Montenegro: Reality Check

reality checkPODGORICA | As recently as 2003, eighth graders in Montenegro were being taught about a powerful international conspiracy aimed at destroying their newly independent country and its people.

“Pro-German forces in the United States as well as Islamic countries have been persistently trying to establish an Islamic state in the heart of the Balkans by force,” read one textbook. “[That state] would then help in spreading Islam through Europe and in the subordination of Serbs in Serbia, Montenegro, and on the territory of the former Yugoslavia.” The dissolution of Yugoslavia was interpreted in the same xenophobic way – as a result of the nationalist policies of Montenegro’s neighbors, coordinated by influential forces abroad.

Now, new history textbooks have a different story to tell, one in which Montenegro’s role in the breakup of Yugoslavia is not kept a secret. Some textbooks now even describe how reserve military units from Montenegro took part in the Yugoslav National Army’s attack on Dubrovnik – in spite of the fact that the town was a UNESCO world heritage site and had been demilitarized to avoid becoming a casualty of war.

The stark contrast between these two versions of history shows how deeply Montenegro’s education system has changed in only a few years, amid equally dramatic political changes during the process of building an independent state.

A Low Starting Point

“Today’s reform of the education system in Montenegro can be understood only if the devastating picture at the end of the last century is taken into consideration,” said Dragan Bogojevic, director of the Educational Services Bureau, a state institution formed in 2004 to implement the new reforms.

Not only were textbooks biased, as described above, few were written locally. According to the “Book of Changes,” a strategic document produced by the Foundation Open Society Institute (FOSI) and the Ministry of Education, until 2004 more than 70 percent of elementary and high school textbooks were written, edited, and printed in Belgrade. Only 30 percent were adjusted or specially written in accordance with the ministry’s requirements in Podgorica.

Another FOSI report from the year 2000 summarized the situation: “All textbooks were written in accordance with the old curriculum, their pedagogical quality was poor, and they were soon outdated.” FOSI has been a strategic partner in the implementation of the educational reforms since the beginning.

The same 2000 report also painted a depressing picture of the professional qualifications of teachers then in the work force. A full 29 percent of elementary school teachers had only a high school diploma. In some Montenegrin towns, such as Zabljak, Ulcinj, Mojkovac, and Pljevlja, more than 70 percent of the local teaching corps did not have the required qualifications to perform their designated duties. Even worse, at that time, an institution in charge of professional advanced training of teachers did not exist in Montenegro.

“It was if we were sitting in a lifeless black hole,” said Radovan Popovic, head of the Educational Services Bureau’ external evaluation division. “Not only did the education system have to be changed, but at the same time we also had to fight the enormous prejudices of socialist times, political delusions from the times of the dissolution of Yugoslavia, and chronic professional incompetence.”

Turning Things Around

The year 2001 was seminal, as Montenegro, although still a federal partner with Serbia, established the basic direction of its education reform. Political will at the top helped, as did extensive international assistance provided by the Council of Europe, the European Commission, UNICEF, and a number of international non-governmental organizations. The basic goal was to overhaul the current system to more closely resemble education standards in the European Union, in particular, moving from old-fashioned practices to a new, student-focused approach.

Formally, the reforms called for many things, crucially decentralization of the system with increased participation by local communities; equal rights and equal education for all regardless of gender, social or cultural background, or religious or national affiliation; and ongoing education.

Putting that grand vision into practice took several years of patiently changing old habits. Education officials, working with European experts, urgently drafted a new curriculum and ordered new books based on that curriculum. Along the way, educational experts from Slovenia provided assistance, referring to successful reforms in their own country.

Danger of Old Habits

In September 2004, 20 elementary schools began implementing the new nine-year system of education, replacing the old eight-year format. The extra year actually comes at the very beginning instead of the end: pre-school, designed to prepare children for the new school system.

The changes were revolutionary. For the first time, students had a chance to choose some of their own subjects, about 20 percent of their course load. In 2005, an additional 27 elementary schools started using new textbooks and a new curriculum. A year later, reforms started in Montenegrin secondary schools, again based on the principle that students should be able to select a certain amount of subjects in line with their own interests and talents. They were also given the possibility to pick which exams they would like to take in their final year.

