Poland’s gains in mathematics and science on the 2012 PISA assessments made big news in the United States. The impressive achievements by fifteen-year-old Polish youngsters contrast starkly with the scores of American youngsters. U.S. results have remained essentially flat since the tests were first given in 2000 to 180,000 students in 32 countries. As a result of these diverging trajectories, Polish students now outperform their American peers in both math and science by a significant margin.
I was a high-school teacher in Poland in 1990–91 and again in 1994–95. During my first stint, I taught in a town of about 15,000; the second time, I worked in one of Warsaw’s elite high schools. The children of the students I taught are now the Polish generation that is outpacing much of the world in academic achievement.
After reading the new PISA report—especially when read in tandem with Amanda Ripley’s excellent recent book—I am not really surprised by Poland’s success. The students I taught had many of the attributes for success that now benefit their own children. These included families that care deeply about education and that view education to be the path to upward mobility. By doing well in school, children could do more with their lives. This was a belief I saw in the parents both of small-town students and of elite metropolitan kids.
Poles also take great pride in knowledge: acquiring it and showing it off. I was always amazed, and more than slightly embarrassed, by how much more Poles knew about American and English literature, the history of mathematics and how to use math (Poland is the home of Copernicus), and science (especially the natural sciences) than I did. I spent hours with Polish families and students in the forest, hunting mushrooms, talking about the wildlife we saw, and being asked what this tree or that plant was called in English.
Poles also respect and admire teachers. Parents and students would constantly approach me and other teachers with kind words and formal greetings of respect. I was always called “Mr. Ryan,” never addressed by my first name. Parents of students would invite teachers to their homes for dinner or just to participate in conversation. I also saw small towns come up with creative and affordable apartment packages to entice top teachers from larger towns to work with their children. These teachers were seen as valuable assets to their community.
Poles in the late 1980s and early 1990s were also open to doing things in new and radically different ways. For example, the Polish parliament in 1989 voted for pursuing “Economic Shock Therapy.” This policy triggered the sudden release of price and currency controls, withdrawal of state subsidies, and immediate trade liberalization within the country, even the large-scale privatization of massive publicly owned factories and assets. In one fell swoop, the economic ramparts of communism were dismantled in favor of market-based capitalism.
Poles likewise embraced bold reforms to their education system in the 1990s that included decentralizing some of the decision-making, creating new and more rigorous national academic standards, allowing the creation of private schools, crafting better systems to identify struggling students and get them needed help, providing support for new teachers, and building new schools to replace those built before World War I. Poland also put in place a number of reforms of its higher education system, changes that made Polish universities far more competitive with other Western universities and, in the process, raised expectations for Polish high-school graduates.
The OECD’s Andreas Schleicher summarized the changes in Poland for the Wall Street Journal thusly: “Poland launched a massive set of reforms. While we cannot say for sure they caused the improvement, they certainly are…[a] plausible explanation.”
Finally, Poles were very quick to learn from other countries that seemed to be doing it better than they were. They would swipe good ideas that could benefit their schools and their students. This is something Americans should do as well. Let’s learn from those now doing it better than we are.
Terry Ryan is president of the Idaho Charter School Network. For more than a decade, he led the Fordham Institute’s efforts in Ohio.