"Bulgaria's potential is in disadvantaged children - invest in them" – initiator of the PISA, Andreas Schleicher

At the end of last week, Dr. Andreas Schleicher, director of the Directorate for "Education and Skills" in the OECD, arrived in Bulgaria. He is best known as an initiator of the Program for International Student Assessment (PISA), which assesses functional literacy in 15-year-old students and measures not just knowledge of specific subjects, but how students can use what they learn in real-life situations and how ready they are to successfully cope with life's challenges.

Schleicher first stopped by the “Filipovtsi” neighborhood, which is home to many Roma and marginalized families.  He wanted to meet parents and students from the community to hear first-hand about their experience in and with the Bulgarian education system. He believes that students from poor families and minority backgrounds are Bulgaria's hidden and undeveloped potential. TSA, in cooperation with the Ministry of Education and Culture and with the key support of the primary teacher Rumen Naydenov and the director of the 103rd OU "Vasil Levski" Milena Benkova, brought residents from the neighborhood together to speak with him.

The school mainly educates students from poor families in "Filipovtsi".  Often, better-off parents send their children to mixed schools in "Lyulin". There is no school cafeteria in the building, which has proven to be challenge for the retention and engagement of the poorest children. The school has produced extremely low results on national external assessments (fourth graders have about 15 points and 7th graders - about 10 points in BEL and Mathematics). Most children speak both Romani and Bulgarian at home, but despite this, they have certain difficulties with mastering basic knowledge of the Bulgarian language, which hampers their progress in learning new knowledge. The neighborhood became part of Sofia fifty years ago, but despite this, large parts of it are not zoned or regulated, which hinders its development. There are no playgrounds and green spaces, no sewage and normal infrastructure. The school yard is the widest free space in the entire district. Children often play there. Some of the neighborhood’s residents lack an ID card, and this deprives them of the use of any public services, including formal employment and social services.  "We are modernizing, but we still have bad living conditions," shared one of the mothers who came to meet the high-ranking guest. "Whoever has the opportunity leaves the neighborhood - to Sofia or to Western Europe. They succeed there," adds the teacher Roumen, whose nephew has briefly returned from Schleicher's native Germany, with whom they exchange a few words in German. He once attended the local school but left with his parents when he was in the third grade. "It was difficult for me the first year, until I learned the language. Now everything is great," says the young man, who most likely would have had a completely different path if he had stayed at the neighborhood school. Neighborhood conditions do not lend themselves to a healthy life or the possibility of educational engagement. 

The visit of the initiator of PISA to the Roma quarter was short, but at the same time charged with a key message, which he reflected on during his participation on bTV and during subsequent meetings he held.

"Until the 1980s, Bulgaria ranked among the more successful countries in various international educational assessments. Now someone will ask what happened, why do we rank so low? Assessment tests have changed, and so have the metrics used to measure success. And while it is also true that Bulgaria's education system has deteriorated, the indicators of student achievement have had to change because the skills and abilities needed by students to successfully navigate and succeed in the world are now completely different. When you pour resources into a select group of students, that group of students achieves high results. This worked well in the past.  For example, during the industrial revolution, the system needed a small group of highly educated citizens to lead larger groups of workers. Now the system has changed and we need ever larger groups of highly educated citizens", Schleicher shared at a meeting with civil society organizations and business representatives organized by the Ministry of Education and Culture.

"3% of students in Bulgaria have achieved the highest levels in mathematics. 2% of Bulgarian students have achieved the highest reading results. 1% of Bulgarian youth have achieved the highest results in natural sciences. These results can bring medals to Bulgaria at various international individual competitions, which is good. But there is no way that the country as a whole can achieve greater results if most of Bulgaria’s students are below the critical achievement threshold in the three assessed areas, i.e. 54% in mathematics, 53% in reading and 48% in in natural sciences.  It is important also to note that we are not just concerned about the students’ prospects for economic engagement, but also about their political, cultural, and social engagements, which are equally important,” continued Schleicher.

What did the creator of PISA tell us and how should it be used for educational purposes?

Build lasting relationships with parents – they are critically important

When he was 10 years old, Andres' teacher told his father that he was not capable of continuing his education at an elite high school. His father, however, had a more ambitious plan for him than his teacher. Schleicher succeeded because his parents took an active interest in their child’s development – and this is an important point for all parents, because "schools aren't always right."

