trade schools

“In defense of gymnasiums”: A cry for sanity

Absolute power not only corrupts absolutely, as Lord Acton told us, it also damages everything it touches. It assumes not only omnipotence but omniscience. Unfortunately Viktor Orbán seems not to have realized that he is a mere mortal and has lots of gaps in his knowledge. In crafting national policy he doesn’t consult with experts because he is the expert on all things Hungarian. He tries to remake Hungarian society to reflect his own flawed image of the ideal nation.

One of his most dangerous experiments is in public education. Early in his administration we could already see how preoccupied he was with training the future Hungarian workforce, how he put more stock in things than in ideas. His latest plan to restrict entry to gymnasiums and to force most children to learn a trade after eighth grade is especially harmful. Although experts pointed out that eight grades of study before beginning a dual education is inadequate schooling in today’s world, they were not heeded, and probably not even read. A huge reorganization of education was ordered from above without any consultation.

A few days ago a thorough study was published by one of the research institutes of the Hungarian Academy of Sciences and the Department of Human Resources at the Budapest Corvinus University. The title of the study is “In the defense of gymnasiums.”

The amazing thing about most of Viktor Orbán’s reforms is that even the premises on which they are based are faulty. For example, the government’s claim that the number of trained skilled workers has decreased since the change of regime is just wrong. As the authors show in one of the many diagrams accompanying the study, although the number of graduates of trade schools (szakiskola) has decreased, the number of graduates from schools where students can also obtain a matriculation certificate enabling them to enter college has increased. This trend started already before 1990.

The other often repeated misconception is that attending a gymnasium or a trade school that offers matriculation certificates (szakközépiskola) is a waste of time and energy because these people cannot find employment. The fact is that with a matriculation certificate it is easier to obtain a job. Unemployment among those who did not finish high school is 8%, while among high school graduates it is 4.8%. Among college graduates it is 2.9%. There is also a wage difference between those who went only to trade school and those who while learning a trade also earned a high school diploma. The wage difference is 25% in favor of the latter.

Ordinary trade schools offer inferior educational opportunities. If we compare two children with similar potential, the one who goes to a trade school will perform worse than his counterpart in a high school offering dual education.

Orbán’s favorite hobby-horse is the “dual education” that is well-known in Germany, Denmark, and Sweden. However, according to the authors, Viktor Orbán misunderstands the concept. In Germany a student receiving a dual education will first spend between 7,155 and 7,950 hours on academic subjects. In Hungary it is only 5,742 hours. This is an appreciable difference. As if a Hungarian student were to spend ten or eleven years instead of the eight he does now on academic subjects. Or if a Hungarian high school student would spend not twelve but about fourteen years in high school. In Denmark two-thirds of skilled workers speak English right out of school. In Hungary less than one percent do. In Denmark only 40% of the dual-education school graduates actually end up on the shop floor. The others become technicians or lower- or middle management. One reason they can rise through the ranks is that, among other things, only 7% of Danish students have problems understanding documents. In Hungary that number is 37.3%.

Orbán and his “education team”are convinced that Hungary has too many university graduates. That is not the case. Hungary is actually in the lowest one-third among EU member countries, as can be seen in the graph below.

Percentages of university graduates broken down by age

Percentage of university graduates by age

Moreover, by restricting entry to gymnasiums the number of people who can enter university will also shrink. So, instead of boosting the number of college graduates as most countries are doing, Hungary will soon have the distinction of being among the least highly educated people in Europe.

I would like to call attention to the incredible leap Poland has made. Among the 45-54 age group Poland clearly trails behind many countries. This is the heritage of the socialist system. But now more than 40% of the 25- to 34-year-olds are university graduates.

Perhaps the greatest sin of the new system is that the restrictions to entering gymnasiums will most severely affect children from the lowest social strata. As it is, children coming from families belonging to the top fifth income bracket have a 2.3 times greater chance of entering gymnasium than children from the lowest fifth. With Orbán’s new system, children of rich families would have a 3.4 times greater chance of earning a high school diploma than their poor schoolmates. This inequality also holds true for higher education. Someone coming from a poor family would have his chance of entering college slashed by 30%.

The authors suggest that Hungary follow the Polish example. In Poland the number of years of study has been increased to thirteen. The Polish government has raised teachers’ salaries and introduced all sorts of modern methods of teaching. As a result, Polish achievement on the PISA tests has made a spectacular leap.

Of course, this study will remain a cry in the wilderness. In the last four years extensive changes have already been introduced in the structure of Hungarian education, accompanied by a decreasing amount of money being spent on education. Hungarian education was nothing to boast about even before, but what is happening now ensures total failure.

