Macedonia: The Politics of Incompetence

the politics of incompetenceSkopje, MACEDONIA | Despite announcing bombastic plans to overhaul the education sector over the past few years, the government of Macedonia has failed to devise a comprehensive strategy that could be steadily implemented through changes of office and public sentiment. Instead, the country has seen a series of stalled initiatives and zigzags in policy, with few real results.

“The main reason for the bad conditions in our education system is the fact that politics has a huge influence on education,” says Zoran Velkovski, a professor from the State University Ss. Cyril and Methodius in Skopje. “Every new government intervenes in the education sector for four years [during its political mandate], and every new government starts from ground zero.”

The politicization of the reform process reaches to the lowest levels of the state apparatus. As a result of the recent move to decentralize the education system, mayors now have the right to appoint and dismiss school principals at their discretion. Since most mayors are affiliated with political parties, the majority of a town’s principals are usually members or sympathizers of the same party.

Velkovski, who has participated in the drafting of several reform strategies, blames the lack of tangible progress on incompetent officials put in charge of what is viewed by their political parties as one of the lowest priorities of the state.

Communication Breakdown

The lack of importance assigned to the education sector has translated into a series of badly planned and poorly promoted reforms. With virtually no public discussion of sometimes disruptive changes, teachers, students, and parents regularly resist the governments’ plans. The stop-and-go nature of the reform process has resulted in a general weariness, as well as the feeling that Macedonian students are being treated like laboratory mice in the arbitrary experiments of the Ministry of Education.

The introduction of new standardized tests is a case in point. Beginning in June 2008, every student finishing secondary school will be required to take standardized tests to be admitted to university. Currently, there are no nationwide exams to determine if students are qualified to enter post-secondary institutions, or even to assess their progress on an annual basis. State universities eliminated the tests several years ago, when private schools that did not require entrance exams began to compete for enrollment.

In a country with rampant grade inflation, marks have become almost meaningless criteria for university admission. At the end of each school year, Macedonian teachers face a barrage of requests for higher grades from both parents and students. Many teachers give in to these demands and hand out higher grades, either out of pity or a desire to prove they are effective teachers.

As a result, in the 2006-07 academic year, 95 percent of Macedonian students in primary and secondary schools received straight As, according to data from the Ministry of Education. In June 2007, the State Education Inspectorate found that around 90 percent of students had much lower grades at the end of their first semester than at the end of the school year.

Many are hopeful that the introduction of new standardized exams will correct this situation.However, efforts to develop the exams have been met by a sluggish bureaucracy and great resistance from opponents who argue that a single test should not determine a student’s fate. At the beginning of this past school year, huge student protests against the proposed exams sprung up throughout the country. Some critics even took the issue to the Constitutional Court, which ultimately upheld the government’s plan.

The process has also been derailed by the ministry’s incompetence at explaining the need for reform. A mock state exam in February 2008 revealed that more than 60 percent of examinees would have failed the new exam. Instead of pointing to the results as evidence of the current system’s failures, state officials responded by soothing worried students and parents that the questions on the actual exam would be much easier and most pupils would pass – undermining their initial purpose.

Other reforms have similarly fallen flat. In 2006, the government announced plans to purchase 150,000 computers and distribute them to 1,000 elementary and 85 high schools in Macedonia under the rubric of its “One Computer for Every Pupil” program. The plan is a successor to other efforts, including those of USAID, to expand computer use among the younger generation, and dovetails with the current government’s push to develop the national information technology sector.

However, by the beginning of the 2007-08 school year, only two high schools had received the promised computers. The government blamed the lack of progress on deficiencies in infrastructure, especially electrical wiring.

To date, only 1,750 computers have been distributed. In an interview, Pero Stojanovski, the State Secretary of the Ministry of Education, admitted that the ministry had not conducted a single study on the feasibility of its plans before launching the project.

The government has not helped to improve its public image by clumsily taking on controversial issues such as religious instruction — a touchy subject in Macedonia’s fragile multicultural and multi-faith society.

In 2007, the government proposed that religious studies become a required part of the fifth grade curriculum, giving students the choice to study either a specific religion or the history of religion. Critics complained that such a move would only increase the endemic segregation of students of different religions and ethnic backgrounds in Macedonia. Others charged that religious studies contradict both the country’s constitution and laws on education, which forbid religious activities taking place on school grounds.

After the outcry, the government modified its proposal to make it an elective subject. The case is currently with the Constitutional Court, which has already ruled against allowing religious instruction in schools four times in the past.

Below Average Results

Focusing on such emotionally and politically charged issues has distracted authorities from tackling more mundane but no less important issues, such as a lingering overemphasis on rote memorization over creative thinking.

A recent study of literacy showed that most Macedonian students have difficulty understanding and retaining what they read. The Ministry of Education conducted the testing as part of the international “Progress in International Reading Literacy Study”, which is backed by the International Association for the Evaluation of Educational Achievement, a grouping of educational researchers and institutions.

The results of two phases of the study in 2001 and 2006 showed little improvement in Macedonian schools. According to tests given to 4,000 fourth-graders in 150 schools in 2006, the average score of the students in Macedonia was 442, compared with the international survey average of 500.

Experts had the students read two lessons from their books. Afterwards, they closed their books and were questioned about the content of the lessons. Only a few students were able to explain what they had read.

Pupils from all other European countries taking part did better, including those from a half-dozen other former communist states.