Interestingly, parent-initiated conversations about student progress have a greater impact than family income. Working with parents to become more involved in their child's educational progress can have a much greater impact on a child's success. "If the parent shows the child that it is important for him to succeed in school - this will certainly be more motivating for the child. Vietnam performed much better than expected despite the modest amount of money they invest in education – but a key difference here is the attitude of teachers. They proactively go out and seek out parents and talk to them regularly at their homes/outside the school. “The idea is not simply to tell parents what students are doing wrong/right, but rather to increase the motivation of parents to see the importance of their child's education and become active participants in encouraging and asking students about their progress." Schleicher shared.

Students learn from adults they like and relate to

Schleicher tried to answer another question - how can we increase the interest, motivation and commitment of parents who have more modest ambitions and dreams for their children? First, with role models, because you can't wish for the future of something you can't see. Second, the teacher's belief in each child's ability to succeed without framing or labeling what they can and cannot do. Third, teachers' expectations must be high and the same for every child. "Especially regarding children from poor families," he added. Fourth, it is essential to create a sense of belonging - there are things that are important to children, to their family, to their community. If we want children and parents to identify with the school, the teacher must show respect for these elements and include them in one form or another in the life of the school.

Students as discoverers - learning satisfaction, critical thinking

The curriculum or what is learned in school should be enjoyable but also applicable in the real world. Children should be able to relate it to the world around them. Unfortunately, the Bulgarian educational system still emphasizes memorization of material that can be reproduced in the exam. No one will pay us anymore just for what we know, because Google and artificial intelligence can reproduce it much faster than any human. What matters is what we can do with what we know. It is critical that children learn how to apply the knowledge they are learning and to be able to conduct experiments (rather than simply know the answer to the experiment. Students benefit from having more responsibility and control over their learning goals. "The content of the curricula should be more relevant to life. Not learning the answers, but learning how to ask the right questions. Students must be able not only to extract knowledge, but also to construct it," explained the creator of PISA.

Technology is the key - it's up to us how we use it

During the pandemic online learning became the norm and many teachers struggled to support their students. Parental support was also often lacking, and students struggled to adapt the formal nature of instruction in Bulgaria with the needs of the assessment.  These are reasons for the low PISA results.  But they are not the only reasons – in some countries student results even improved during the pandemic.  Technology can help solve learning challenges, but it can also impede student progress, especially when students are distracted by a variety of applications.  When using technology, students are interested in topics that are closer to them. In order to ensure that their time spent with technology is not wasted, schools must make more efforts to use technology effectively. It is also the parent's responsibility to introduce technology in such a way that it supports the child and his development, not hinders him. One very pertinent example – when children stay up late in front of screens, they are often sleepy in the morning and not able to engage in school.  Is the pandemic to blame for our low scores? In fact, the pandemic did not have a negative effect in some countries because they introduced strategies to help students learn independently. The pandemic has even helped some countries improve their systems. "In Singapore, for example, schools now designate one day a week when students set learning goals for themselves, which they achieve entirely independently from home," the director of the OECD's Education and Skills Directorate shared as an example.

For poor children, a good teacher and a good school are often the only chance for success

As is clear from the PISA data, Bulgaria has good students, but most students score at the other end of the pole. Many of them come from poorer families and underprivileged areas and study in schools where teachers fail to set high goals for their students.  This hampers their chances to reach their highest potential. 

“You have wonderful students, but you also have too many children who are falling behind - and they can grow. From the most challenged regions of a variety of countries, for example Switzerland, China, Vietnam, Macao or other areas where children live in much more difficult conditions than those in Bulgaria, students still have very good results in mathematics. For example, the poorest students in Macau do better than the richest in Bulgaria. If you come from a rich family, the doors of life will always be wide open for you. Even if you fail in school, you will often find your way. "If you come from a poor family, you have only one chance in life - to find a good teacher and a good school. If this does not happen, it will be very difficult for you to move forward," Andreas Schleicher emphatically shared. Investments should be targeted at children who are left behind. In addition, there is strong evidence to show that supporting lower-performing schools over a long period of time does not negatively affect students in high-performing schools. You are not harming them in any way. In other words, the added value of investing in schools that educate students from affluent families is indistinguishable compared to the improvement in outcomes that results from focusing resources and efforts in schools that educate students from disadvantaged backgrounds. This is another solid motivation for bringing the most talented teachers to the most underserved classrooms so that every student can get a good enough education. This is not a daydream, but rather it is quite possible. There are many good educational systems that demonstrate success when they adapt their resources to students. “A growth and development mindset is key and it can be learned. How do you foster a growth mindset?  Do not tell kids they're great when they don't do something the right way. Show them how progressive learning works – for example, you may ask a child - yesterday you gave you one answer and today you gave you a completely different one. Do you see the difference?'' Schleicher explained.

