Romania: Do Not Disturb

BUCHAREST | High school junior Alexandru Marinescu likes history so much that he decided years ago to include it on his baccalaureate exams next summer. But weeks ago he learned that that would no longer be an option: the Education Ministry had announced that in the fall, the one hour a week of Romanian history would be deleted from the required 12th-grade curriculum of technological high schools.

A few days later, Marinescu’s dismay gave way to confusion. Faced with vociferous criticism, the ministry announced a compromise: Romanian history would be taught every other week, alternating with Romanian geography.

Ecaterina Andronescu

Ecaterina Andronescu

“What does that even mean?” Marinescu said. “Are we going to cover only half of each subject? Are we supposed to learn the rest on our own, if we want to prepare for the baccalaureate?”

Soon, though, his worries were laid to rest. In mid-April, the ministry announced it was scrapping plans to limit the teaching of Romanian history. It announced, however, that logic and psychology would be removed from the curriculum of some theoretical high schools, along with other changes.

The decisions and reversals are part of a tortuous process to reduce the number of subjects that Romanian high-schoolers must cram in each week.

Education Minister Ecaterina Andronescu, whom some have taken to calling the “flip-flopper,” aims to trim the number of hours that high school students spend in the classroom from 35 to 30.

“I took charge of this ministry with the overall objective of simplifying and rethinking the curriculum,” said Andronescu, the country’s fifth education minister in four years, when she presented the reforms. “We need to focus on students’ competence rather than the quantity of what we teach,” she added.

Although most involved in the debate agree that students spend too many hours in school and have too much literature to cover, by at least one measure Romanian high-schoolers spend less time in the classroom than recommended teaching times in schools across Europe. Of 42 countries or regions surveyed in 2005 by Euridyce, the EU’s education research network, 39 recommended more high school teaching time than did Romania.

Consensus or not, Andronescu’s changes, particularly the short-lived proposal to cut history, have gotten a cold reception from students, parents, teachers, and politicians.

“Sacrificing Romania’s history of all subjects is literally unacceptable,” wrote blogger Daniel Malaelea, who teaches history at Colegiul Tehnic Media and serves as vice president of a teachers union in Bucharest. “Not only should it not be removed from the curriculum, but it should be advanced as an obligatory subject matter in the baccalaureate, alongside Romanian language and literature. The ministry is now simply discriminating against 60 percent of all senior high school students, who will be deprived of the chance to learn about and analyze the historic developments of their own country.”

Over the last decade, Romanian history classes for juniors and seniors in technological high schools have been cut from twice a week to once a week, then combined with world history.

During the history row, Andronescu said the National Curriculum Council, not the ministry, had worked up the proposals.

“It ‘s impossible to know every detail in the 150-page document they presented us with,” she said in a phone interview. “I had simply asked them to decongest students’ weekly schedules.”

That wasn’t good enough for Alina Gorghiu, a member of parliament from the opposition National Liberal Party who has been a vocal critic of the changes. “If she operated blindly and signed a document without thoroughly reviewing it, she is even more to blame for its content than those who created it,” Gorghiu said.

Gorghiu has suggested that schools pare down how much detail is taught in some subjects so that fewer classroom hours are needed.

Cut and Paste

Andronescu has cut back physical education and a second foreign language, and removed counseling, in which groups of students gets together with their designated master-teacher once a week.

The resulting compromise, taking a little from here and a little from there, has left few satisfied.

“This is a terrible hotchpotch that cannot be explained in any rational way,” said Simion Hancescu, vice president of the Free Union Education Federation, a trade union.

In parliament, Gorghiu introduced a motion that would have required Andronescu to abolish “all these nonsensical reforms.” It died, with voting along party lines. Andronescu, a member of the Social Democratic Party, said the effort was politically motivated.

“I don’t consider the outcome of this vote a personal victory, and I continue to be open to any sensible ideas that can bring about positive change,” she said.

Ideas are not in short supply. Those who want more physical education classes question Andronescu’s argument that one required hour per week would be supplemented by two optional hours.

“Students are terribly busy as it is. No one will come back to school in the evenings for classes that are not even mandatory,” said Petru Ispas, a physical education teacher in Rucar, about 120 kilometers northwest of Bucharest. Ipsas said he does not know what he will do if his mandatory classes are cut in half. “Nothing has been thoroughly explained. We are all scrambling to make sense of what is happening, but this flip-flopping is killing us.”

If Alin Barbu, a 17-year-old from Bucharest, is any measure, students will not come back for more classes after school. Barbu said he spends up to seven hours daily in school. “The curriculum as it is now is really suffocating,” he said. “They should alternate ‘heavy’ classes like math and physics with more sports, so that we can take a break now and then.”

Lucian Andrei, a freshman from Constanta, agrees. “Why don’t they just reduce the number of completely useless classes, like technological or civic education, instead of history and sports?” he said. “They’re taking away the more interesting and relaxing subjects, basically leaving behind an overload just as bad as before.”

A union counterproposal that religion no longer be a required class sparked a heated debate among the Education Ministry, the Orthodox patriarchy and civil society.

Citing disapproval from Patriarch Daniel, leader of the Romanian Orthodox Church, Andronescu vetoed the idea. The minister said students need the moral guidance that religion classes could offer. “Most people have a great deal of respect for the church as an institution, so we must all take its position into consideration,” Andronescu said.

In response, Constantin Ciosu of the National Education Federation said, “We don’t understand why students need to study religion for 12 years in a row. We are a lay state and we should not run our school system according to objections or endorsements from the patriarchy.”

Gorghiu said she also favors keeping religion in schools, but pointed out that only the Greek Orthodox religion is taught, despite the fact that there are many students of other confessions. About 87 percent of Romanians belong to an Eastern Orthodox faith. About 5 percent are Protestant and 4.7 percent are Catholic.

“They claim they really want to reform, but then they don’t have the courage to really do it, so that they don’t really upset anyone important,” she said.

For their part, church leaders say the public wants religion to remain in schools.

“We have gathered tens of thousands of signatures from parents and students who want to keep this tradition in our schools,” said patriarchy spokesman Constantin Stoica.

More changes are ahead in the coming months. Andronescu will offer few specifics, but she said the ministry will pursue content changes as well.

“The task is phenomenally difficult, considering that everything has been so chaotic for the longest time. I just want to make sure that everyone understands one thing: we really only have the best intentions,” she said.


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