Moldova: Misleading First Impressions

misleading first impressionsThis past spring, Mariana Diaconu from Yaloveni, a town around 15 kilometers south of Chisinau, passed her final exams with flying colors. Those results at her lyceum carried new importance this year-for the first time, universities in Moldova abolished entrance exams and accepted students like Mariana entirely on their grades.

But Mariana’s grade of “10″, which earned her a place at the Economics Academy, does not necessarily reflect top-level performance. Those with the highest grades this year could only answer correctly around 70 percent of the questions on the tests on average, a figure confirmed by sources within the Education Ministry (though not mentioned in the ministry’s final evaluation report).

“The education evaluation system in Moldova is far from perfect. It exaggerates the results and hides the real problems,” says the former education minister, Anatol Gremalsky. “It’s an Olympic system that gives the highest awards to those with the best performances, regardless of how good they were-except that at the Olympic Games only one performer can be the best,” said Gremalsky, now a program director with the Institute for Public Policy (IPP), an independent and non-partisan think tank headquartered in Chisinau.

In many ways, deficits in current performance measures are metonymic of problems in the compulsory education system in Moldova as a whole. Problems and shortages are hidden, rather than solved, and supposed achievements are not exactly what they may seem.

No Parental Authority

Take, for example, enrollment figures. In almost every Moldovan village there are some children who rarely attend school. But it is enough for them to be present on the first day of each school year to be counted as enrolled students. According to a recent study for UNICEF conducted by IPP, the enrollment rate for primary school has actually been in continuous decline since 2001. Asked in the IPP survey to explain the reasons for this phenomenon, parents, teachers, and children all indicated poverty. Many children do not have sufficient clothes or school supplies, respondents said, or kids have had to stay home to work alongside their parents.

However, there is another more radical economic explanation behind poor enrollment numbers: huge number of parents across the country have left home to work abroad, and their children are not being properly looked after. According to official figures, more than 300,000 Moldovans are working abroad, but some experts estimate that the number is much higher, judging by the amount of money these workers send home. This year remittances could reach as high as $1.8 billion, based on statistics compiled by the National Bank of Moldova for the first six months of 2008.

“In our school, we have eight kids whose parents, one or both, left Moldova,” says Valeriu Bancu, the deputy director of the local school in Receshti, a village in the northern part of Moldova. “They send money home, but those kids are not better dressed or equipped for school than the others. On the contrary, they seem to be less happy, they skip classes, and don’t do their homework.”

Half Full or Half Empty?

Bancu and his colleagues have another fundamental problem on their minds these days: Their school, which provides education from the first grade through gymnasium level (equivalent to high school), is among those in danger of being reduced to a primary school. The compulsory education system in Moldova is composed of four years of primary school and five of gymnasium, with students then opting for three years of lyceum and four of university. A plan developed by the World Bank and Ministry of Education is intended to increase the efficiency of public spending on education, partly by closing gymnasiums with less than 115 pupils, mainly in rural areas. Because of the demographic decline, the ministry of education says, a majority of schools in rural areas operate at half capacity.

“In some districts, annual public expenses amount to 9,000 lei ($1,000) per pupil. We can no longer afford it,” the deputy minister of education, Valentin Crudu, explained in July to the Moldovan service of RFE/RL. Under the proposed reform, students from the closed schools would be transported by bus every day to larger schools as close as possible to their homes. The saved money would be used to better equip the remaining schools and to increase teachers’ salaries. Currently, many schools in remote villages have only antiquated computers, and an Internet connection that serves at most the school principal. A shortage of teachers means that the math teacher at a village school, for example, might teach physics, chemistry, and even French too.

The first pilot project was scheduled to start from 1 September in two districts. But the institutions slated to be closed were opposed to the decision.

“The school is the center of village life and everything gravitates to the school,” said Olga Onoi, principal in the town of Grigorivka in the Causheni district of southeast Moldova. “If you close the school, the village will die.” Her school is one of those on the list to be closed.

Many parents would prefer to keep their kids at home, rather than to wake them up early in the morning and send them to another village, many kilometers away. In reaction to parents’ complaints, Ion Oboroceanu, an advocate on behalf of a human rights association in Causheni, said he decided to take the case to the local education board. “We are afraid that children’s [constitutional] right to education would be affected by this reform,” says Oboroceanu.

But the local board was let off the hook from having to make a controversial decision. At the very last moment, President Vladimir Voronin spoke out against closing schools because of under-enrollment. At a security council meeting in July on the demographic situation, he said that no school or kindergarten would be closed “regardless of the number of pupils.” The Ministry of Education subsequently put the reform on hold, and it will probably remain that way until after parliamentary elections in 2009. Some experts believe that President Voronin wanted to avoid an unpopular reform ahead of those elections next spring.

Retired but Hard at Work

One area in which the Ministry of Education is making progress is reducing the shortage of teachers. While the ministry says that the deficit of teachers amounts to only 2,000 teachers out of a total of more than 41,000 this year, that figure does not take into account the percentage of retired teachers who continue to work – almost 16 percent according to an estimate by the Institute of Public Policy.

Still, the government is trying hard to reduce the shortage of young teachers, especially in rural areas. Two years ago, a program was launched to provide graduates who chose to take jobs out in the countryside with a one-off reward of 30,000 lei (more than $3,000). Even such an incentive has had very modest results, and the authorities decided to increase the amount this year to 50,000 lei.

In another attempt to improve the situation, in 2006, authorities reintroduced compulsory state employment for graduates of state universities who do not pay for their studies. Graduates must work for three years for the state, or reimburse the costs associated with their education. But the authorities have run into serious roadblocks here as well. According to the ministry of education, some newly graduated young teachers refused this year to take jobs in rural schools. Reports by local media say that some have preferred to pay back the state rather than go to a school in a remote village, where monthly salaries amount to 785 lei (around $78) – two times less than the estimated poverty line.

The Education and Science Trade Union staged a series of pay-related demonstrations in the first week of September, at the beginning of the new school year. In a five-day nonstop protest in front of the government’s building, trade union members asked for a salary increase of 40 percent from 1 September. While the government responded by saying that funds are not available to increase teachers’ salaries now, officials said some increases could be made starting in 2009.

Many are worried that poorly paid teachers might be tempted to take advantage of the elimination of university entrance exams, which were discontinued to save students from having to take two major sets of exams one right after the other. For many years, the Ministry of Education has suspected teachers of overrating their pupils’ knowledge and giving them better grades than they strictly deserve. Some of that generosity can be tied to overzealous teachers wanting to be kind to their favorite students, and to others handing out high marks to “prove” their own teaching capabilities. But bribery has also certainly been a factor, and the authorities have expressed concern that the practice will spread in lyceums if teachers alone are asked to evaluate the all-important final exams at the end of pupils’ last year in school.

Starting this year, a newly established Agency for Examination and Evaluation has been charged with evaluating test results. Teachers merely collect the tests, count the mistakes, and send them to the agency. Adrian Gicov, the director of the agency, has argued that the new evaluation system will help to better diagnose the problems and improve the quality of education in Moldova.

But some, especially the teachers’ trade unions, believe in a few years there will not be much point in this evaluation unless the authorities can find the money to invest in the education system to begin with.


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