Alice and her cat in a wonderful Polish school?

Poland is joining the ranks of world leaders when it comes to education – although grumbling teachers, parents and pupils may be surprised. The latest PISA tests show that young Poles come close to the educational supremacy of Finland. Is this due to hard work, successful reforms or maybe a miracle?

Photo: CreativeCommons/ Lucélia Ribeiro

30. 12. 2014

The statement ‘Alice has a cat’ [original: Ala ma kota] brings back memories and affection for Poland’s old alphabet book. Many Poles believe that the present education system is by far worse than the system built during Communism – the one in which Alice accompanied children in their elementary education. The education reforms that started in 1999 and are still ongoing have been criticized by citizens’ movements and the political opposition, who make pre-election promises to cancel the reforms and return to the state of the 1990’s.

At the same time from an international perspective, Poland appears to have accomplished an education miracle. The 2012 PISA assessment showed that Polish pupils ranked among the best in the world; in math, reading and science they were among the top 10 OECD countries. One may ask if the PISA improvement happened despite or because of the educational reforms that have been implemented over last 15 years and whether Alice and her cat are in a wonderland?

What is PISA and why is it so important?

Since the year 2000, the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development has conducted an international survey, known as PISA, which assesses the skills and knowledge of 15-year-old students. 1 The results are used as quality measures of the education systems in around 70 countries worldwide. The PISA assessment covers three main domains: reading, mathematics and science, with the test stressing one’s ability to apply knowledge out of context, and not simply recall the definitions and formulas learned in school.

Poland has participated in PISA since its first round, and while the first PISA assessment did not portray the Polish education system positively (the average results were significantly below the OECD average), the last assessment in 2012, brought Poland significantly above the OECD average. The Polish improvement between 2000 and 2012 in average reading performance was the greatest among countries that participated in both PISA rounds. What is more, the PISA 2012 results in both reading and mathematics were on par with those of Finland, whose stellar performance had been viewed as an unachievable benchmark before.

Figure 1. Change between 2000 and 2012 in PISA results in reading for selected countries.

graf rynko

The improvement in Poland’s average PISA performance between 2000 and 2012 did not happen suddenly; positive changes were observed gradually in subsequent PISA rounds.

PISA 2000 assessment was conducted in a Polish education system characterized by eight-year primary schools and three, four and five-year general or vocational secondary schools, and students were already tracked. Because PISA sampled 15-year-old students, the 2000 assessment was conducted mostly among students in the first year of their secondary schooling. The differences in the results across three types of schools – basic vocational schools, lyceums or technical secondary schools – were pronounced, with around 75% of basic vocational school’s students scoring at very low levels. While the share of students in lyceums and technical secondary schools amounted to less than 2% and around 13% respectively.

The next PISA assessments were conducted in the new education reality, following the education reform of 1999.  New types of schools were created – the lower secondary “gymnasium”, where students received a general education based on equal standards and a common core curriculum for three years following six years of primary education. At the same time, the point that students begin basic vocational, lyceums and technical secondary was shifted forward by one year. Thus, since the 2003 assessment, the 15-year-old PISA test-takers have been mainly in their third year of gymnasium (i.e. still in the pre-tracked school). Spuriously or not, the improved PISA scores have been observed after the reforms were launched.

Is gymnasium a miracle school?

The 1999 structural reform aimed to ensure more egalitarian educational opportunities to students from different backgrounds. The education system with eight years of comprehensive education had some drawbacks. First, the network of Polish primary schools was not (and still is not) effective and well planned. There are many less populated schools in rural areas, 2 which do not possess good  equipment or give instruction to classes combined of different grades. Before the 1999 reform, pupils completing eight years of primary education faced entry exams to lyceums or technical secondary schools, but the basic vocational schools did not have exam-based admission procedures. Pupils from small rural schools were less likely to enter the secondary schools granting them access to the tertiary education and often continued their education in basic vocational schools. 3 This could be the result of differences in instruction quality, or due to psychological aspects (like lacking belief in one’s own skills) or because they are simply copying the educational paths of parents or friends.

The introduction of gymnasia was supposed to diminish such differences in educational attainment. Now, directing towards different types of upper secondary schools takes place after gymnasium on the basis of the end-of-gymnasium exam and student’s marks. The network of gymnasia is well planned, the school are thus better equipped and the teaching personnel more adequate. Some analyses  4 suggest that the PISA improvements are due to the one-year delay, which has slowed the stream of students into vocational tracks, and this improvement would not have happened if the educational structure had not changed.

However, gymnasia are often criticized because of the new students’ behavioral problems. Some critics claim that students entering a new environment with new teachers and new classmates as they are simultaneously entering puberty amplifies an adolescent’s issues.  In the previous school system where education was continued for the seventh or eighth year, the new “teenager” problems occurred less intensely.

What else has changed in the Polish educational system?

The introduction of gymnasia reflects the 1999 reform, but this reform influenced other aspects of the educational system as well. It gave more responsibility for education to local authorities, improved teacher’s professional development and remuneration, spurred changes in curriculum, and introduced a standardized national examination system in which students are assessed after each stage of education. 5 These yearly exams do not resemble pre-reform exams when the students were expected to write long essays and solve multi-faceted mathematical tasks; they require different skills from students and less encyclopedic knowledge. Now students are exposed to different exams more similar to the PISA exams, so present gymnasium students are better prepared for the actual PISA tests.