A companion survey showed similar poor performance in mathematics. According to the “Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study”, Macedonian students from 150 elementary schools ranked 30th out of 40 countries evaluated. The Macedonian students’ average score was 435, well below the international average of 467. Only 40 students scored above the international average.

Changing Approaches

The stress on rote memorization stems from the difficulty of changing the mentality and approach of Macedonian teachers, say education experts.

“Some teachers have refused to work with modern teaching methods, with the justification that they are not paid enough to do extra activities,” says Spomenka Lazarevska, the manager of a project for teaching creative and critical thinking at the Open Society Institute in Macedonia. Since 1994, the Institute has been working to promote interactive teaching methods in Macedonian schools.

Lazarevska says that, paradoxically, many older teachers have been more willing to adopt interactive teaching methods than their younger colleagues, who are more likely to complain about the long hours needed to learn new methods and design more compelling coursework.

“Some teachers have had and continue to have an aversion to modern teaching methods that are commonplace in Western countries,” says Lazarevska. “We are not inventing the wheel here; [new teaching methods] exist. We only have to accept them and implement them – not just occasionally, but on a regular basis.”

Biljana Stefkovska, an independent education analyst in Macedonia, says the problem is manifest at many points in educators’ careers: from the poor quality of instruction in pedagogical faculties to the Ministry of Education’s failure to invest in teachers and their continuous professional development.

“The solution is to free educators from the low profile of political party ‘foot soldiers’ who are not competent to manage this sector [and move] toward increased quality in education processes as well as in the whole system,” says Stefkovska.

For their part, educators say they are willing to adjust to the changing times, but need to do so gradually.

“Professors are open to reforms, but the reforms must be conducted one by one, not all at once,” says Marina Loteska, a Macedonian-language professor at the Georgi Dimitrov high school in Skopje. “No one can change the system overnight. Our education system doesn’t mesh well with reforms that are just copied from foreign countries and don’t fit here in Macedonia.”

Stubborn Segregation

Ethnic segregation remains common in Macedonian schools, particularly in parts of the country where Albanians form a majority of the population.

The city of Struga in the west is a case in point: in April 2008, Macedonian and Albanian students of two high schools, “Niko Nestor” and “Ibrahim Temo”, announced that they would no longer attend the same school, citing frequent, often physical, interethnic conflicts over the past few years. The two high schools share a common building and facilities, but attend ethnically segregated classes.

The last straw was a particularly violent clash in February 2008. Afterwards, around 1,200 Macedonian students boycotted classes for almost a month, putting an ultimatum to the government: they would only return to school if the government provided a completely separate building for Macedonian students. After weeks of tense negotiations with parents and students, government representatives promised that a new building would be ready in time for the next academic year.

A similar situation exists in the high schools “Nikola Karev” (Macedonian) and “Zef Ljus Marku” (Albanian) in Skopje, where 2,000 high school students share a common building and attend classes in rotating shifts. Albanians have their classes in the mornings and Macedonians in the afternoons, with an hour-long break between shifts in order to prevent students from confronting one another. In case of conflict, a police officer guards the front entrance to the school during the entire academic year. Schools in other parts of Skopje, as well as the towns of Tetovo, Kumanovo, Debar, Gostivar and Bitola, are similarly segregated.

Education experts say that segregation is rooted in fear and prejudice hardened by the 2001 uprising in Macedonia, when ethnic Albanian militants attacked Macedonian security forces. Since then, many parents and students have insisted that ethnically mixed schools are not safe.

History teacher Valentina Stamenkovik from the high school “Pance Karagjozov” in Skopje thinks the prospects for integration are dire. Two years ago, she invited a group of 20 Macedonian and Albanian students to share their perspectives on the 2001 conflict, many of whom were meeting each other for the first time, though they shared the same building. The event was part of a wider initiative led by Macedonian and Albanian history teachers attempting to write a book on the conflict in cooperation with their students.

She says her attempts to facilitate a constructive dialogue between Macedonian and Albanian students were not well received, and the project ultimately failed. Meetings in other schools similarly floundered, and many teachers pulled out of the project.

“Even if I tried hard to create a calm environment so that students from both nationalities could get to know each other better and talk openly about some painful issues from our history, it wasn’t the right time. I don’t know for sure if the right time will ever come,” Stamenkovik lamented.

Segregation affects not only Albanian and Macedonian students. Roma students are increasingly being segregated from their peers as well. Roma, who comprise about 3 percent of Macedonia’s population, say they faced increased segregation this past school year when the number of Roma students attending primary school increased by 50% in comparison with the previous two academic years.

Roma parents say the main reasons for segregating their children stem from prejudice on the part of teachers, principals and fellow classmates.

“My daughter got C in math. One of her classmates said that she does not deserve any more and the teacher confirmed that. She came home crying. I don’t have an education but I can fight for my daughter’s rights. I went to the school and asked the school council to revise her grade or I was prepared to take her out of that school,” says Ramiz Mustafovski, the father of a fourth grade Roma student in Kumanovo.

According to research conducted by the National Roma Center in Kumanovo, the pervasive negative stereotype that Roma children are unable to learn and behave themselves in the classroom lead many schools to prevent Roma from enrolling or from taking classes with other students.

The National Roma Center says it is angry that neither the government nor individual schools have taken serious steps to eliminate segregation. They suggest that the government is permissive because it shies away from the political difficulties of changing the situation.

“The institutions are trying to hide this problem, not to solve it. I see weakness,” says the Center’s coordinator, Ashmet Elezovski.


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