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Editorial: Time to listen to our teachers

The following editorial was published in the February 12 biweekly edition of the Budapest Business Journal.

Teachers rally near Parliament on February 13 in a demonstration to protest the current education system. (Photo: MTI/János Marjai)

This is one of those times when it is a good idea to listen to what our teachers tell us. Educators around the country are sounding the alarm about the deteriorating state of our country’s schools, and the problem is bigger than poor pay. 

While they note the need for more funds, the teachers and their union say they are more concerned about the system of centralized administration that has been put in place since 2010. Given the growing concern among local businesses about the shrinking pool of well-trained workers in Hungary, this is a problem worthy of our attention. The future of our children is at stake, and so is the country’s ability to remain competitive.

The problem with funding is obvious enough: According to a 2015 report from the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development: “Annual expenditure per student by education institution in Hungary, from primary to tertiary level, is one of the lowest of all OECD counties: $5,564 compared to an average $10,220.” The report also notes that spending on education in Hungary has dropped steadily since 2008.

Teachers say that the lack of funding means they go without printer cartridges in their offices, and they have to buy their own chalk. Because they are so poorly compensated – with teachers earning less than half the pay of a typical worker with similar qualifications – we are losing many of the most capable educators to other lines of work.

As low as their pay may be, teachers seem even more upset about the problems with centralization. In 2010, the newly elected Fidesz government used its two-thirds majority in Parliament to pass dramatic reforms to the way education is administered. Given the declining performance of Hungarian students on international standardized tests, reform was definitely needed. Unfortunately, the solution may have made things worse.

The changes in education were handled like many changes ushered in under the current government: through centralization and the establishment of a top-down system. Critics of the government would say that this tendency to take control of everything from education to energy is a plain abuse of power by the leadership. Government officials generally argue that they are taking more control because they need professional leadership and tighter reins to fix broken systems.

Whatever the real reason, giving a few people too much power over education increases the risk that they misuse that power and ignore the vital input of professional educators in the field.

This seems to be one of the main complaints from teachers, who say they do not have enough freedom to develop a good curriculum. Educators maintain that the long list of required, standardized lessons forces teachers and students to waste a lot of time on unnecessary subjects. They also complain that the curriculum emphasizes memorization over critical thinking.

When it comes to the textbooks, it would certainly appear that the critics who see an abuse of power have a point: In 2014, the publishing industry was in an uproar over the plan to let central authorities choose a limited group of textbooks that schools were allowed to use. The charges that the lucky publishers of those books were chosen on the basis of patronage gained credence when the books came out at the beginning of the school year and were found to be full of errors, inaccuracies and – in some cases – bizarre subjective information passed off as objective fact.

The government has said it will seek to improve teachers’ pay, slightly. But the teachers have made it clear that the problems with education cannot be bought off cheaply. It is time we listen to what our teachers are saying: Professional educators on the local level need to be allowed to make more of the decisions about schooling, and the government and citizens need to be ready to spend more on education. If we cannot make that investment, we will cheat our children, and deprive our businesses of the capable labor they need.