In the meantime, three new institutions that would become critical in the implementation of reforms were established: the Educational Services Bureau, the Examination Center for External Examination, and the Center for Vocational Education – all independent of the Education Ministry.

The Council of Europe publicly praised the Education Ministry, and Montenegrin officials themselves stated that the country had made impressive progress in a short period of time.

The end of 2007, however, was a wake-up call to officials who had begun to feel content with a job well done. In December of that year, the results of the Program for International Student Assessment (the so-called Pisa test) conducted by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) showed that Montenegrin 15-year-olds were far behind their peers in developed countries, ranking 48th in a survey of students from 57 countries. The main conclusion was that Montenegrin students had a good amount of theoretical knowledge but they did not know how to apply their learning in a practical way.

“They know what the chemical formula for soap is but they do not know what the function of soap is,” Popovic said.

Educational Services Bureau director Bogojevic, however, insists that the results were misleading because the tested students were those who had studied under the old system. “The first concrete results of school reforms will be visible only after a few years. These exams were taken by the students who completed schools where the old curriculum was applied,” Bogojevic said.

Not Enough Room, Not Enough Teachers

Despite all the praise for education reforms from the Council of Europe and others, some Montenegrin educators worry that financial constraints, which create problems such as overcrowding in schools, have not been properly taken into account.

“Even though reform of the education system is a good idea, I am afraid Montenegro has jumped into reform too quickly, without good preparation,” said Dusanka Durovic, deputy director of the Pavle Rovinski elementary school in Podgorica. She said that most Montenegrin schools simply don’t have the basic infrastructure and resources necessary to properly implement reforms.

“Pavle Rovinski is an elementary school that is intended for 1,000 pupils. Unfortunately, in our school there are more than 1,500, because in Podgorica there are more pupils than the school network is able to accept,” Durovic said. “It’s the same situation as in other Montenegrin towns. In such cases, it is practically impossible to organize a system with electives because there are no classrooms for that purpose.”

Similar difficulties exist in Montenegrin secondary schools. “We have good ideas for reforms but, unfortunately, Montenegro has a problem – a lack of infrastructural capacity,” said Tatjana Lucic, a teacher at the Slobodan Skerovic school. “Thus, for example, the reform claims that pupils are free to choose elective subjects. In our gymnasium, however, there are not enough teachers to teach certain subjects or enough classrooms for such classes. So the pupils, in fact, have no choice,” Lucic said. She added that she and her colleagues face a lack of teaching resources for many subjects, such as chemistry, biology, English, and physics. “A modern reform needs a large amount of funds that Montenegro, I am afraid, does not have,” she said.

But a lack of money is far from the only obstacle to education officials’ ambitious plans. According to reports issued by the Education Ministry and international experts, one of the most critical problems is the persistence of unqualified teachers. New methods of teaching require new teaching skills and approaches, but Montenegro, with a population of only about 700,000, has limited human resources. Experience has shown that old habits cannot disappear overnight. The limited expertise of many teachers continues to be a major bottleneck.

Since the beginning of reforms five years ago, more than 5,000 teachers and elementary and high school principals have had to undergo various forms of training in order to be able to work in the new school system. But it’s not enough, say educational experts. Sanja Elezovic, the FOSI director, called for obligatory training of elementary school teachers after their graduation from university, but also better instruction while they are still in school. “Future teachers should be trained in university for what they are going to do in the classroom – harmonization is needed,” she argued.

Better monitoring is also needed to ensure that all that training and the new guidelines do make an impact, Elezovic said.

Education officials, for their part, admit that problems remain but point out that any conclusions about the success of the reforms would be premature. The new curriculum has been introduced only this year in all Montenegrin elementary and high schools, and only in 2010 will all textbooks be the work of local authors and not imports from Serbia. And next year, students will for the first time take external high school graduation exams.

“We still have a parallel system of education,” Educational Services Bureau director Bogojevic said. “Compared with what we had before, we must say that some obvious progress has been made. But in the sense of the announced goals, we are still in the early days.”


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