After 1999 the Ministry of Education also introduced other reforms in the education system.  For example, in 2009 a new education curriculum was introduced that focuses on general, transversal skills and competencies; and in 2010 mathematics became an obligatory subject in the matura exam (end-of-lyceum and technical secondary school exam). At the moment, the Polish Ministry of Education struggles with the reform of lowering the school age, the new form of the Matura exam and new end-of-primary school examination. While the reforms of 2009 or 2010 may have had an effect of the PISA outcomes in 2012, the effects of these later reforms are impossible to judge now.


The last PISA tests painted the Polish education system in a favorable light, but some results also highlight Poland’s shortcomings. For instance, the miracle fades in light of Poland’s “problem solving” results, which constitute the fourth PISA 2012 assessment domain. PISA problem solving tasks were solved entirely on the computer and were designed to focus on general reasoning skills, while the need for applying specific, curricular knowledge was limited to a minimum. Out of 28 OECD countries, Poland scored after 20th rank and significantly below the OECD overage. 6 Apparently Polish schools do not focus on developing problem solving skills, but the new 2009 curriculum could bring some positive changes.

Poland has also exhibited low performance in digital reading and computer-based mathematics, which are extra domains of assessment introduced by PISA to better capture the modern understanding of literacy and to stress the preeminent role of computers and the Internet in modern life. PISA’s digital tasks emphasize typical mathematical and overall literacy skills, and are designed so that low levels of computer skills are required. Therefore, the low results of Polish 15-years-old students are rather not an outcome of the low computer skills. On the contrary, the recently released results of the International Computer and Information Literacy Study (ICILS) rank Polish students of the second grade of gymnasium among the best out of twenty participating countries. 7 The dissonance between the PISA paper and computer-based assessment and the ICILS results remains unexplained.

PISA results are used to assess whether the education systems fulfill the goal of providing equal opportunities for students of different backgrounds. Even when the mean performance is high, significant differences might exist in the results, which are often explained by the differences in student’s socio-economic status. Poland is characterized by average equity compared to other OECD countries. However, the insight into the trends of the end-of-gymnasium national exams show negative tendencies in the big cities, where gymnasia sometime introduce admission criteria and compete for the best students, even though they should admit pupils from their neighborhood first. This schools’ policy is reflected in the systematic increase in differences among the end-of-gymnasia exams between schools in bigger municipalities. 8

Too educated?

Changes in the educational system were supposed to raise the overall level of education in Poland, where a share of people with tertiary education was relatively low 9 in comparison to Western European countries at the beginning of the 1990’s. More and more young Poles have decided to go down educated paths that lead to tertiary education, but it is not clear how much of this is due to reforms or how much of it is Polish students thirst for knowledge (or for diplomas). It is also unclear whether the declining numbers of students seeking vocational education is a positive phenomenon for the Polish economy and labor market (the present Ministry of Education supports activities aimed at reviving vocational education). Poland is certainly not an educational wonderland, but there have been some wonders rationally planned by the Ministry of Education, which brought PISA success . . . and the Polish education system has still space for further wonders.


  1. PISA stands for the Programme for International Student Assessment. There has been five rounds every three years: in 2000, 2003, 2006, 2009 and 2012. Each time, a random sample of several thousand 15-year-old students are selected in participating countries. They solve tasks that should measure the foundation skills needed to succeed in our globalized, technologically advanced information society.
  2.  There are several explanations: partitions of Poland up to WWI; setting the collective farms in the territories given to Poland after WWII; and the still ongoing urbanization process. The network of schools in Poland and changes in this network are described in Herczyński J. and Sobotka A., Diagnoza zmian w sieci szkół podstawowych i gimnazjów 2007–2012, Instytut Badań Edukacyjnych 2014.
  3. Społeczeństwo w drodze do wiedzy. Raport o stanie edukacji 2010. Instytut Badań Edukacyjnych, Warszawa 2011, Rozdział 1.
  4. OECD (2011), “The Impact of the 1999 Education Reform in Poland”, OECD Education Working Papers, No. 49, OECD Publishing
  5.  OECD (2013), PISA 2012 Results: What Makes Schools Successful? Resources, Policies and Practices (Volume IV), PISA , OECD Publishing, p. 81-83
  6.  OECD (2014), PISA 2012 Results: Creative Problem Solving: Students’ Skills in Tackling Real-Life Problems (Volume V), PISA, OECD Publishing.
  7.  Sijko K. (red), Kompetencje komputerowe i informacyjne młodzieży w Polsce. Raport z międzynarodowego badania kompetencji komputerowych i informacyjnych ICILS 2013, Instytut Badań Edukacyjnych 2014.
  8.  Dolata R., Jasińska A., Modzelewski M., Wykorzystanie krajowych egzaminów jako instrumentu polityki oświatowej na przykładzie procesu różnicowania się gimnazjów w dużych miastach, Polityka Społeczna 1/2012.
  9.  According to the OECD’s  Education at a Glance in 1996,  the number of adults ages 25-64 who had attained a tertiary education varied from 23% in the Netherlands  ; 15% for Denmark 15%; 13% for Sweden  and 10% for Poland. However by 2012 in Poland this share had risen to 25%.
Maja Rynko

Maja Rynko

is an assistant professor at the Educational Research Institute in Warsaw, where she works mainly with the OECD's Programme for the International Assessment of Adult Competencies (PIAAC). She is also an assistant professor at the Institute of Statistics and Demography of Warsaw School of Economics. She received her PhD in Economics from the European University Institute.