Trampling on individual freedom: First the Internet, now education

Almost a month ago I wrote a post that touched on Viktor Orbán’s brainstorm to introduce dual education. The upshot of the scheme is that some students will have to spend a large part of their time in school preparing themselves for a trade in a kind of apprentice program. Right after the announcement of that scheme on October 10, I wrote that Viktor Orbán was contemplating an educational program that  Nikita Khrushchev had tried in the Soviet Union. I reminded readers that the Soviet experiment had been a flop.

In my haste I fear I missed a sentence that foreshadowed what has come to light lately. Orbán is not thinking of introducing dual education within the present structure of public education. Instead, he plans to force a certain number of youngsters into vocational schools. This will be achieved by closing about half of the gymnasiums that currently graduate 190,000 students a year. Orbán wants no more than 60,000-80,000 matriculants. If more students would like to go to gymnasium, which is the traditional route to university, tough luck!

I can hardly find words to express my outrage. Orbán’s regime is trampling on Hungarians’ rights. The government fears the internet, so let’s make sure that fewer people can get to it. They decide that Hungary needs more skilled workers, so about 120,000 students are deprived of their right to enter the school of their choice.

Not that the current public school system is all that terrific or fair. I have a problem, for example, with the homogeneity of the student bodies of elite gymnasiums: practically all students come from the same socioeconomic group in Budapest and some of the larger cities. Admittedly, most countries have struggling educational systems; few can be described as success stories. Finland is always held up as a model given its spectacular results over the last twenty years, and lately one can read a lot about Poland where in the last ten years or so PISA test scores have shown a remarkable improvement.

Today there are three main types of schools serving Hungarian students between the ages of 14 and 18. There are the vocational schools that are, like their American equivalents, pretty useless. In these schools students spend a decreasing amount of time on academic subjects: 100% in grade 9 and 40% in grade 10. In the last two years they allegedly learn a trade. These schools don’t offer “matriculation,” without which one cannot enter university. The second type of school is unknown in Canada and the United States, the two countries I’m most familiar with. It is called “vocational middle school” (szakközépiskola). These schools seem to be a mixed bag. For example, some concentrate on economics, others train students to enter the catering business. These schools do offer the option to take matriculation examinations. The third type is, of course, the beleaguered gymnasium.

Earlier all these schools were under the ministry of education, but in 2010 the Orbán government abolished the separate ministry of  education and put it under the mammoth ministry of human resources. Well, that is coming to an end. From here on the two kinds of vocational schools will be overseen by the ministry of national economy. The man who will be responsible for these schools is Sándor Czomba, an engineer without any experience in education. Czomba in a speech at an exhibition ironically entitled “Decide well–At stake is your future!” outlined some of the steps that will be taken. Teachers, parents, students–be prepared. The government will examine each and every gymnasium and will decide which ones do and which ones don’t deserve to exist. Czomba reassured his audience that “this will not automatically mean that there will be no gymnasium in a given community.” Unreal!

The traditional graduation, "the ambling"  Fewer will be marching into universities

The traditional graduation, “the ambling”
Fewer will be marching into universities

How can they achieve their aim of reducing the number of students seeking acceptance in a gymnasium? There are several possible methods. For example, they could demand a certain grade point average as a prerequisite for entering gymnasium. Just think how many future leaders could fail right here. Pick your favorite: Winston Churchill comes to mind. They could try to steer students toward vocational education, in effect browbeating them, all the while describing student decisions as personal choices. The problem is that these “choices” severely limit future options. How many 14-year-olds know what they want to do with their lives? Mighty few. Even older students have a hard time deciding. One of my favorite stories is about a student of mine who complained that I had assigned a psychologist to serve as his freshman faculty adviser. What on earth was I thinking? I showed him: he himself had written the summer before arriving in New Haven that he wanted to be a psychologist. He didn’t even remember it.

To give you an idea of how far Orbán is from mainstream thinking, the European goal is that 75% of all youngsters take matriculation exams and that 40% of all matriculants enter college or university. With this new program Hungary cannot reach this goal. University-bound students will come mainly from gymnasiums, especially since the current five-year program of vocational middle schools will be reduced to four years, during which students will spend a great deal of their time engaging in practical training at the expense of traditional academic subjects. Moreover, the Orbán government wants to introduce stricter college entrance requirements. For example, students will have to know a foreign language. But since language training in Hungarian schools is notoriously poor, high school students will struggle to learn a language well enough to pass the required language exam. The surest path to passing the exam is private tutoring, which only well-off parents can afford. It is unlikely that students from the vocational middle schools will ever learn a language well enough straight out of high school, and few of them will have well-heeled parents who can pay for the necessary private lessons. As we will see tomorrow, the new undersecretary in charge of higher education, again an engineer and not an educator, already announced that Hungary does not need to have 40% of the adult population be college educated, as suggested by the European Union. For Hungary 30-35% would be more than adequate.

Some suspicious souls speculate that Viktor Orbán does not want a highly educated public. The more ignorant the better. They can be more easily manipulated.