The Seeing and the Seen: Contrasting Perspectives of Post‐Communist Czech Schooling

Laura B Perry. Compare: A Journal of Comparative and International Education. Volume 35, Issue 3. 2005.


The Czech educational system has a long history of high quality and efficiency (von Kopp, 1992; Program Phare, 1999). Drop‐out rates are extremely low at approximately 2%, literacy is almost 100% and graduates are well educated compared to their peers in other countries, especially in maths and science (Heynemann, 1992; Roberts, 2001; TIMSS International Study Center, 2000).

Around 70% of Czech citizens believe that the quality of instruction and preparation of teachers in their public schools are satisfactory or even very good (Švecová, 1994; Cerych, 1997; Polechová, et al., 1997). Education has long held an esteemed position in Czech culture (von Kopp, 1992; Holy, 1996). Indeed, Czech national self‐identity is based on the notion of being educated and cultured, and most Czech heroes and leaders throughout history have been seen as intellectuals (Holy, 1996).

While most Czech people view their educational system as solid or even quite good, there were nonetheless many calls for reform immediately after the fall of communism in 1989. This first wave of reforms was enacted at the very beginning of transition and was for the most part uncontroversial. The ultimate goal was to remove the state’s 40 year monopoly on education, which led to four main reforms: 1) granting local authorities and schools more autonomy; 2) removing Marxist-Leninist ideology from the curriculum; 3) giving parents and students more choice in selecting an educational path; and 4) allowing the establishment of private and parochial (non‐state) schools (Cerych, 1997). The main concerns during this first wave of reform were to foster decentralisation, diversity and choice within the educational system.

By the second half of the 1990s, policy makers were increasingly concerned with the quality and quantity of education. Specifically, calls have been made to increase the number of students in general (academic) rather than vocational secondary education, and in tertiary education (Program Phare, 1999). Others focus on qualitative changes, such as changing the methods and aims of instruction (Svecova, 1994; Beran, 1995; Paleckova, 1999). The general goal is to improve student achievement, foster lifelong learning and develop an adaptable labour force suitable for the knowledge economy of the twenty‐first century (Ministry of Education, 2001). The underlying rationale for the second wave of reform centres on human capital concerns.

Since the mid‐1990s, some Czech educational policy makers have also been focusing on questions of equity. It has been noted that the correlation between family background and attainment in higher education in the Czech Republic is one of the strongest in Europe and the industrialised world (Program Phare, 1999; Rabusicova, 1995; Blossfeld & Shavit, 1993). Surprisingly, this correlation was even strong during the communist era, largely because university education was considered a cultural, rather than social or economic, good (Mateju & Rehakova, 1996). As the number of students in higher education increase (Koutsky, 1996), equity concerns are instead being focused on the high degree of selectivity that characterises Czech secondary education. Perhaps the most controversial topic in recent years for experts, legislators, policy makers and the lay public alike, has been the return of the pre‐World War II tradition of gymnasia at the lower secondary level (i.e. from the fifth year of schooling). Gymnasia, common in central Europe, provide a rigorous, college‐preparatory standard of instruction to a small and select group of students. During the communist era, compulsory education was comprehensive (i.e. all students received the same education at the so‐called ‘basic school’ (zakladní škola)), and gymnasia were limited to post‐compulsory, upper secondary education. Introducing gymnasia at the compulsory, lower secondary level is controversial because many believe it may lead to deterioration in the quality of education provided in the basic schools.

In summary, the majority of Czech experts and lay public view their educational system as solid. After the initial reforms in the first year of transition that diminished the state’s total control of education and promoted greater diversity, autonomy and choice, reform efforts have focused on quality, quantity and equity. Most reforms since 1989 have been structural, relating to the system as a whole—e.g. selectivity of upper secondary school admissions, the types of secondary schools and the proportion of students at vocational schools or the numbers of students in higher education. Other than the removal of Marxist‐Leninist ideology from the curriculum, life inside the classroom has not changed dramatically (Roberts, 2001), especially at the tertiary and secondary levels. Certainly there are new textbooks and subjects (civics, business, etc.), and many educators are experimenting with new methods of instruction. Relationships between students, parents, teachers and school heads have also become more collaborative and open. There has not been a complete overhaul of curriculum and instruction in Czech schools, however. This is most likely because neither the public, nor most policy makers, perceive a need for drastic reform of the school.

There has been a great deal of collaboration throughout the post‐communist transition between educators in the Czech Republic and countries in Western Europe and the USA. The US government has funded a number of projects, especially in the field of civic education. The European Union (EU) and the Organisation for Economic Co‐operation and Development (OECD) have also been heavily involved in Czech reform efforts. Collaboration has taken a number of forms, including seminars and workshops, exchange programmes and long‐term stays and conferences and meetings. While the collaboration is diverse in terms of focus (vocational secondary education, higher education, teaching methods, civic education, etc.), it has been remarkably one‐sided. Rather than being a mutually learning experience between peers, most of the collaborative projects have been conceptualised as a one‐way transmission of expertise from Western advisors to Czech educators.

