Nearly a third of high school graduates in Kazakhstan flunked their final exams this year, figures released by the government show. A total of 29 percent of the 95,487 students who took the important exam (which determines whether or not they will get into university) failed to make the grade.
This is a marked improvement on last year, when 37 percent of graduates didn’t pass, but it still shows that a remarkably high number of students are going through school without learning much. Those who fail can re-take the exam, but not until next summer.
Every year the school-leaving exam (known as ENT) generates controversy, with critics arguing that the multiple-choice format fails to test critical-thinking skills. Astana rejoins that it introduced the standardized test to replace school-led exams and standardize the final qualification.
The figures show that over twice as many students sat the exam in Kazakh as in Russian this year: 66,689 against 28,798, meaning that 70 percent of students are receiving their education in the Kazakh language. Parents can opt to send their children to schools teaching in Russian or Kazakh (and a few other languages such as Uzbek), but Kazakh and Russian language classes are compulsory for all students.
Cheating remains rife: This year invigilators across Kazakhstan confiscated 28,000 banned objects such as cellphones from exam halls and identified six people impersonating others to sit the test on their behalf.
Officers from the domestic intelligence service are deployed in schools at exam time in testament to how seriously education officials take cheating, but to some that’s no deterrent.
Kazakhstan's Education Ministry has enlisted the secret police to monitor students studying abroad on a government-sponsored scholarship program. The KNB, successor to the Soviet-era KGB, will ensure the students return home to serve the motherland.
“The ministry, jointly with the National Security Committee [KNB] has fully adopted the 'student abroad' program. The return of our graduates to the homeland will now be strictly tracked,” Education Minister Bakytzhan Zhumagulov told a cabinet meeting in Astana on April 16, News-Kazakhstan reports.
In exchange for the scholarship, which covers all tuition fees and living expenses for the duration of a student's course, alumni of the Bolashak (“Future”) program are expected to return to Kazakhstan to work in any sector for five years after completing their studies.
The minister did not present any figures for non-returnees, so it is unclear how much work is cut out for Big Brother. A 2008 diplomatic cable published by WikiLeaks quotes government statistics claiming that only 29 out of some 4,500 students sent abroad on the program by that time had failed to return.
Since its implementation in 1993, Bolashak has sent around 10,000 students from Kazakhstan to educational institutions across the globe. Initially the focus was on undergraduate students, but following the opening of the Nazarbayev University in Astana in 2010, the program has turned its attention to Ph.D. students.
Turkmenistan's switch to a 12-year educational system is the clearest sign to date of the cataclysmic lack of intellectual capital created by poor and often erratic policy.
The change, which is to take effect on September 1, will see the period of mandatory education increased from the current 10 years.
A presidential decree published in newspapers Saturday talks about wanting to bring up "deeply educated, broad-minded and talented individuals" in the era of "might and happiness."
If those qualities have been wanting, the causes go back to 1991, when the late President Saparmurat Niyazov introduced a nine-year curriculum, flying in the face of pedagogical practice the world round. It was a short step from that to abolishing the Academy of Sciences and reducing the minimum period of theoretical instruction in higher education institutes, a holdover of the Soviet system, from five to two years.
Niyazov was instead fond of more practical, or "hands-on," approaches to education that would, for instance, lead to budding agriculture specialists spending their time laboring in the field instead of studying in the classroom.
In the reading of U.S. diplomats, the sinister intent was to engineer the population into a state of stupefied passivity: "Niyazov's decisions are not surprising, given his determination to keep the Turkmen population ignorant,” reads one Wikileaked U.S. diplomatic cable from early 2006.
When President Gurbanguly Berdymukhamedov became president at the end of 2006 he began reversing these often-destructive measures.
Turkmenistan’s schoolchildren could be forgiven for getting dizzy. Their president is again changing the number of years they are expected in the classroom.
Effective this fall, Turkmen children will be required to attend 12 years of school, rather than just 10, starting at age six. The state-run Turkmenistan.ru online newspaper reports that President Gurbanguly Berdymukhamedov approved the change last week.
According to the decree, the switch aims "to further improve" secondary schools and to ensure that "the quality of education in them" meets global standards.
Berdymukhamedov's predecessor Saparmurat Niyazov reduced the number of years Turkmen schoolchildren were required in the classroom from 11 years to nine. Berdymukhamedov increased the curriculum to 10 years shortly after he came to power in 2006.
Niyazov – apparently no fan of school – also cut university education from five years to two. Soon after assuming office, Berdymukhamedov restored university curricula to five years.
Back when many Turkmenistan-watchers nurtured hopes of Gurbanguly Berdymukhamedov becoming a reformist president, modifications to the country’s education system were heralded as evidence of change.
