How Poland Became an Education Superpower

In 2000, Polish 15-year-olds scored below average for the developed world (and below American teens) on an international test of critical thinking. Twelve years later, they ranked at the top of the world--up there with Finland and Canada, and well above the U.S. What happened in Poland? How did a big country with a high rate of child poverty evolve from a communist backwater into an education powerhouse?


In 1997, when Mirosław Handke became Poland’s minister of education, he was an outsider. A chemist with a white mustache and dramatic, black-slash eyebrows, he looked like an Eastern Bloc version of Sean Connery.

Handke was accomplished in his own world at AGH University of Science and Technology in Kraków. He’d published more than eighty papers on the obscure properties of minerals and become the head of the university, one of Poland’s best. However, he knew next to nothing about education policy or politics. His cluelessness would serve him well, at least for a little while.

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EducationAmanda Ripley