The fact that collaboration has been mostly one‐sided is perplexing, especially given the many successes of the Czech educational system, all accomplished within a context of severe financial constraints. On some international achievement tests, such as TIMSS, Czech students have attained superior results. While other tests have shown average results (for example, the OECD’s PISA project), on no test do Czech results fall below average. The international business sector has also acknowledged the quality of the Czech educational system. For example, Microsoft, Hewlett Packard, Rockwell International and other high‐tech firms have established research and development facilities in the Czech Republic to take advantage of the country’s well educated (and relatively cheap) labour market.

Since 1989, the Czech Republic has been involved with foreign partners at every level and sector of society. Globalisation has arrived, in the field of education as in many other areas. This study seeks to better understand the interaction between Czechs and foreigners in the field of education. Is it indeed the case that there is little interest in learning from the Czech educational system, and if so, why? What are the main topics, attitudes and perceptions that dominate foreign discourse about Czech schooling? What are these attitudes based on, and how are they justified? As the Czech Republic’s interactions with foreign partners increase, it is important for both sides to understand the subtle, underlying dynamics that may be at work. Some educators from the Czech Republic, as well as other post‐communist countries of Central and Eastern Europe, have noted, anecdotally, that they sometimes sense feelings of superiority or condescension from their foreign colleagues. Likewise, it is possible that educators from Western Europe and the USA approach Czech education with unconscious blinders that unwittingly hinder mutual learning. Thus, a better understanding of Western perceptions of Czech schooling could benefit both sides, leading to more productive relationships and perhaps more thorough and comprehensive educational research.

Research Questions and Methodology

Documents written by Western scholars are qualitatively analysed, asking the following questions:

  • What topics receive the most attention? Which are the most criticised?
  • Are any positive aspects of Czech education acknowledged?
  • Are there any patterns to the attitudes and perspectives?

These perspectives are then compared with Czech scholarship on Czech schooling in order to give depth to the analysis. If Czech perspectives are similar to their Western colleagues, it is likely that Western perspectives reflect socio‐political changes due to regime change. If, however, Czech perspectives substantially differ, it is plausible that Western attitudes are also shaped by internal notions or biases.

The data sample includes 25 documents written in English by Western scholars about Czech schooling, published between 1989 and 2001. The documents include journal articles, book chapters and one major report, the OECD’s Reviews of National Policies for Education: Czech Republic (OECD, 1996).

The second data sample consists of 38 documents written in English by Czech authors. Included among the documents are two major policy reports: Czech Education & Europe: Pre‐Accession Strategy for Human Resource Development, written by Czech education analysts under commission from the European Union’s Phare program (Program Phare, 1999), and the section of the OECD report written by Czech analysts (OECD, 1996). The sample is limited to English language sources in order to keep the number of documents to a manageable size. This is not a comprehensive study of Czech perspectives of Czech schooling; rather, the main emphasis is on Western perceptions. Including Czech language documents would dramatically increase the sample size, and is therefore beyond the scope of this study.

All documents were found through the main bibliographic databases, and the sample contains almost all articles about Czech schooling that were written in English between 1989-2001. It is thus a fairly representative sample of both Western and Czech scholars’ perceptions of post‐communist Czech schooling.

Conceptual Framework

Since the study seeks to understand how outsiders view Czech schooling, it uses theory from intellectual history and cultural geography on the social construction of ‘Eastern Europe’. Specifically, this theory describes the dynamics that shape Western perceptions of the cultures and social institutions of Central and Eastern Europe. Theorists have demonstrated how Europe has been conceptually divided into ‘East’ and ‘West’ from the Enlightenment to the present (Burgess, 1997; Delanty, 1995; Wolff, 1994). This division is based on concepts rather than physical geography and is thus a social and cultural construct created as an ‘Other’ to western Europe. For example, Prague lies geographically west of Vienna, even though many people would consider Austria a member of the ‘West’ and the Czech Republic a member of the ‘East’.

As a social construct, ‘East’ and ‘West’ carry cultural connotations. Historically, the West has been constructed as enlightened, civilised and cultured, while the East is backward, barbaric, despotic, primitive and exotic (Wolff, 1994). Although the Cold War is over, and despite shared cultural values and history, the divide between East and West remains (Burgess, 1997; Delanty, 1995; Havel, 1997; Huntington, 1996; Klaus, 1997). Moreover, there are now additional connotations: the West is seen as tolerant, progressive, efficient, active, developed, organised and democratic, and the East as intolerant, corrupt, passive, undeveloped, chaotic and undemocratic.

