Bulgarian Education Has to Move into a Higher Gear. Now.

This year’s Education and Training Monitor of the European Commission shows that the education reforms in Bulgaria are a step in the right direction, but they are moving at a very slow pace

 

The rate at which students and young people in Bulgaria drop out of school has decreased compared to 2009 (from 14.7% to 12.7%), but is still higher than the average for the EU (10.6%). Not all children (only 84%) have access to early childhood education and care. Nearly half of all 15-year-olds in Bulgaria underachieve in reading (41.5%) and mathematics (42.1%). The status of the teaching profession is low, and the teacher workforce is ageing. The participation rate of adults in learning is negligibly low (2.5%). 

These were some of the main conclusions about Bulgarian education, presented at the Second European Education Summit, initiated by the Commissioner for Education, Culture, Youth and Sport, Tibor Navracsics, in Brussels on September 26. The Education and Training Monitor for 2019, reporting on EU member states’ performance, was presented at the summit. The monitor did not draw much public attention in Bulgaria. Its conclusions, however, need to be analyzed and broadly discussed because they paint a pretty clear picture of the current state of the Bulgarian education system, indicate where it’s headed, and address what needs to be done, if we want to perform on par with some of the most effective education systems in Europe. 

 

Teachers – Few and Undertrained

This year the Education and Training Monitor focused on educators. Yet again experts remind us that nearly half of all Bulgarian teachers are over 50 years old and are likely to enter retirement age in the next decade. “Teacher shortages are imminent and are expected to grow,” the report claims. There are shortages of kindergarten teachers, primary school teachers, foreign language teachers, IT, math and physics teachers. There also aren’t enough special educators, school psychologists, and speech therapists who play a crucial role in meeting every student’s individual needs. 

The status of the teaching profession remains low and according to the report, only 60% of teacher education graduates choose to enter the profession. The main cited reasons are low pay, unattractive work environment, and limited access to professional development opportunities.  

Except for being fewer than necessary, Bulgarian teachers are also undertrained. Bulgaria is among the countries whose teachers have the least access to ongoing training, especially when it comes to developing practical skills such as specific teaching competencies and digital skills.  

According to the results of the latest OECD Teaching and Learning International Survey (TALIS), many Bulgarian teachers admit that they find classroom management challenging. Inefficient classroom management combined with a total disregard of students’ individual learning needs can be very disheartening for teachers’ morale and lead to educators leaving the profession or students’ not receiving quality education.

 

Are Salaries Enough

Over the past few years the Bulgarian Ministry of Education and Science has focused on increasing teachers’ salaries, especially for beginner teachers, prioritizing university teaching certification programs, and setting up a benefits package which includes the reimbursement of commuting expenses and accommodation costs.

The Ministry also launched a national program for teachers, motivated to work in disadvantaged regions of the country. Another goal of this national program was to make the teaching profession more accessible to specialists from different fields who would like to make a career change. These policies are still gaining traction and whether we’ll have a “new wave” of motivated and committed teachers, highly depends on their quality implementation.  

Teacher shortages are definitely on the radar of state policies and this is a positive trend. To address them adequately, however, we’ll have to invest more effort and accelerate the implementation of these reforms. It is crucial, for example, to focus on the quality of teacher training – both at university and in the form of professional development once they start their practice. If teachers are given the opportunity to identify their own professional development needs and choose which qualification programs to attend based on objective criteria, this process can highlight quality programs which actually have added value. 

Education Is Still Not for Everyone 

Another important conclusion from the Education and Training Monitor is that despite the government’s efforts, the early school leaving rate is still high. Almost no progress has been made since 2010 and the drop out rate affects mainly low-income communities and regions. This can only mean that education cannot break the cycle of poverty –  children are born into poverty, live in poverty, and bear children in poverty. This stunts not only their personal growth, but also Bulgaria’s economic growth and societal development.

Bulgaria adopted an interinstitutional mechanism aimed at getting children who had dropped out of school back into the education system. A large number of children did go back to school during the previous school year. This is a huge success, but now comes the hard part – keeping those students in school by adequate curriculum development, by meeting their individual learning needs, and by working with their parents. 

We Need to Step on the Gas

The results highlighted in the European Commission’s report and the policies which have been adopted in Bulgaria over the past few years indicate something crucial – the reforms are a step in the right direction, but they are moving at a very slow pace. Bulgarian education has to immediately move into a higher gear to meet the needs of all students, facilitate economic growth, and perform on par with some of the most effective education systems in Europe.  

Policy reforms – from vision and supporting documents to funding – are just on one side of the coin. The people in the education system, who need high quality professional support and care, are on the other. A salary increase and more training won’t suffice. We need to build the capacity of current teachers – with the help of renowned experts, adequate curriculum development, and new curriculum design.  

Making the profession accessible to motivated specialists from different fields, improving the quality of teacher selection and training, and providing educators with quality ongoing qualification opportunities should go hand in hand with giving them creative freedom. Freedom to unfold their potential, choose adequate methods and teaching strategies, and try new learning strategies. They should also feel supported by parents, experts, mentors, and society as a whole instead of always living in fear of imminent criticism. 

… and Change Our Mindsets

Before we accelerate any reforms, however, we need to change some of our mindsets. Like our conviction that not all students can be successful. Or that teachers cannot be trusted because they don’t want what’s best for our children. Or that some parents don’t care about education. Or that nothing will ever change, no matter what reforms we implement. Because positive change can only come about when all stakeholders trust each other, believe in everyone’s potential, and work hard in the name of all students.