Despite insufficient funding, a lack of qualified teachers, and the slow pace of education reforms, Romanian students continue to score well in international scientific competitions. But in the second part of "Class Struggles," our four-part series on education issues in our broadcast area, experts warn that Romania may be putting future generations at risk unless it acts faster to attract larger numbers of competent young people to the teaching profession and takes firmer steps to speed up reforms and end corruption.
Prague, 30 August 2002 (RFE/RL) -- Romanian media reported extensively last month on two Romanian high-school students who won gold medals at the Central European Olympiad in Information Science. The Olympiad is a regional competition sponsored by the United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) for young computer programmers, which was held in the Slovak city of Kosice this year.
It was the fact that the two whiz kids, Daniel Dumitran and Victor Costan, had to travel 36 hours in second-class train compartments to get to Kosice and back -- albeit at the Education Ministry's expense -- that attracted the media's interest.
That interest turned into public outrage when a deputy education minister told reporters that Kosice, at some 800 kilometers from Bucharest, "was close enough for a bike ride."
This case illustrates the contradictions that characterize Romania's education system, a system marred by a lack of funding, a shortage of qualified personnel, and slow reforms but that at times is able to produce students who score very well in international competitions.
Education officials take pride in the 56 awards that Romanian students won this year in international contests in various fields, such as computer science or mathematics. But they admit that despite such results, the quality of Romania's education system is uneven.
Romanian Education Minister Ecaterina Andronescu told RFE/RL: "Romanian schools, unfortunately, are characterized by what I call heterogeneity. In addition to the very good schools that our system has and that can enter any competition without fear, we unfortunately still have schools where very much remains to be done."
Andronescu said that when children return to school on 15 September, students such as Dumitran and Costan who have won international competitions will be rewarded with some $1,700 each in cash, while their teachers and schools will also receive the same amount.
Furthermore, winning students will get an additional monthly allowance of some $60 over the next year, which can be extended for another year if they again score well in international competitions.
But while lavishly rewarding its best students, Romania, which spends only 4 percent of its gross domestic product on education, remains stingy with the overwhelming majority of the country's students and teachers.
Critics say too much of the education budget is spent on social measures, such as free stationery for poorer kids and a controversial decision to give free glasses of milk and rolls each day to elementary- and middle-school students. Meanwhile, subsidies for free textbooks in the compulsory-education system (grades 1 through 8) amount to a meager $6 million.
Researcher Adrian Miroiu, who is co-author of a UNESCO-funded study on the state of Romania's compulsory-education system, told RFE/RL the education budget is both insufficient and inefficiently spent.
Miroiu said good results in international competitions do not reflect the average level of instruction in Romania, which is sometimes well below standard. "For instance, many Romanians have had outstanding results in math competitions, leading to the impression that math is studied well here. However, the shocking results of an international study in some 40 countries several years ago showed that in Romania, the average level of knowledge in math is extremely low. That's why I think we should pay more attention to what's happening at the average level," Miroiu said.
Miroiu said that some steps to reform the system have borne fruit, such as placing elementary, middle, and high schools under the administration of local authorities as of this year.
He said local administrations this summer spent more than $20 million in total to repair schools. However, while many children will return to renovated schools, the schools themselves still need more qualified teachers.
Many Romanian teachers have migrated to better-paying jobs, while a majority of graduates choose fields where they receive higher salaries from the start. The Education Ministry has thus been forced to employ a large number of underqualified substitute teachers, mainly in rural schools, which account for some 47 percent of the total.
Embarrassingly, almost 9,000 graduates and experienced teachers throughout Romania failed tests earlier this month that would have ensured them permanent jobs in the school system. Miroiu said such failures are partly caused by the absence of proper pedagogical training for students in universities.
Catalin Croitoru is the leader of FEN, one of Romania's main teachers unions. He told RFE/RL that the main reasons for the decline in the quality of education is government indifference. Croitoru said that in the long run, Romanian society could suffer because education is being neglected. "They do not want to accept, or it doesn't suit them to accept, that education is a strategic domain for the development of the nation, and that every mistake, failure, or shortage affects the development of the society as a whole in the short, medium, and long run. In the end, the question is particularly painful: 'Who is educating our children?'" Croitoru said.
Croitoru said that on average, teachers earn wages below Romania's average monthly income of $100. He added that education, like all other fields and state institutions, is profoundly affected by corruption. "It's a vicious circle influenced by [insufficient] funding, salaries, [and] motivation. I think we shouldn't hide the truth any longer. This is, to a great extent, the result of 45 years of communist education: traffic of influence, bribery, the little bags of gifts [for the teachers,] and so forth. Unfortunately, legislation is extremely weak and insufficiently tough when it comes to punishing corrupt public servants caught in the act. There are no legal means to coerce and educate people against such practices," Croitoru said.
Education Minister Andronescu said the government has raised teachers' salaries twice this year, and will continue to work to narrow income gaps between teachers and other professionals.
Andronescu added that a program has been initiated in universities to relaunch pedagogical training for students. And she pointed to the fact that despite its difficulties, Romania's education system has a low rate of dropping out: about 3 percent.
Andronescu also noted the government has taken measures to boost the education of the country's most neglected students, such as youth in Roma communities and children in poor rural areas.
She said Roma children benefit from European Union-sponsored programs and affirmative action at all levels in schools. "We have Phare-funded programs [targeted by the EU at applicant countries] worth 8 million euros [$7.84 million], which are aimed at improving education for the Roma population. Furthermore, last year and this year we allocated places for Roma students in affirmative-action programs at all education levels, from primary school to universities, to facilitate access to education for this ethnic minority," Andronescu said.
In rural areas, said Andronescu, the government intends to continue the rehabilitation of school buildings, increase the number of qualified teachers, and provide free transportation to and from school for children in remote villages.
However, Romania's economic situation remains difficult, and it is still unclear how the government will manage to provide the funding for all its projects in the field of education.