One means by which socially dividing constructs continue to exist is through the deliberate selection of attributes to maintain stereotypes (Said, 1978). Social constructions of the ‘Other’ are powerful because they are based on qualities that are to a certain extent true. The problem, however, is that in order for the construction to be maintained as an ‘Other’, qualities that would negate the construction’s connotations must be ignored (Said, 1978; Wolff, 1994). Social constructions of the ‘Other’ depend on selective, and thus distorted, conceptions. They are also typically based on preconceived or commonly held notions, casual observation or anecdotal evidence rather than sustained and thorough observation or research (Said, 1978; Wolff, 1994).

Western Perceptions

Western scholars who write about Czech schooling focus on three main topics. 68% (17 out of 25) of the documents in the sample are about curriculum and instruction, 28% (7 out of 25) are about higher education, 20% (5 of 25) are about secondary education and 12% (3 of 25) are about miscellaneous topics. As can be seen from the above percentages, curriculum and instruction is the predominant theme in Western scholarship about post‐communist Czech schooling.

Curriculum and Instruction: Insufficient for Democracy Citizenship

Curriculum and instruction is a broad topic that includes teaching methods, the content of lessons and atmosphere in the classroom and school. It also includes teacher training, inasmuch as it influences teachers’ instructional methods and educational goals. Within this thematic group, most Western scholars contend that Czech teachers should use more active learning methods (usually meaning less lecturing by the teacher), encourage critical thinking and other ‘higher‐order’ thinking skills such as analysis and promote student opinion formation through classroom discussion. Most of the scholars in this category are critical of traditional Czech pedagogy, which they believe is too passive and teacher‐centred. For example, De Simone (1996, pp. 104-5) states:

Some areas identified for development are opinion formation, validation of personal preference on the basis of philosophical motives and foundations, the ability to distinguish between social and philosophical dimensions and critical and analytical thinking in general. Both the Czech and Bulgarian people often suffer from a lack of individual confidence in expressing personal thoughts and opinions. The Soviet system inhibited self‐worth and self‐esteem to the point where many people did not value their own opinions, though they did not trust ‘official’ statements either. Part of the problem stemmed from a lack of information, but mostly it grew within an educational system that de‐emphasized individuality and critical thought.

Similarly, Hamot (1997, p. 1) notes that one of the goals of the US government funded civic education project was to promote ‘a pedagogical shift from transmitting information to passive students to prompting inquiry and active learning’. In another document, Hamot and co‐author Hlebowitsch (1999, p. 265) critique typical Czech instruction:

The traditional image of a high school teacher in the Czech Republic is one that values the role of knowledge purveyor, of someone who engages in an expository method of telling children what they must know… A problem occurs, however, when this purpose dominates the thinking and behavior of teachers, making the aim of transmitting knowledge the sole purpose of the school and exploring no alternative or critical sense of knowledge. We sought to bring the act of teaching in the Czech Republic into a more active realm, one that countered the conservative tradition with an open commitment to questioning knowledge and encouraging the development of independent thinking and social criticism.

Connected with the call to make Czech teaching more ‘active’ is many scholars’ belief that Czech methods focus too much on memorisation and rote learning, and that Czech schools are too authoritarian. For example, Safr and Woodhouse (1999, p. 84) write, ‘…the pedagogy taught was geared toward a school system that was authoritarian and relied on memorisation and rote learning’. Noted civic education scholar Judith Torney‐Purta (1999, p. 17) writes about the ‘… rigid (almost military) atmosphere which still persists in many schools’. She assumes that the atmosphere prevalent in many Czech schools needs to change:

There is a need to include active teaching methods into the teacher training, including that for in‐service teachers. These methods should also be recommended as valuable in teaching various school subjects, not just civics. Such changes might contribute to the improvement of the general atmosphere or climate in school.

Overall, many Western scholars argue that Czech teaching needs to focus less on transmitting content and more on fostering cognitive skills. Interestingly, none of the Western scholars base their criticisms of Czech curriculum and instruction on the stated goal of improving student achievement and learning. For example, Western authors do not argue that Czech students will perform better in international achievement tests if teachers use methods more common in some other countries. Rather, the ultimate goal of changing teaching practices is to develop critical cognitive skills, which these scholars presume are absent due to a difference in instructional style.

Some authors argue that Czech schools will not be able to contribute to democratisation unless teachers change their methods. For these authors, there is an obvious connection between classroom processes and outcomes and democratisation in the larger society. Since students learn ‘passively’ rather than ‘actively’, it is assumed that students are unable to be active citizens in a democratic society. The challenge, then, is to change teaching methods so that students will have the necessary skills for active participatory citizenship. Mauch (1995, p. 6) writes:

The benefit of this transformation [in civic education] is in the building of a strong and more lasting democracy in the Czech Republic…[which] will influence and reinforce stronger democratic participation in Eastern Europe… However, without innovations in teacher education, little is likely to happen.