How can the state reduce achievement gaps between schools?

Targeting funds to underperforming schools based on a needs-based formula has proven to be a successful approach. But the most important question is how and for what these funds are spent. Investments should not only be directed towards the construction of physical infrastructure, but should rather focus on increasing the capacity of school leadership (human resource management and processes) and providing a support system for teachers. It's never just about money, because we always come down to human capacity and resources. The investment could also go towards the use of technology to help teachers receive real-time feedback.

For example, “In Singapore, classroom cameras are combined with AI (artificial intelligence) to produce daily reports for teachers on their interactions with students. This helps teachers notice if they are spending too much time with one group and not enough time with another group, or if their intonation and interaction is more positive with one group than another (i.e., uncovering hidden biases, prejudices, etc.) Schleicher suggested. During his visit to Filipovtsi district, he shared that he had seen similar conditions in Vietnam, where teachers had led students to the top of the PISA rankings. Encouraging cognitive development and social-emotional support from teachers is very important. The most stigmatizing policies are “blind policies.” For example, refusing to collect and analyze data on socioeconomic status, ethnicity, mother tongue ultimately harms disadvantaged students because it fails to account for the specific challenges they face. they are facing and because of which they are lagging behind.

Teachers need a professional horizon

If you are a good teacher, you must be able to be a good mentor, a good social worker, have empathy, understand the children in front of you, pay attention to their goals, think about how you can help them. There are different children and teachers are the ones who have to adapt to them. There are differences in the way of learning and teaching. The question is what we pay attention to. "It was very difficult for me to learn languages. I still have a hard time with languages today,” Schleicher replied, listening to an English translation and responding in English, which is not his native language. It turns out that financial incentives for teachers are not the most effective way to reduce differences in results between schools. Rather, a strong supportive environment for teachers matters much more: good school leadership, clearly articulated professional development pathways, teacher autonomy in developing daily lessons and learning objectives. At the same time, teachers should be encouraged and rewarded for taking on difficult tasks. “A surgeon would like to have the most difficult operations to improve his skills. Such thinking should be encouraged among teachers," added Schleicher. In the best schools, it's not so important how good a teacher you are. But in schools where most students are falling behind, a good teacher will make an enormous difference. "If you're a vice-principal in Shanghai and you want to become a principal, the system will tell you, 'Look, we're going to send you to a difficult school, if you do well there, we'll make you a principal because we'll see that you can build something of quality.” Schleicher pointed out. Teachers need to diversify their work - they need perspective. It is important that the system provides them with these opportunities, even if they transfer to another sector after a while. It is very important to keep in mind that clear paths for development and growth are motivating for teachers. “For example, in Singapore, the principal meets new teachers and asks them what they want to achieve in 10 years or where they want to be. If they are interested in one day becoming principals, they are placed on this professional development path with the necessary supportive resources. If they express an interest in specializing in an area or working with a specific group of students with specific learning needs, they are provided with thematic professional development and resources. If they show an interest in education policy, they are directed to that path – with opportunities for internships in the ministry, etc.,” shared Andreas Schleicher. Sometimes the trade union organizations also present the work of teachers as hard, terrifying and extremely ignoble. That may be so, but this narrative needs to change if we want to make the profession more attractive and competitive. Because this affects both the attitudes of current teachers and the choices of young people when choosing different professions. The teaching profession should become prestigious because it is noble.

Andreas Schleicher's visit brought hope to the educational community. At the same time, we note that he is not telling us anything new that we do not already know. Here comes the key question about the functional literacy of the education system - what do we do with this knowledge? Everything remains in the hands of the people in Bulgaria, who make the decisions and form the policies. Schleicher politely, as a guest, pointed us in the direction. But we must do our work.