Good afternoon ladies and gentlemen. Thank you so much to Civitas for hosting me here in Neum, and to all of you, for partnering together on perhaps the most important challenge facing Bosnia and Herzegovina today. I addressed this conference two years ago, and many of us have worked very hard together during these two years, to move education forward in BiH. But we are certainly not yet where we want, or need, to be, in spite of dedication and hard work by teachers and many others. The current condition of education in BiH is unacceptable. The current school system is not sufficient to provide families, communities, and most importantly students, your next generation of citizens and leaders, with the education and skills they need to succeed in the 21st century. I believe that the upcoming PISA assessments of the BiH educational system in 2018 will show that the deficiencies here are very serious, and will call for urgent action. BiH students, their families, and BiH taxpayers in general, deserve better than the status quo. The good news is that improvements in education throughout BiH are possible. And, that is why we are all here today.
Civic Education, which is the theme of this conference, is a very important part of the puzzle. It is an essential ingredient for raising educated, successful citizens in the 21st century. We must give all of our children a clear understanding of how their own government works and how they can participate in it as responsible citizens. Your democracy, just like ours in the United States, only works if citizens know how to use it and feel capable to take action.
To participate in elections, to participate in democratic institutions, and to advance goals that are important to citizens. This is what Civic Education is all about. I encourage all of you to fully embrace this vital mission for BiH, and to make Civic Education an official part of the curriculum with an equal number of class hours across the country, for the benefit of all the communities where you work and live.
In my remarks today, I would like to focus on the big picture. Not only on the deep importance of Civic Education, but further, I would like to emphasize what is required from communities, teachers, administrators, and government leaders, to change the trajectory of education across all of Bosnia and Herzegovina. Two years ago, I quoted the American philosopher and education reformer Jonathan Dewey, who said that “what the best and wisest parents want for their children, the community must wish for all its children.” This core principle of education has never been more true than in BiH today.
The United States stands with citizens, communities, and leaders across this country who are working to integrate and elevate education. And we have rallied together with many partners from the international community and the business community to help BiH advance your education goals.
Quality education must be the starting point for all communities across BiH. Education policy, content, and funding must follow the goal of raising the quality of education, rather than narrow-minded political objectives.
BiH needs three strong things:
- sufficiently funded schools that deliver quality education;
- provided by continuously and professionally trained teachers;
- in integrated and inclusive classrooms.
School leadership, teachers and pedagogical professionals need to be selected based on their merit, not their affiliations to any group. BiH taxpayers deserve a better return on their contributions, as government authorities are currently not maximizing the resources available to actually improve education in the classroom. The environment in which students are learning is often dated and ill-equipped, although the international community has invested significantly to improve the learning environment across BiH for many years. Now is the time for communities and leaders to turn their focus away from division, and use resources to address real needs, from updated textbooks to modern technical equipment to 21st-century teaching techniques and standards.
Beyond quality, another core policy goal is that education should be accessible to everyone at every level, to prepare children for real social inclusion and to prepare young adults for real labor market challenges. Access to education is key. Nobody, and especially the most vulnerable in society, can be subject to discrimination on the basis of sex, ethnicity, geographic location, economic circumstances, disability, citizenship, residence status, membership in a minority group, religion, or sexual orientation. Investment in accessibility can make a difference in having well-prepared human capital, which will benefit BiH society and her citizens.
The United States and our partners in the international community support the common goal of quality inclusive education which will effectively prepare students for the requirements of a changing 21st-century society in BiH, in Europe and globally – and for the job market, to prepare students to be self-sufficient in the future.
Now I would like to move from policy to something that is equally important: practicality. Practical solutions that can and should happen now.
Solutions for education problems across BiH will not all look the same. The United States and our partners in the international community advocate local solutions, with coordination between politicians, communities and schools across the country, because the end goal is the same for everyone. As we engage with leaders and partners on the ground throughout BiH, we are not seeking to micromanage the process. We are seeking to support the implementation of community-driven, local solutions, which adhere to core principles. The challenge we face is that too few solutions are being offered for us to support.
One of those core principles is that all students of every ethnic background as well as those with disabilities are welcome in public schools. Segregation of students in BiH as well as forced assimilation and other discriminatory practices are not conducive to improving education, and in fact violate international human rights commitments and legislation to which BiH is obligated and a signatory. Very often we see issues in education become politicized and used as a way to further separate students.
This is currently happening with the issue of language; how languages in schools will be named, and how they will be used. All of this leads to further division, instead of badly-needed cohesion. Quality education can and should be achieved without segregation or discrimination, and there are existing models in BiH that can inspire new solutions. Ethnic diversity is not only valuable in today’s global marketplace; it is a historic and central pillar of BiH society. Diversity in BiH is an enormous asset, not a threat. Communities cannot address education problems without ensuring integration and inclusion in schools.
Integrated education in BiH is not only right; it is rational. The student population in BiH is shrinking, which means there is less and less to “divide.” Dividing school systems and children, when current schools are actually running out of students, makes no sense and is a waste of resources. On the contrary, bringing students together will free up resources, from staff to buildings to precious budgets, which can be meaningfully used elsewhere and will maximize the young talent still available to BiH communities. This sensible and innovative approach is the only rational and pragmatic way forward. Leaders should also listen to students themselves: the students in Jajce chose to remain together rather than allow division in their school, and they fought loudly to stay together; students elsewhere likely feel the same way.
Coordination among education ministers, entity and cantonal leaders, and political parties is needed to address this BiH-wide challenge. The Common Core Curriculum initiative, spearheaded by the Agency for Preschool, Primary and Secondary Education, offers the needed common ground. It ensures that local authorities maintain implementation oversight, while providing a shared framework that can give BiH students the curriculum they need to succeed in a 21st-century Europe and global marketplace of ideas. The 2003 Framework Law on Primary and Secondary Education made implementation of the Common Core Curriculum an obligation across BiH. This framework law must be respected, and its implementation finalized.
We at the U.S. Embassy will continue to support all efforts for education reform that will prepare the youth of BiH to live and work together effectively in a multiethnic society. For more than 20 years, we have organized international exchanges and scholarships, sponsored teacher training programs for tens of thousands of teachers, donated more than a million textbooks, and partnered with Civitas to facilitate summer camps, home stays, school-exchange programs, and the annual “Project Citizen Competition” involving more than 40,000 students every year. This level of success wouldn’t be possible without the partnership of all of you: ministries, pedagogical institutes, universities and NGOs, together with schools, teachers, parents and students. We are motivated to continue our efforts and partnership. I am passionate about the work ahead, and you should be too.
Ladies and Gentlemen, in conclusion, it may seem that the road ahead is difficult. That’s because it is; these are big complicated problems. But there are no mysteries. There are practical solutions to concrete problems. And you need all hands on deck to tackle the challenges before BiH. The international community is ready and willing to facilitate consistent and productive dialogue among all stakeholders in BiH toward improving the BiH education system. But we need everyone to come to the table, ready to work and ready to cooperate.
Two years ago, in addressing education reform in BiH, I said that: “Those who say it cannot be done should not get in the way of the one who is doing it.” This group here, working together in facilitating and advancing Civic Education across BiH, is doing it. The teacher who demands the tools she needs to better educate her students is doing it. The parents who come together to advocate for equal education for all children in their community, no matter what their ethnicity or abilities, are doing it. The kids in Jajce did it. You must integrate and elevate education in BiH. It can be done. It must be done, to keep the next generation of BiH citizens here in BiH, to build the future of this wonderful country.
Hvala vam puno!