Safr and Woodhouse (1999, p. 87) also argue that Czech teacher training needs to change to enable students to participate in a democracy:

In general, the priority given to academic courses over those in pedagogy is striking… There is a lack of balance here that does little to address the issue of educating well‐rounded, humane individuals for life in a democratic society.

De Simone (1996, p. 104) writes:

The development of a new philosophy of education is the most important problem facing the former Eastern bloc countries… Subsequently, any new philosophy of education requires the development of new methodologies of education—those that will help students develop the knowledge, values and skills required to meet the challenges of a democratic society. Finally, new methods of training teachers need to be developed—both in terms of retraining those presently in the field and in training those preparing to enter it.

Similarly, Hamot (1997, p. 4) gives us an example of an implicit assumption of the need for Czech schools to change in order for the greater society to become democratic:

Given forty‐three years of totalitarian communism, it is unreasonable to expect complete democratic educational reform to result from one curriculum development project. [This project], however, represents the kind of project that combines the educational expertise of a developed democracy with the contextual understanding of a transitional democracy in an effort to reform civic education through classroom practice. As Czech teachers begin to implement new curricula for democratic citizenship education, the products generated by [this project] offer one opportunity to turn the hope for a democratic citizenry into a reality.

Shinew and Fischer (1997, p. 115) write that teachers must use active teaching methods in order for students to become active citizens in a democracy:

One important way that educators can prepare students for participating in a democratic society is through the use of active methods of teaching and learning… Students who are asked only to be passive recipients of knowledge will not develop the skills necessary for engaging in the public discourse so essential to a successful democracy.

Most of the scholars examined thus far come from English‐speaking countries. The OECD report, written primarily by continental Europeans, shares the same criticisms but with a slight twist. First, the report agrees that teaching methods should become more active and less ‘frontal’, but in contrast to the Anglo-American scholarship, the goal is not democratic citizenship but improved student learning and achievement (OECD, 1996). Second, the OECD report acknowledges that teacher‐centred pedagogy is not unique to the Czech Republic, but also common in many other OECD countries, ‘The ailments of the Czech school curriculum—encyclopaedism, overload, an excessively discipline‐based approach—are common to a number of other OECD countries as well as to most education systems in central and eastern Europe’. (OECD 1996, p. 123). Rather than assuming that perceived weaknesses are due to a communist heritage, the authors acknowledge that there are similarities across the east-west divide.

In summary, the predominant Western criticism of Czech schooling centres on curriculum and instruction. Most of the scholars who focus on this area argue that Czech teaching methods are too passive and teacher‐centred, with the consequence that students are unable to think critically or analytically, express their opinions or be tolerant of others. This connection between processes and outcomes is assumed, not supported empirically. For example, none of the authors who criticise Czech instructional styles cite research that actually shows a student deficiency in such skills. Instead, these scholars base their assumptions on common‐sense notions that only certain instructional styles, such as those predominant in English speaking countries, are able to develop the skills necessary for democratic citizenship.

Western attitudes toward Czech curriculum and instruction are predominantly negative. Most scholars make no positive comments about student achievement, teacher training or educational quality. Only three of the 17 documents in this category mention any positive aspects (18%); moreover, one author of these documents qualifies positive comments by a louder call for the need to overhaul pedagogical styles. Of the documents in this category, 88% (15 out of 17) exhibit an overall negative attitude toward curriculum and instruction in the Czech Republic.

Higher Education: Low Quality Faculty and Administration

The majority of the documents in this category (5 out of 7) also have an overall negative attitude toward Czech higher education, and none of the seven mention any positive aspects. For example, Worgan (1995, p. 247) writes, ‘The problem lies in the lack of research skills among university teachers…’. Turner (1994, p. 139) unfavourably compares university funding in the Czech Republic with the UK, ‘Direct comparison with the funding formula systems employed in the UK makes clear that the Czech system is incomplete…’. Redding (1995, p. 11) notes several negative aspects of Czech education:

The heritage of communism means that effective policy‐making procedures are still rudimentary… operations work against the spirit of tolerance, open discussion and free thought… much of the work being done, at least in the fields I am qualified to judge, remains timid, pedantic and out of touch with the international community… The attitude of university teachers and administration towards students is shocking …in the absence of a programme committed to open discussion, critical thinking, pedagogical reform, student rights, accountability in decision‐making processes and the like, the university system will remain mired in the narrow‐minded and intolerant elitism that characterises it at present. If a functioning democracy is to be built in the Czech Republic, educational institutions will be at the forefront of that effort.

Redding sees Czech universities as intolerant, authoritarian, mediocre and undemocratic. Like many of the authors, he makes a direct connection between educational and societal democratisation: if universities and other educational institutions do not democratise, it is unlikely that democratisation in the larger society will be lasting or deep.

