Vice-minister calls tougher control for secondary schools “support”

  • 2013-09-11
  • Interview by Linas Jegelevicius

With a new school year just started, amid the unease from both secondary school children and teachers over the new novelties at school, the Education and Science vice-Minister Genoveita Krasauskiene placates everybody. “I really would not like one to think the Lithuanian schoolchildren, teachers and principals will be put under big control from now on. I’d say the ministry strives for more quality in the teaching process, seeks bigger accountability in all of it and is ready to extend its hand to those who fail,” the deputy-principal-turned-vice-minister said. Krasauskiene agreed to answer The Baltic Times’ questions on what awaits secondary education school this year.

Hearing every year of all those new things in schools, it makes me think that no other field of life goes through so many changes in Lithuania as the education system. Do you share the observation?
Well, secondary education school is like a young and ever-changing body; therefore, the changes are an inevitable thing. For this school year, all schools will take on the implementation of new education plans, which open up new possibilities in forming a more flexible layout of the education content, the time, as well as choosing a more variable education environment for the 1st graders. Thus, in the schooling plan, every class will be granted three weekly hours for individual consultations, which will also entitle each pupil a possibility for individual assistance. Going into details, a schoolchild who, for example, returns to school after a leave due to illness, or who tends to get bad scores on tests, may benefit a lot from this kind of individual consultation on every subject in the curriculum.

Ahead of the new school year, the Education and Science Minister Dainius Pavalkis hinted that more control awaits schoolchildren, teachers and principals this year. Can you give any details of what the ministry has prepared?
Speaking of control, perhaps you have in mind the standardized tests that will be carried out more frequently this year. However, I’d not call them as “control,” but rather an opportunity one in school is being given to periodically check their knowledge and, in the case of a teacher, their work results. The ministry intends to spur the secondary education quality by applying a coordinated assessment system that will be built on criteria-based testing which, among other things, will include a periodical - it is planned for every two years - testing. It will help, ultimately, to take necessary decisions in assisting the students, improving the teachers’ qualifications and developing bigger progress at the schools. When it comes to additional testing, open test databases, including tests and evaluation instructions, will be put on the Web site of the National Examination Center and they will be available to all schools. For this school year these kinds of standardized tests have already been prepared for the 4th graders, who in this way will be able to test their math and Lithuanian knowledge, and also for the 8th graders, who will have to take a test not only of the two subjects, but also history. Meanwhile, all the 10th graders will be able to test their English, which will allow a “self-evaluation” of the level of the language and choose accordingly a learning program that matches this level. This kind of foreign language “self-testing” for 10th graders is not a new thing, as some 70 percent of the students have already taken it this year. By 2015, the ministry also plans to draw up evaluation “tools” for 2nd, 4th, 6th and 8th graders on a number subjects, including mathematics, Lithuanian, foreign languages and some other subjects.

Why is there the need to ramp up the testing?
The research on student achievement that we carry out all the time has turned up very low results in the natural sciences and mathematics. Frankly, there’re quite a few pupils that can boast of the highest results in these fields. In tackling the situation, the ministry’s working group is preparing the guidelines aimed to improve the math and natural science education results. With them in force, we expect they will be nearing the higher, and highest, levels [of achievement]. There are also foreseen and already being implemented measures aimed to bolster the Lithuanian language literacy levels during 2013-2016.

To me, all this clearly points to an increased control of schools, quite a step back from the praised liberalization of the general education process!
Maybe the measures should not be called “control,” but rather “support.” The bottom line is, the standardized tests won’t be mandatory, as they will only be a tool to test yourself out, and, if needed, improve on the knowledge.

And in case the results do not get any better, who would be held accountable?
First, as I said, all this is about stretching the helping hand to the pupils, teachers and school principles. In the ministry’s plan, support for all the teachers out there has to be tantamount; therefore, there’s a fledgling plan aimed to change the teacher qualification improvement system, which will focus on providing educators conditions to improve their skills in respect to the actual educational achievement levels in the respective class or school. The ministry also intends to review the teacher attestation requirements and criteria. Besides, to hold the school principles more accountable for the school’s academic results, we are preparing a new attestation regulation for all school principles. According to this, every school head will be subject to testing his or her qualification every five years. There are also ongoing discussions on setting certain time restrictions as to how long a principle can stay in the office.

I find it surprising when a school principle, at the start of a new school year, is not aware of how many the previous school year’s graduates entered universities, colleges, or whether they chose studies in Lithuania or abroad. Don’t you think public statistics would do better by scoring the schools and, importantly, their principals’ performance?
Sure, it would be a good thing. If the results turn out to be good, it would serve as advertising for the schools and would spur the underachieving schools to catch up. But I am sure that all the schools are interested in their former graduates’ admission results. Perhaps it is sometimes hard to collect the data precisely, especially if the young people choose studies abroad. But this kind of information would be very helpful in assessing the performance of the teachers and principles.

Have there until now been any research linking the schoolchildren’s academic performance with that of the school principals?
Frankly, I could not tell now whether there has been anything done in that regard. However, when analyzing school results, a link between the student achievements and the principal’s activity is quite evident.

For many years, the all-level education’s disconnection from practical apprenticeships and, especially, the youth’s reluctance to seek vocational specialties have been a major problem in the Lithuanian education system. Has anything been done in that regard?
This is a very important question, indeed. To address it, there is ongoing optimization of the vocational school network; the labor market needs are being analyzed, especially in the regions. Meanwhile, employers are being encouraged to get involved in the practical process of vocational training. The ministry does expect to see some positive changes on the way.

What can informal education expect from this school year?
There’s a working group set up at the ministry that is working on a new informal education funding model. Once it is ready, we expect some considerable changes. As the vice-minister, I support all initiatives that foster schoolchildren’s creativity, involvement and activity.

There have been many politically-charged disagreements over teaching the Lithuanian language in national minority schools. Will their Lithuanian language and literature programs be in any way simplified?
No, they won’t. The programs will be identical both to national minority and Lithuanian schools. Ditto the Lithuanian exam.

How many schoolchildren and teachers will there be in schools this school year?
There are 1,229 secondary schools in the country that expect 351,423 schoolchildren, and 35,800 teachers in this school year. There are also 674 kindergartens which will be attended by over 100,000 pre-schoolers. When it comes to informal education, there are 260 of this kind of education facilities, with 6,530 teachers in the country. Unfortunately, the school attendees’ number drop by some 20,000 pupils every year. However, a good piece of the news is that this year we will have some 1,500 more 1st graders, compared to last year. In fact, there will be more 1st graders than 5th graders this school year.