In Romania, functional illiteracy reaches 42% among 15 year-olds, according to the OECD
What do you call it when a person knows how to read, write, do arithmetic, but cannot understand an average literary or scientific text? They are called functional illiterate people. The issue is so serious and widespread that the EU authorities have decided to reduce the level of functional illiteracy from around 20% overall to 15% by 2020.
In Romania, however, this figure reaches around 42% among 15 year-old students, according to the OECD, the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development. This figure was made public in 2015 further to the cumulative analysis of results for a number of standardized tests, such as PISA, TIMSS or PIRLS. According to the results for the PISA test last year, which checks language and science knowledge, the level of functional illiteracy among Romanian students is 38%. Cristian Hatu, founding member of the Center of Educational Evaluation and Analysis, told us what characterizes students rated as functional illiterates:
Cristian Hatu: “They don't have the capacity to think in a structured manner and make an elementary analysis. In math, for instance, they can add and multiply, but faced with an elementary situation, they don't really know what elementary arithmetic operation to apply. If sent to buy a carpet for a room, they don't know how to figure out the surface, or to read a simple graph.”
Students also take note of this situation, at least empirically, and try to find explanations. Vlad Stefan, a student with the Andrei Saguna National College in Brasov, is the president of the National Council of Students:
Vlad Stefan: “Unfortunately, the educational system in Romania is stuck in the past, and has not managed a reform like other systems in Europe, which try to develop in children certain skills in terms of analysis, studying, observing things on their own. Unfortunately, school in Romania only promotes the idea of students regurgitating information without understanding it in depth, and without a selection of what they need. A lot of the curriculum is useless, it is dead weight.”
Functional illiteracy, therefore, is a product of specific teaching methods and curricula, and is evenly distributed in society, whether we talk of cities or villages, Cristian Hatu believes:
Cristian Hatu: “Functional illiteracy is not exclusive to underprivileged areas. There is a low correlation between socio-economic status in terms of numeracy, for instance. This correlation is around 17 to 19%.”
In order for this situation to change, a new paradigm in education is needed, centered on understanding, says Cristian Hatu:
Cristian Hatu: “That means that you, the teacher, have to make the effort to use teaching instruments in such a way that students understand to the best of their ability the topic you are discussing, be it physics, a math formula, and a literary text. You should try to show him the connections between a topic and everyday life. We obviously have teachers who do that. They know what the stakes are, and they make this effort on their own. Some took courses, but most cannot perfect by themselves this kind of instruments. The latter should have available courses to teach them how to teach in this way. Only in rare cases can they gain the skills to allow them to do that. It all depends on decision makers.”
This change is needed first and foremost by students themselves, because functional illiteracy becomes a major issue on the labor market. Here is Vlad Stefan, president of the National Council of Students:
Vlad Stefan: “This becomes obvious when it comes to national tests or the graduation exam, the baccalaureate, or international tests in general knowledge or the ability of students to think critically or analyze a given situation. Romanian students, being educated in an outdated system, cannot cope with the requirements of the Romanian or European markets.”
The changes that have occurred on the labor market over the last decades require a level of adaptability which so far has not been promoted in Romanian schools. Back at the microphone is Cristian Hatu, founding member of the Center of Educational Evaluation and Analysis:
Cristian Hatu: “People nowadays change job orientation three or four times in their working life, according to a World Bank survey I read a few years ago. Therefore the question arises: what does school do and what skills does it cultivate in students to allow them to build a different job orientation later in life? Even if someone is able to hold on to a single job, they have to adapt frequently, depending on changes in technology or changes in the company's policies. We see more and more situations in which employees have to approach situations never faced before in a rational manner. School must cultivate critical thinking above everything, along with skills such as problem solving and creativity.”
In a dynamic economy, the labor force has to adapt permanently. In order to be able to do that, they need skills that only school can provide, and functionally illiterate graduates are living proof of that need.