Overall, the criticisms of higher education are similar to those expressed about primary and secondary education—namely, that the teachers and structures are inadequate and outmoded, and need to change. Moreover, there is an implicit assumption that Czech higher education should become more similar to that in the USA or UK.

Secondary Schooling: Inequitable and Undemocratic

The third most common topic in Western scholarship of Czech schooling is its structure of secondary education. Like most European countries, Czech upper secondary education has a tripartite structure (Kotasek, 1996). Such a structure is in contrast to the comprehensive secondary education of Japan, Canada and the US, for example. Bishop and Hamot (2001, p. 477) argue that Czech tripartite secondary education is undemocratic because it limits students’ ability to develop their skills:

The Czech educational system… divides students into three intellectual types of schools based on predetermined ability. The social and intellectual disaggregation of students starts with middle school. The more comprehensive nature of schools in the United States led the Czechs to voice agreement with their US partners that the definition of democracy reaches the school level when students have the right to ‘discover their own abilities because people are stronger in some areas than others’…. The Czech system highlighted an undemocratic aspect of society because students are ‘frozen in what they are doing’.

Here democracy is equated with the concept of choice. Practices and structures that allow student choice are presumed to be more democratic. Because it is difficult to move from one type of Czech secondary school to another (e.g. from a technical school to a gymnasium), the authors argue that a comprehensive secondary school which allows students to move from one ‘track’ to another is more democratic. Breault (1999, pp. 241-2) similarly argues that the tripartite structure of Czech secondary education is undemocratic:

Though some change is occurring, schools in many of those countries are still based on the principle that education should be a process by which the elite students are separated from the rest. The main task of the schools, then, is to identify the small percentage of students who will go on to the university. There is little effort to try to educate as many students as possible, as well as possible, for as long as possible—a crucial factor in democratic education.

According to Breault, Czech schooling is undemocratic because it has separate schools for elite students. He argues this is undemocratic because it gives the mass of students a substandard education both qualitatively and quantitatively. Breault’s vision of the role of education in a democracy is to provide as many students with as excellent an education as possible. By claiming that Czech schools are undemocratic, he is inferring that the majority of students receive substandard education.

While the OECD report is critical of some aspects of the Czech curriculum and instruction, it reserves its strongest criticism for the structure of secondary education. The US authors quoted above argue that the tripartite system is inherently undemocratic since it offers different types of education to different students. The OECD report is not against the tripartite system per se, but rather particular aspects of the Czech version, such as the multi‐year gymnasia, which allow the most motivated students to leave the comprehensive grammar school at the beginning of lower secondary (fifth year of schooling) for a more academically demanding, college‐preparatory school, ‘The creation of the multi‐year gymnasium… is a radical development, the full consequences of which cannot yet be evaluated. It may lead to a disruption of the entire structure of the education system, if no adequate policy measures are taken’. (OECD 1996, p. 114).

Similar efforts to widen differentiated schooling occurred in many post‐communist countries. For example, countries that had gymnasia at the upper secondary level under the communist era (e.g. Slovakia, Hungary, Poland) allowed these types of schools to accept students at the lower secondary level as well, as is common in Germany and Austria. The German Democratic Republic had an even more comprehensive upper secondary system, and after reunification, parents successfully lobbied for the reintroduction of gymnasia at both the lower and upper secondary levels (Pritchard, 1998).

More generally, the OECD report is critical of the selectivity of the gymnasium and of the fact that a relatively small percentage of Czech students receive general academic education. The authors give two reasons for increasing the number of students who receive general academic education: 1) that it will be better for the economy in the twenty‐first century if the labour force has more general academic education and 2) it will be more equitable because ‘…it postpones the decision to select students out of programmes leading to higher education as long as possible’ (OECD, 1996, p. 115). Indeed, the OECD report is highly critical of the dominance of vocational and technical education at the secondary level, claiming it is outmoded, elitist, inequitable and, therefore, undemocratic:

A concern for equity in education is found in all OECD countries, where over the past three decades many reforms aimed at promoting equality of educational opportunity have been implemented… The attitude of Czech society towards equity is ambivalent… Equity is also believed by some to be in conflict with a notion of intellectual ability, according to which only a small segment of a given cohort (some say around 15 per cent) are seen to be capable of pursuing high level, high quality studies. According to this traditional, if mistaken, view, equity policies leading to increases in student numbers inevitably imply a fall in quality. In OECD countries, this narrow notion of ability was abandoned as early as the mid‐1960s, when it became clear that it was overly simplistic and scientifically unjustifiable… In 1995-96, only 16 per cent of all pupils reaching upper secondary education were enrolled in the gymnasium. This is a very low share, in comparison with the situation in other OECD countries…there is the traditional belief—widespread among teachers, ministry officials and the public at large—that the gymnasium should be restricted to a narrow ‘elite’ in order to maintain quality. This belief is related to the mistaken notion that intellectual abilities are limited to a small proportion of the age group… From a social perspective, it is undemocratic because it departs from the principle which recognises the right of pupils (or their parents) to choose among educational options and paths, according to their abilities and interests. From an economic perspective, it undermines a key element of the human resources strategy for the post‐transition period which calls for higher levels of general education in the work force. (OECD, 1996, pp. 176-7, 183-4)

