Mongolia is using its newly exploited mineral wealth to reform its social services. While the government should be applauded for looking to the future, it is a challenge ensuring the changes don’t come at the expense of the majority of people in this vast and rural country. Mongolia’s unique population structure creates especially difficult conditions for schools, which are frequently over-crowded in the capital, Ulaanbaatar, but must accommodate sparse and highly dispersed populations elsewhere.
Mongolia’s approach to education reform appears to be quite similar to efforts in Kazakhstan, another natural resource-rich Central Asian state. Both countries are working with prestigious Cambridge University to develop a small network of elite schools that will serve the most academically successful students in the capital city and regional centers. The goal seems to be to develop schools to match their elite counterparts in developed countries quickly—a sort of superficial European renovation for the education system. Both countries also envision the good teaching practices that Cambridge consultants help develop and implement to trickle down to the rest of the education system.
But education reform does not trickle without a concerted effort and well-coordinated plan, which the Ministry of Education currently lacks. The government must also be willing to commit significant resources to build and equip new schools, renovate existing infrastructure, and train teachers. For example, class sizes in the elite schools are to be capped at 25 students with a teacher and teaching assistant. A typical school in Ulaanbaatar has class sizes upwards of 40 students per teacher with no teaching assistants. Even if teachers in typical schools receive additional training from the new program, it will be difficult for them to implement strategies designed for much smaller classes.
Ulaanbaatar-based NGOs dedicated to education worry that public schools lack adequate financing, teachers are poorly paid, schools and dormitories are severely under-resourced, and thousands of children don’t even attend school. They fear that the huge investment required by the new elite schools will divert resources from public schools.
Even without the challenges of scaling-up practices that are designed for well-resourced pilot sites, separating academically successful children into an elite system raises serious concerns about equity. Though Mongolia’s legislators have backed away from a proposal to charge fees for parents who send their children to the elite schools after civil society advocates raised concerns about discrimination against children from poor families, this type of two-tiered system is inherently discriminatory.
Selecting and sorting students based on narrow measures of academic achievement, like admissions tests, tends to deepen social inequalities by favoring children who have been well prepared through preschool programs and family experience. Thus, children living in poverty, children in rural areas without access to preschool, minority and minority-language children, and children with disabilities are at an immediate disadvantage, and certain not to test into the elite schools.
Research by the OECD shows that countries with greater equity in their education systems produce better outcomes for all children than those that sort and track their students. If education reform in Mongolia is to pave the way for prosperity and social cohesion, as the Ministry of Education promises, policies must direct resources to the children who need them most, not a small elite.
Editor’s Note: Kate Lapham is Senior Program Manager for the Open Society Education Support Program. ESP and EurasiaNet both operate under the auspices of the Open Society Foundations.