Finding the lowest common denominator – this is how the Bulgarian school system has been functioning for years. Common curricula for all children of the same grade. Common methods of teaching. Common incentives for all teachers regardless of their performance and where they teach. School funding based entirely on the number of enrolled students – the higher it is, the more funding a school gets.
The new Law on Pre-School and School Education, which entered into force in 2016, attempts to change this funding system based entirely on quantitative criteria. New funding regulations based not solely on the number of students enrolled in kindergartens and schools, but on other factors as well, are to be introduced this year. Two major factors are the location of the school or kindergarten and the number of students from vulnerable communities who go there. This would make it possible for schools and kindergartens located near the border, in small towns, villages, or places too far away from the regional administrative center (such as the mountainous regions of Sakar and Strandzha or the sparsely populated Northwestern parts of Bulgaria) to get additional funding. Earmarked funds will be administered to kindergartens and schools serving students at risk of dropping out as well. Whether students are at risk of dropping out will be determined based on parental education level. According to these new funding regulations, the additional funding should mainly be directed towards the remuneration of teachers who work at such schools. The regulations also allow for smaller group sizes of students in order to ensure that those who need extra support will receive it by working more efficiently with their teachers and by having more one-on-one time with them. These draft regulations are currently up for public consultation. Through these funding regulations, the Ministry of Education and Science aims to introduce measures for higher student outcomes, more effective support for students from vulnerable communities, better access to quality preschool and school education, and lower dropout rates.
The new funding regulations are without a doubt a step in the right direction. Funding based on student enrollment is an outdated system in dire need of an update which allows for taking into account various factors unique for each school. Everyone would agree that there is little basis for comparison between the challenges and needs of students and teachers of highly selective, “elite” schools in downtown Sofia and the challenges and needs of their peers in the village. Highly selective schools in big cities have waiting lists for students to be enrolled and those students have caring parents who have high expectations for the quality of education that their children get. On the other hand, students who go to school in small towns or villages are often raised by extended family and decrease in number each year which inevitably leads to less funding for the schools. Students enrolled in schools located in villages and small towns are also more likely to speak a language other than Bulgarian at home which requires a different teaching approach and often – more effort and resources.
With the proposed regulations the Ministry of Education and Science gives an opportunity to smaller kindergartens and schools located in secluded and poor regions to get the funding they need, to motivate and recruit successful teachers, and to allocate funds for social workers, mediators, and other stakeholders.
In the long term this could improve the quality of education accessible to students who cannot break out of the vicious circle of substandard education leading to poverty generation after generation.
Extra funding for teacher salaries, however, is not the only factor necessary for all children to get access to high-quality education. Besides more funding for schools in need, the government should take a few extra steps to make sure that there will be return on this investment.
The draft regulations do not tie school funding to student outcomes. Schools that receive additional financial incentives should be somehow accountable – for example, by an objectively measured improvement in student outcomes or by higher teacher engagement demonstrated by additional extracurricular activities for children at risk of dropping out. Without analyzing the progress schools have made after receiving extra funding, this would just be another financial injection with unclear results.
The new school funding formula is at municipal level, however, analyzing school performance would make most sense, if it works at school level. When national standardized tests and exit exams were introduced it was possible to assess the added value of every school in Bulgaria. This would be the only way to identify best practices at schools where students have made the biggest progress as well as acknowledge all areas of improvement and ways in which teachers and principals could get additional support and incentives to perform better. There are towns and villages with only one school which also need special attention.
Whether student outcomes improve depends on one main factor – who their teacher is. That is why financial incentives which serve as motivation for them to teach at underperforming schools in poor regions should go hand in hand with a rigorous selection process before they are hired.
The ministry hopes that higher teacher salaries would be enough to motivate successful teachers to work in small towns and villages in poor regions.
Remuneration definitely plays a role, but the professional support and effective mentorship new teachers get, the reduced bureaucracy they have to deal with, the adequate professional training they receive, and the acknowledgement of their achievements are just as important motivators. Schools should be incentivized to develop their learning environment and teaching methods and not to simply allocate more funds for teacher salaries.
If we take into consideration factors beyond the system of education, we should point out that the infrastructure and living conditions in small towns and villages also play a crucial role when teachers choose a place to work.
High-quality education for every child is a mission and it requires long-term and continuous effort which may not appeal to everyone all the time. In order for Bulgaria, however, to be able to have a functioning economy, growth in more regions, and an active civil society in a hundred years from now, every little bit of effort counts.