a single exam at the end of eighth grade, because you knew exactly how to prepare for that,” argues Sim, referring to the one-session standardized exams that have been mandatory in Romania for the last eight years.

Others, like fourteen-year-old Andreea Domsa, disagree, saying that the new system gives students more chances to do well. “We have less literature to cover for each separate test. Plus, our future does not depend on the results of a single exam,” she said.

However, if the draft law is implemented, new high school entrance exams may replace these subject tests. And if the subject tests remain in force, it is unclear whether the content of the tests will be decided at the national level or at the discretion of individual teachers, and how they will factored into a student’s average.

While students are divided in their verdict on the new exams, most agree that they are tired of the frequent and abrupt changes they have endured over the last few years. Madalina Poptean, a high school senior at George Baritiu High School in the city of Cluj-Napoca, said she has felt like a “guinea pig” throughout her entire education.

Capricious  Changes

A mind-boggling 28 changes and amendments have been made to the 1995 Education Law, shaking a system that once made Romania proud. Poor funding—reaching as low as 4 percent of the national budget—and frequent, politically motivated changes have taken their toll. In February, respected journalist Melania Mandas Vergu, at a roundtable discussion on the newest round of proposed changes, decried the fact that “education has been relegated to the status of Cinderella among national priorities.”

The chaos is due, in part, to the fact that the Education Ministry has been a revolving door for politicians over the years, with 12 education ministers serving since 1990—three in the last three years alone.

The proposed legislation aims to put aside political squabbles and overhaul the dysfunctional system. “We have received more than 10,000 suggestions from all over the country for this draft law, which goes to show that this is finally an opportunity to leave all political interests aside and really work together to mend the system,” said current Education Minister Cristian Adomnitei at the roundtable discussion on education in Bucharest in February.

If adopted, the new law will completely reshuffle the existing grade levels. Adomnitei is a strong proponent of early education, arguing that children should start school at the age of six instead of seven. In his view, children should begin at “grade zero,” making for a more smooth transition from kindergarten to elementary school.

“This way, we can do away with the differences between children who come to school already knowing how to work on a computer and those who haven’t even held a pen yet,” Adomnitei said at the February event.

However, it is unclear if Adomnitei’s “grade zero” is even logistically possible, given that kindergartens are already 300,000 places short nationwide, and many schools lack sufficient classrooms.

Some worry that the proposed changes will trigger a shortage of teachers. The ministry has still not explained how the new system will find space for all the primary school teachers, who will now need to stay with their students for five instead of four years (each class has only one teacher throughout). On the other hand, with middle school extending to grade nine, it is likely that many high school teachers will have to start commuting between schools, as many middle school teachers are not sufficiently qualified or experienced to teach grade nine subjects.

“The draft law seems to bring more change for change’s sake,” said Ilinca Buciu, principal of George Cosbuc National College in Bucharest. “If they alter the backbone of a system that has worked just fine and that people have been accustomed to for so long, they will just create chaos all over the country.”

Standardized Cheating

The fairness of the national standardized exams, in all their experimental forms, has also been called into question by parents and students alike.

Many complain about the leniency of some teachers, especially in rural areas and smaller towns, who allegedly give out higher marks in order to improve their schools’ national rankings and give their students a better chance to gain admission to good high schools. The media have reported several scandals in recent years, in which students from prestigious middle schools have failed to secure places in their high schools of choice, simply because their teachers employed stricter grading standards.

“This system encourages fraud in all ways possible,” complained physician Carmen Manciu, the mother of a thirteen-year-old boy in the small town of Campulung Muscel. “It makes teachers accept, if not expect, gifts and money, in order to give students better grades… It disgusts me to even think about bribing, but my son’s future is at stake, and I cannot let it be ruined.”

Many believe that the standardized tests should be scrapped altogether and each school should go back to administering its own customized entrance exams. Until about ten years ago, this practice was universal for both high school and university admissions, and it is still widely considered to be the best selection criterion.

“Entrance exams are the only way to eliminate inequalities and unfair practices beyond any doubts,” argued Viorel Tosa, a history teacher and former principal of Onisifor Ghibu High School in Cluj-Napoca. He says that the new draft law talks too vaguely about “some form of examination.” In his view, the longer it takes to determine the details, the worse the final compromise.

He is also skeptical about the timing of the draft law. He thinks that all the fuss surrounding the law serves a political purpose, given that Romania will hold parliamentary elections later this year.

Tosa also referred to the recent “Pact for Education,” which all the political parties in the country signed at the beginning of March 2008. An initiative of President Traian Basescu, the pact consists of a series of principles that any future Education Minister, regardless of political affiliation, will be bound to, in order to ensure that abrupt changes no longer disrupt the system. In addition to a pledge to allocate at least 6 percent of GDP to education, the pact aims to create a system centered on students’ abilities, a less intensive curriculum—distributing difficult subjects over more years—and a decentralized financial apparatus.

However, many believe that is all easier said than done. Cristina Ispas, who teaches English and French in Rucar, a commune in Arges county, is skeptical that the system will see demonstrable improvements any time soon.

“An education system centered on students, taking into consideration both their needs and abilities, is sheer utopia in Romania at this point,” she said.




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