In summary, the structure of Czech secondary education receives less attention in the scholarship than curriculum and instruction, but it is the primary focus of the OECD report. All three sources in this category perceive Czech secondary schooling to be undemocratic because it is seen to limit choice and high‐quality education for the majority of students. None of the sources acknowledge any positive aspects of Czech secondary education.

Positive Perceptions?

Slightly more than a quarter (7 of 25 documents) note positive aspects of Czech schooling, such as its high standards and efficiency. In more than 70% of these documents, however, positive comments are qualified by stronger calls for changing Czech schools (5 of 7 documents). For example, Breault (1999, p. 243) acknowledges that Czech and other post‐communist schools are successful academically, but argues that this is insufficient for developing citizens for a market democracy:

At present, the schools, though generally successful in academic terms, do not really reflect the larger culture or the goals of democratisation in the region…. If they [schools] continue to act only as relatively disconnected places where subject matter is transmitted to those who want to receive it, then education for democratic citizenship and participation in the economy will have to happen elsewhere.

Heynenman (1992, p. 37) notes the high efficiency of schools, but then continues that Czech and other post‐communist educational systems do not develop cognitive skills and therefore must change in order for students to become active citizens:

Problem‐solving is a universally acknowledged, professional, curricular ingredient. Its absence sends the wrong message to the public about what constitutes a responsible citizen. A market economy requires that citizens understand that solutions, even in the sciences, are not preordained. Individuals—not the State or the Party—are expected to find solutions by themselves. Although the school system in the Eastern countries taught everyone to read and to calculate, by conscious design, it tried to not teach students to think for themselves. Now, what can be done? The challenge facing the Eastern countries is to shift the emphasis in their pedagogical purposes upwards—from factual recall to higher order skills.

The OECD report (1996, pp. 123-4) notes the Czech system’s high efficiency and the subject‐preparation of its teachers, yet nevertheless argue that teaching and schooling in general needs to drastically change:

It would appear that in a majority of schools, the essence of teaching has not changed, perhaps for lack of time, external resources and outside guidance… New value systems must be developed, which embody the principles of the new society in the making. Schools still have a long way to go before reaching these goals.

Here again is the charge that Czech schools are undemocratic and that both teaching and the underlying values and goals of the system need to radically transform.

In summary, less than a third of the documents in the Western sample acknowledge anything positive about Czech schooling. Moreover, almost two‐thirds of these documents’ positive comments are qualified by stronger calls for reform. The dominant perception is that Czech schools need to change in order to prepare students for life in a democratic, modern society. With such a preponderance of overall negative perceptions, it is likely that most Western scholars who write about Czech schooling perceive it to be inferior to that in the West. As Said (1978) notes, constructions of the ‘Other’ are based on selective facts that highlight negative aspects and downplay positive ones. Moreover, the scholarship shows a lack of mutual learning, or even scholarly neutrality based on supporting evidence. Rather than neutrally analyse Czech schooling in order to deepen understanding and knowledge, the majority of foreign scholarship is evaluative and normative, generally negative and based on common sense notions and casual observation rather than sustained research.

Czech Perspectives

The majority of the Czech authors regard their educational system as basically sound, and some see it as quite good. For example, Sebkova (1996, p. 273) writes, ‘In Czech history, education has always maintained a good tradition’. Cerych (1997, p. 89) notes the high level of the teaching staff, ‘One aspect concerning teachers and the teaching profession in CEECs [Central and Eastern European countries] should be stressed: their formal education and training are generally of a very advanced level’. Koutsky (1996, p. 124) notes the high quality of the system, ‘…[the Czech] educational system has acquired quantitative and structural features that are typical for very developed educational systems, without losing its traditional level of quality’. Many of the authors also note that the general public as well believes their educational system is quite good. A public opinion survey from 1995 found that education was placed 13th out of 17 societal problems that need to be solved (OECD, 1996, p. 93; Vecernik & Mateju, 1999).

Some Czech authors agree with their colleagues abroad that curriculum and instruction needs reform. In particular, some of the authors believe the curriculum is too large, and that there is too much emphasis on transmitting an encyclopaedic body of knowledge and not enough on application and problem solving. For example, Švecova (1994, pp. 114-5) writes that one of the problems of the Czech educational system is:

Obsolescence of curricula and teaching methods…the prevailing methods of teaching emphasize memorizing, an encyclopedic approach; they neglect individual education and do not promote the pupil’s or student’s creativity.

