Education reform in Bulgaria: Sustaining progress & prioritising needed change

By Anna Vitoria Perico E Santos

Analyst, OECD Directorate for Education and Skills

Key points:

– Bulgaria sees education as a key lever for raising the quality of life of its population but this will require aligning and building on existing reforms to improve the quality of teaching and learning.
– Clear communication with stakeholders to explain the education reforms and implementation plan is an important step moving forward.
– Now is the time for Bulgaria to have sustained education reform. Ongoing discussions around its new national education programme, the context of pandemic recovery efforts and geopolitical challenges can all serve as powerful catalysts for change.

As an upper-middle income country and member of the European Union (EU), Bulgaria is now on a pathway to join the OECD. This follows the country’s progress in implementing reforms and policies in a wide range of areas that bring Bulgaria closer to OECD standards and practices. Such reforms have also been supported by a strong commitment to EU integration and led the country to reach macroeconomic stabilisation and better living standards for its population in the past decades. The current context provides the impetus and opportunity for Bulgaria to actively learn from international practices and policies.

Bulgaria considers education as a key lever for recovering from present challenges and realising its socio-economic potential. To do this, the country will need to build on existing reforms to improve the quality of teaching and learning and ensure that all students are equipped with the competencies needed for success in further studies, work and life. Bulgaria has some of the lowest education outcomes in the EU, with PISA data showing that almost half (47%) of 15-year-old students in the country failed to achieve sufficient levels of reading proficiency in 2018, compared to the Eastern Europe and Central Asia regional average of 42% and the OECD and EU average of 23% (OECD/UNICEF, 2021). Bulgaria also faces important educational disparities according to geographical location, ethnic and socio-economic background.

What is being done?

To address these challenges, the country has introduced many education reforms in the past years, including putting in place a new school evaluation framework – to help identify the schools that are struggling the most and provide them with targeted support, extending the length of compulsory education and implementing a new competency-based curriculum. However, one of Bulgaria’s main challenges has to do with the current design of the school system, which funnels the country’s top-performing students through elite secondary pathways and into competitive study and work opportunities, which are often located abroad. This leaves many students in the country without foundational knowledge and skills.

A recent OECD report examines Bulgaria’s evaluation and assessment policies in the education sector and makes recommendations for building on existing reforms to transform the quality and equity of education outcomes. For example, Bulgaria’s student assessment culture could establish a better balance between formative and summative assessments to help improve student learning and performance overall. Student assessment at the classroom and system levels does not currently align with the type of learning that is valued in Bulgaria’s new competence based curriculum. This is partly a cultural challenge evident in many other Eastern Europe and Central Asian countries that also struggle to translate reforms in policy documentation to pedagogical innovation or practical changes in student assessment.

Reforms in this area are often met with push-back from education stakeholders who prefer more traditional, summative forms of student assessment and selection. For example, upper-secondary entry and placement in Bulgaria is currently based on results from a national examination. While summative and standardised tests are usually considered a fair and objective way to make judgements about student learning, the use of these results and their level of importance in Bulgaria can sometimes distort teaching and learning. Without a more balanced student assessment framework that includes both summative approaches (assessments of learning), as well as formative approaches (assessments for learning), Bulgaria’s high-stakes testing culture risks having a negative impact on the curriculum, especially since there are no safeguards to mitigate the potentially adverse effects on students (e.g. by allowing them to re-take the exam to increase their scores).

From an international perspective, few countries rely on high-stakes examinations alone to select students into upper secondary education as this creates extra pressure on students and can have limitations as the main tool for matching students’ interests and skills with available secondary programmes. While education policies are strongly linked to national contexts, Turkey can serve as inspiration for strengthening and balancing the student assessment culture in Bulgaria. In 2017, Turkey moved from a system with a centralised examination for selecting secondary students, to one based on catchment areas, students’ interests and overall achievement in lower secondary, with only around 10% of places in the top schools still being determined by an optional centralised examination. Continued monitoring over the long term is required to validate the outcomes of Turkey’s reform, but early analysis indicates an immediate reduction in the effect of school types and students’ socio-economic status on mean national assessment scores.

Where to from here?

While there is a general recognition that Bulgaria’s education system needs to change, stakeholders sometimes lack a clear understanding of reforms, as well as the tools and support required to implement them. Such a scenario is not unique to the Bulgarian context but stronger communication and collaboration with stakeholders is key to building support for education reforms among stakeholders including students, teachers and families. This is especially important in the area of student assessment where Bulgaria could develop a high-level, collaborative vision that sets out the rationale for shifting the assessment culture to align with new pedagogical approaches and the competence-based curriculum.

Bulgaria’s recently announced plans for a new national education programme, the pandemic recovery efforts and the ambition to reach OECD standards (through the accession process) represent critical opportunities for the country to learn from international practices and strengthen the foundations for implementing its own education reform agenda, serving as powerful catalyst for change. Bulgaria should seize this opportunity to continue implementing and improving the education reforms it has announced with the goal of achieving greater educational excellence and equity.

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