For some months now, the Romanian schools have undergone a silent revolution which, with a bit of luck, might overhaul one of the country’s most conservative systems. Many Romanians proudly insist that, in a country affected by pervasive corruption and massive political inefficiency, the school remains the last bastion of excellence. Romania has one of the best schools in Europe, some say. When was that?, others ask. During communist times, when standardized tests determined which high school graduates qualified for seats in various university programs. Or during pre-communist times, when Romania produced first-hand writers, philosophers, and scholars. No matter their view, Romanians are convinced that their schools are on par with the best in the world because they privilege math over everything else, and that their university programs allow outstanding professors to meet excellent students.
This summer’s standardized exams marking the end of high school studies (what Romanians know as the bacalaureat) gave serious pause to all these voices. Only 45 percent of all high school pupils got a passing grade. The remainder – that is, 55 percent – got low and very low grades. Angry voices from the Social Democrat opposition promptly concluded that the exam questions must have been misleading, since this year’s generation was schooled by the same teachers who taught last several years’ smarter cohorts. Former Ministers of Education blamed current Minister Daniel Funeriu in an effort to whitewash a system they themselves condoned. Analysts deplored the decision of the Ministry of Education to plant surveillance webcams in most schools organizing the exam, instead of buying much needed computers. Sober parents and journalists admitted that the introduction of webcams in schools was beneficial for deterring pupils from copying during exams, a national sport in which previous generations had engaged under the benevolent eyes of their teachers.
The webcams proved that the problem lies neither with Minister Funeriu, who was falsely accused by an overzealous media for flunking the exam some years earlier, nor with the Ministry, which designed and administered the exam, nor with Funeriu’s Democrat Liberal Party, which some believed had masterminded a national conspiracy to turn the public’s attention away from more important economic issues and the poor school performance of some of its leaders (including President Traian Basescu, who publicly declared his pride for having once been a poor student, and his daughter, Member of European Parliament Elena Basescu, recognized for her ridiculously poor Romanian). The problem lies with the pupils, the teachers, and the pedagogical models used in Romanian schools. Instead of studying, pupils have preferred to spend time preparing elaborate copy aids. A corrupt value system encourages students to cheat, steal, and lie. To see their schools ranking well, teachers have closed their eyes to the copying. The webcams just revealed how widespread and accepted copying has been, and how much it affected the schools throughout the country.
That is not to say that the system is not affected by systemic problems, accumulated over several decades. Since teachers are underpaid, the best university graduates would not even consider such a career. The quality of the professorial corps was painfully revealed by the poor performance of new teachers in the exams they wrote this summer – the success rate barely reached 30 percent. A memo written by an educator from Botosani who invigilated the bacalaureat exam disregarded even the most basic rules of Romanian grammar. Second, Romania continues to allocate to education less than many other European Union member states. The underfunded schools have to rely heavily on parent financial contributions and are prone to bribes. Few teachers refuse money and gifts rounding up their meager salaries, and many of them make bribes conditional for top or passing grades. Third, the politicization of the school system has meant that politically appointed ministers have frequently changed the personnel, priorities, curricula, and evaluation criteria. The evaluation criteria for pupils – including the content of the bacalaureat exam – have changed frequently. Pupils entered high schools with some expectations, only to find out in grade 12 that the subjects they need to prepare for the bacalaureat were significantly different from what they expected. Rampant grade inflation and a pedagogical model privileging memorization over critical thinking must also be mentioned here.
The ‘losers’ generation,’ ‘the drug-users’ generation,’ ‘the generation of idiots,’ and the ‘Facebook generation,’ as it is now called, has assumed little responsibility for its failure to pass the bacalaureat, an exam traditionally seen as a mere formality. An open letter posted on Facebook by one of the pupils scolded the teachers, the parents, the politicians, the mass media, and the society at large, without raising the possibility that pupils could have studied harder, worked longer, copied less. It read: “Shame on you for blaming a generation nurtured by you! Shame on the system that raised us! Shame on the models we have been encouraged to follow for over 20 years! Shame on us, you, teachers, pupils, politicians, mass-media, Romania!” The letter even claimed that the generalized exam failure was an open protest against everything Romania stands for: “We are the first generation to sacrifice itself for a good cause! We are sick and tired of what’s going on in this country! It must stop! We’ll take to the streets and ask for justice!”
In the hot summer days, high school graduates did not take to the streets. The more immediate consequence was that Romanian universities have scrambled to meet their enrollment targets, given the drastically reduced pool of prospective university candidates (universities cannot accept pupils who have not passed the bacalaureat). Most affected have been the private universities that have mushroomed throughout Romania in the last two decades, which traditionally enroll youngsters lacking the grades to enter the more prestigious state-owned universities. Cutting down on private universities – some, like the Spiru Haret University, embroiled in notorious public scandals – might not be a bad thing. But Romanian state-owned universities are not yet places of excellence. None of them scores within the 500 best universities in the world. Many lack decent libraries, maintain irrelevant programs, hire influential politicians with little scholarly activity, and accept scores of poor high school graduates who can buy their university seat (last year, the Faculty of Medicine in the University Ovidius accepted students with combined averages of 5.1 out of 10).