Paleckova (1999, p. 267) believes students would retain knowledge longer and deeper if they were not taught so much:

…students have to absorb a huge amount of comprehensive information covered by the curriculum. This overload could be another reason for the lack of retention of acquired material, and for lack of deeper understanding of basic principles of mathematics and science. All this helps us to understand the decline in achievement results from the excellent results of 13‐year‐old students on the written test, where their knowledge was freshly acquired, to very average achievement in the Performance Assessment, and very poor results in the final year of secondary education on the mathematics and science literacy test.

Kazelleova (1995, p. 60) writes, ‘It is time for a change, and a movement away from producing walking encyclopaedias’. Beran (1995, p. 79) argues for a more integrated curriculum, ‘[there is] a need for the elimination of oversized, but isolated knowledge, and a strong movement aimed at the creation of a basic concepts system which would be the device for reflecting and understanding the world order’.

A third of the documents in the Czech sample identify insufficient funding as a major challenge facing Czech education. For example, in her analysis of vocational education, Hrabinska (1996, p. 85) writes that the biggest problem is financial:

Vocational education is one of those aspects of education currently facing major problems. Above all, there are the problems of financing… Vocational education is struggling with personnel problems… On account of the general lack of funds, machinery and tools used by pupils are becoming out‐of‐date and premises and workshops are deteriorating.

Financial problems arise in discussions of retaining teachers, especially in the field of English and vocational education and in higher education (Cerych, 1995). Authors also discuss the impact of inadequate funding on equipment, laboratories and libraries, especially in universities and vocational secondary education (Pertold, 1996; Koutsky, 1996). This emphasis on funding problems is in sharp contrast to the Western sample, where it receives scant attention.

Most discussions of secondary education in the Western sample are critical and negative. This contrasts with Czech perspectives, which are more likely to acknowledge positive aspects, especially regarding the high quality and flexibility of their secondary system. For example, Sebkova (1996: p. 275) writes, ‘Technical schools have a long and outstanding tradition in the Czech Republic… [and] the structure of the fields of study is well adapted to demand…’ Kotasek (1996, p. 35) states, ‘Their [technical schools’] professional quality earned them considerable prestige’. None of the sources in the Czech sample argue that the quality of Czech secondary schooling is inadequate.

Moreover, few of the Czech sources are critical of the tripartite structure and limited gymnasia enrolment. Indeed, the OECD report (1996, p. 184) notes that the majority of Czech educators, Ministry officials and the public support limited general education through the multi‐year gymnasia and tripartite secondary system. Unlike Western sources, who see the Czech secondary system as elitist and anti‐democratic, a common view among the Czech sources is that it provides a great amount of choice and flexibility, ‘Schools in this phase [secondary education] should complete preparation for certain employment or college education. Clear specialisation of schools takes place during this stage. There are schools preparing for practical, professional life and schools focusing on college education’. (Kotasek 1991, p. 52). The concerns of Czech authors in the OECD report are issues of school administration and other technical matters, not notions of democracy or equity. They conclude the report by asking a series of questions to the western European OECD examiners. These questions regard the division of school governance among varying levels, the relationship between schools and the economic sector, improvement of vocational education and how to foster innovation in teaching methods (OECD 1996, pp. 77-8).

The Czech authors of the Phare report, interestingly, are quite critical of Czech secondary schooling, noting the same reasons as the western European OECD reviewers—namely, that the system is elitist, as well as inefficient from a labour market perspective. That this report agrees with western European views is perhaps inevitable given the fact that one of the report’s targeted audience are analysts and policy makers at the EU, a body to which the Czech Republic was hoping to eventually join at the time of the report’s publication.


The analysis shows that Western perspectives of Czech education are generally negative. Very few of the documents in the sample mention any positive aspects of Czech schooling, nor analyse practices or structures for the purpose of lending insight to other national systems of education or contributing to educational theory more generally. Rather, the predominant approach is that of negative evaluation, leading to the impression that Czech schooling has little to offer the West. Most evaluations are based on casual observation or common sense notions rather than empirical evidence. As Said (1978) notes, emphasising negative aspects, and not basing them on in‐depth, comprehensive knowledge or sustained research, is a typical way in which stereotypical notions are maintained.

Many Western scholars of education argue that Czech schools should become more like schools in the USA or UK—less ‘authoritarian’, less lecturing, more critical thinking and a comprehensive secondary school which offers general education to all. Very few of the authors offer empirical support for their claims. For example, none of the documents actually show that Czech students are deficient in analytical skills or are intolerant of others. Rather, calls for reforming curriculum and instruction are based on common sense notions and a belief that certain instructional styles are better.

