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Postcommunist Kids Are No Know-It-Alls, After All

  • Mark Baker

Students at Moscow State University in the Russian capital

Students at Moscow State University in the Russian capital

A new survey of high-school students around the world shows educational outcomes in the Balkans and former Soviet Union generally lagging behind their peers in Asia and much of Europe.

The report, by the Paris-based Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) and titled Universal Basic Skills: What Countries Stand to Gain, focuses on math and science skills among students in 76 countries. It then quantifies economic gains that countries can realize if they take steps to boost enrollment and improve classroom teaching.

Students in Asian countries like Singapore, Hong Kong, South Korea, Japan, and Taiwan tended to demonstrate the highest-level skills in math and science, according to the report.

The only former Eastern Bloc countries to crack the top 20 were Estonia, Poland, and Slovenia.

The survey's results appear to dash the widely held assumption about the former communist countries of Europe that while they performed poorly in many areas, at least students there were well educated in math and science.

Andreas Schleicher, the OECD's director for education and skills, says based on current metrics, he doubts if students in Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union were ever that well educated in the modern sense of the word.

"The systems in the Balkans and Eastern Europe, generally, emphasized content-learning over the creative application of knowledge," he says. "Today, what's important is not what you know but how you apply that knowledge."

Among European countries, the survey finds that students in former Eastern Bloc states like the Czech Republic, Slovakia, and Hungary, while often weaker than in Western Europe, generally outperformed their peers in countries that were once part of the Soviet Union. These include the Russian Federation (34th), Ukraine (38th), Kazakhstan (49th), and Armenia (50th).

The weakest skill set, among European countries, was found in the Balkans and former Yugoslavia. The survey awards the lowest overall scores to students in Macedonia (65th) and Montenegro (56th).

In terms of what countries stand to gain if they reform, the report says the roles are reversed. Countries that seriously commit to educational changes, such as improving teaching, also stand to gain the most in terms of wealth.

Schleicher says the quality of schooling is a powerful predictor of the overall wealth a country will produce in the long run.

He says, though, this doesn't mean that simply spending more on education will automatically result in higher growth. The most effective improvements, he says, involve "finding and hiring better teachers" and "getting students involved in active learning."

The OECD says if Macedonia, for example, would take these steps, it could boost gross domestic product by some 12-fold (1,137 percent) by 2030. Similar high gains were seen for Serbia, Armenia, Kazakhstan, and Ukraine.