CHISINAU, Moldova- The state of education in post-communist Moldova is moving away from the traditional teacher-centered, top-down approach. Moldova’s old mainstay, agriculture, is a dying industry. If Moldova is to compete in the 21st century, it has to rely more on its human resources to wean itself from dependence on imports and energy in the region. Quality education will be key. These days, a concerted effort aims to empower students from the bottom up and help Moldovan students realize their full potential.
The Republic of Moldova is a landlocked country in Eastern Europe, bordered to the west by Romania and to the north, east and south by Ukraine. Moldova declared itself independent in 1991 after the collapse of the Soviet Union. It aspires to join the European Union and hence is decentralizing and implementing economic reforms. Compared with the recent protests and government resignations being played out in Ukraine, Moldova is a peaceful haven.
As citizens of one of the poorest countries in Europe, Moldovans rely on remittances from family members that migrate to the stronger economies in the West. One in four out of the four million Moldovan population work abroad. This leaves tens of thousands of Moldovan children who grow up without the care of one or both of their parents. Hence, the state of education in Moldova depends heavily on the community.
Moldova ranks 113th out of 187 countries in the UNDP’s 2012 Human Development Index. The HDI factors gross national income per capita, life expectancy at birth and years of schooling. Generally, Moldovans earn 3,300 dollars per year, have 70 years of life expectancy, and are expected to complete about twelve years of schooling. Literacy rates are very high in Moldova, but as many as 50% complain that the quality of education is poor, according to a Gallup World Poll.
Moldova’s performance in international assessments illustrates the challenges the education system currently faces. The results of the 2009 PISA (Program for International Student Assessment) show that the performance of the country’s 15-year-olds in reading, math, and science is among the lowest in Europe. Around 60% of Moldova’s 15-year-olds lack the basic levels of proficiency in reading and math literacy. This is in spite of the widespread cheating that occurs at high school exit exams. There are even wider gaps between rural and urban areas, and between the rich and the poor. Overall, the results show the need to continue education reforms.
At the forefront of educational reform is Maia Sandu, Moldova’s Minister of Education. After earning her Master’s in Public Administration from Harvard and a career working with the UNDP and the World Bank, Sandu returned to her native Moldova. She is considered a mover and shaker in a post-communist climate in which the status quo attitude has persisted. Sandu’s crackdown on widespread cheating is exposing the true state of education in Moldova.
While Sandu works from the top to reform education, grassroots organizations inspire young Moldovans to make a better future for themselves and for their compatriots. Education Moldova is a non-profit organization founded by a Returned Peace Corps Volunteer, Peter Myers. Myers worked as an English teacher in a Moldovan village near the capital, Chișinău. He witnessed first-hand the discrepancies between the urban and rural, and the rich and poor. Poorer students were obviously disadvantaged when trying to acquire financial resources for tertiary education.
Myers, like many Peace Corps Volunteers, is a big advocate for community driven development. In other words, the primary beneficiaries of a development project should be empowered to decide their own priorities. Education Moldova is a catalyst for change from the bottom up.
Last year, Education Moldova raised funds to award a scholarship to a bright 19-year-old female by the name of Silvia. She began her tertiary studies at a Moldovan university last fall, majoring in criminology. Higher education no doubt serves to fill the needs of the new market-based economy. Silvia is one of the Moldovan women who represent 55% of tertiary students overall, and 57% of students attending vocational schools.
Although there is a fairly equal representation of men and women in higher education, the rural-urban divide still prevails. The haves get ahead while the have-nots trail farther behind. Education Moldova has a vision to build up a team of young Moldovans to increase capacity for education at the village level. The aim is to train and empower this team to learn how to access local resources and leaders to promote education – starting with the needs of one village and scaling to others into the future.
Peace Corps still has a presence in Moldova’s education efforts. Patty Harlan is a current Volunteer in Hincesti, a town of 14,000 people. Like Myers was, she is an English Teacher in one of the four schools there, teaching at almost all grade levels. Moldovan students need to acquire 21st century skill-sets to help the country complete globally, and the ability to speak English is a skill needed for Moldova to get connected to international business and trade.
Harlan reports that the educational quality is heading in the right direction, despite the notorious cheating scandal of late that revealed the lower quality of student attainment levels. Harlan noticed that her students are taking schooling seriously. They consistently produce outstanding attempts at homework completion, and behavior problems are minimal. It is evident from her frontline perspective that Moldovans value their education.
Harlan arrived in Moldova in 2011 with a group of American volunteers who were trained to work with Moldovan educators in fostering critical thinking in students. Americans like Myers and Harlan observed that a remnant of the Communist era is the mentality that the government will “take care of you.” With critical thinking, the aim rather is to help young Moldovans understand that they have the power to help themselves. Education Moldova focuses on this skill development for its young, native, in-country coordinators.
With progressive leaders at the top, like Sandu, well-meaning educators at the frontline, and grassroots organizations in the middle – Moldovan students are now in a better position to equip themselves and their country for social and economic development.
– Maria Caluag