A major theme underlying Western criticism is democracy. Western sources assert that Czech schooling uses undemocratic methods in undemocratic educational institutions. Instructional styles predominant in Czech schools are perceived to be insufficient for developing citizens prepared to actively participate in a democracy. The main rationale used by Western authors in their calls for reform of Czech schools is to make it and the larger society more democratic, not to improve student achievement or the overall quality of education. These claims are also based on common sense notions rather than empirical evidence. For example, none of the documents cite evidence that Czech students exhibit less democratic behaviour than their peers in other countries do.

There are marked contrasts between the Western and Czech perspectives. First, the majority of the Czech sources have a more balanced view of their educational system than do the Western sources. The former believes that the quality of the system is generally high. This is not to say that they are uncritical of their educational system. However, challenges and weaknesses are noted within a larger framework that sees Czech schooling as solid, giving a realistic and balanced overall view. Criticism is healthy and normal. However, when it is not balanced with positive aspects, and when it is not based on comprehensive and deep knowledge or thorough research, it is plausible that hidden notions or biases are shaping one’s perceptions. I therefore argue that Western perspectives of Czech education are shaped by the social construction of Eastern Europe, but that Czech perspectives are not.

Second, the main themes among the two samples differ. The Western sources are critical of curriculum and instruction, the structure of secondary education and higher education in general. Czech sources also address curriculum and instruction, but are much less likely to be critical of secondary and tertiary education, focusing instead on the impact of inadequate funding on these sectors. Western sources, by contrast, virtually ignore the problem of funding.

Third, while agreeing with their Western colleagues that some aspects of curriculum and instruction should be reformed, the majority of the Czech sources’ stated rationale is to improve student achievement, not to further societal democratisation. While most of the Western perspectives are essentially about democracy, the majority of the Czech sources do not argue that their schools need to change in order for the country to achieve political democracy. It is plausible that Czech perspectives of schooling do not centre on notions of political democracy because most citizens consider their country a free and democratic member of Europe. Czech people do not talk about their country as a ‘transitional society’, nor do they view their political system as a ‘consolidating democracy’, a view shared by scholars of democratisation. The role of education in promoting political democracy is thus of less relevance, just as it is in other democratic countries.

This does not mean, however, that Czech policy makers and scholars are not interested in democratising education. While Czech criticisms of curriculum and instruction are more likely to be based on calls to improve student achievement, structural reforms typically centre on the notions of choice and equity, two key concepts in democratic schooling (Perry, 2003, 2004). Indeed, many of the most pressing questions in contemporary Czech educational discourse are about these democratic concepts, such as: how to ameliorate the reproduction of educational inequalities, how to increase access to higher education, how to increase a diversity of educational offerings and how to ensure a high standard of education for all students regardless of family background.


The incongruence between Czech and Western perspectives of Czech schooling highlights that the latter’s criticisms should not be taken as obvious, especially since they are rarely supported with empirical evidence. Rather, Western criticisms of Czech schooling derive from a bias toward their own forms of schooling. This same bias can be seen in much of the literature written by US scholars of education, when discussing US schooling. Hirsch (1997) has shown how certain pedagogical approaches—student versus teacher‐centred style, small group versus whole‐class instruction, project‐method versus lecture—have been consistently privileged in US schools of education for decades.

Many other successful educational systems in Western Europe and Asia are also more traditional in their aims and methods of instruction, yet Anglo-American evaluations of Korean education, for example, are probably less critical. Thus, it is likely that Western scholars’ predominantly negative perception of Czech schooling is influenced by more than a bias toward certain instructional styles. Rather, it is very plausible that preconceived notions of the inferiority of ‘Eastern Europe’, as outlined by Wolff (1994), Delanty (1995) and Burgess (1997), play a significant role in Western perceptions of Czech schooling. Support for this claim comes from the fact that Western perceptions are largely negative rather than balanced, and are rarely supported by sound and thorough research. As noted earlier, constructions of the ‘Other’ depend on distorted and largely negative portrayals based on anecdotal evidence or commonly held notions.

Ironically, democracy is the main vehicle by which Western scholars justify this construction of the ‘Other’ in the field of education. Democracy, a concept that at its foundation is concerned with self‐determination, has become a means of cultural hegemony. The fact that it is often used as such a tool, is obscured by its benign and benevolent associations. Indeed, it is these benign associations that make democracy a highly effective smokescreen for a distorted view of Czech schooling.

One significant consequence of the largely negative and distorted perceptions of Czech (and other post‐communist countries) schooling is that it makes it difficult to see the many effective, innovative and informative practices that are currently not being studied. A few scholars, such as Elliott et al. (1999, 2001), Roberts et al. (1995, 1998, 2000, 2001) and McEneaney (1997), are successfully contributing to educational theory by analysing Eastern and Central European schooling. This is a good start, but there is still a living laboratory waiting to be discovered. Fifteen years after the fall of the Iron Curtain, it is a good time to start exploring.