Even before being elected to his first term in early 2007, Berdymukhamedov revealed plans to extend primary schooling to 10 years, from nine years previously.
All these years later, he seems unimpressed by the progress made. In an August 16 cabinet meeting, the president issued one of his trademark warnings to Education Minister Gulshat Mammedov and spoke disparagingly of teaching standards.
For that reason, Berdymukhamedov is now suggesting that primary education could be extended to 11 or 12 years and has insisted on an improvement in teacher skills.
"In some schools, teacher training does not meet the requirements of today," he said during the televised meeting.
For an example, he talked about the ineffectual use of laptops in first grade classes, which he put down to the lack of computer skills among teachers.
As befits an Orwellian state, recent entrance exams for higher education institutes were monitored by security cameras, and the president was unhappy with what that revealed.
“A number of irregularities were detected during exams, and it was clear which invigilators were assisting exam-takers and helped them unreasonably inflate their results," Berdymukhamedov said.
As well as making such stringent demands, Berdymukhamedov has proven something of a priggish Puritan toward students. College students are not allowed to go to class in their own cars or in taxis; frequenting nightclubs, bars and restaurants is definitely out. Dormitories are no-fun islands of discipline.
Turkey's on-again-off-again "Kurdish initiative" -- a democratization and reform effort introduced in 2009 that was intended to help solve the decades-old Kurdish issue -- has taken another unexpected turn with Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan's recent announcement that his government would soon allow for the teaching of Kurdish as an elective course in public schools. Up until now, the teaching of the language in public schools had been banned. Reports the Wall Street Journal:
Mr. Erdogan said Tuesday that elective Kurdish language classes could be introduced in Turkish schools “if a sufficient number of pupils gather” to request Kurdish language instruction.
“Kurdish can be taken as an elective class; it can be taught and be learned. This is a historical step. This way, our citizens with different mother tongues can develop their languages according to their needs and demand,” Mr. Erdogan said, speaking to his party’s lawmakers. He added that necessary legal framework already exists in Turkey to allow this.
Kurdish teaching has been banned so far in Turkish schools, despite the country’s millions of Kurds, some of whom only speak different Kurdish dialects. Children in Turkey’s predominantly Kurdish southeast provinces are taught in Turkish starting in first grade, whether they know Turkish or not.
It’s a high-stakes time of the year in Kazakhstan as graduating high school students head into the make-or-break final exam that will determine their future prospects. Some are leaving nothing to chance, local media report.
Invigilators in Karaganda were surprised to see one girl sitting the test with an enormous beehive hairdo – only 60 years out of date. Exploring her fluffy 'do, they discovered that she hadn’t suddenly developed a taste for 1950s fashion. No, she’d deliberately cultivated her beehive to conceal a cellphone to cheat in the exam.
The girl was allowed to sit the test after the telephone was painstakingly untangled from her hair, presumably in recognition of the amusement value her prank had caused.
The lengths she went in order to cheat seem miniscule in comparison to the efforts of a student in Ridder in northern Kazakhstan: This high school senior went to the trouble of typing out a crib sheet that stretched to an astonishing 11 meters and contained 25,000 answers, reports local website YK-news.kz.
Despite security checks, the enterprising student managed to smuggle it into the exam hall folded into sections. But there his luck ended: It was confiscated by officers from the domestic intelligence service, the KNB, who were conducting checks.
Every year the ENT national standardized exam brings new controversies: over the exam’s multi-choice format, which critics say fails to test critical-thinking skills; and over cheating, with irrepressible students trying new tricks each spring.
In Kyrgyzstan, and throughout much of the former Soviet Union, a child with cerebral palsy, impaired hearing or autism is segregated in a so-called special school, cut off from “normal” children. Under this system, a recent study found, almost half of all children with special needs – nearly 10,000 kids – simply don’t go to school at all, robbing both the children, and society at large, of opportunities to learn and integrate.
About 150 people carrying banners reading “Education for All Children in Kyrgyzstan” and “We are All Different but Equal” rallied in front of the Education Ministry in Bishkek on May 17 to challenge the segregation and ask the ministry to ensure equal education for all. Educating children together is best both for the children, all of them, and society at large, the activists said. Several officials from the ministry mingled with the peaceful crowd.
The rally is part of a series of events to push for the ratification of the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, which Kyrgyzstan signed last autumn, but has not ratified. Azat Israilov, one of the event’s organizers, said that the event is meant to call attention to specific education provisions in the Convention and raise awareness about the difficulties that children with special needs face accessing education in Kyrgyzstan.
“We want all children to be able to study together like the Convention requires,” said Israilov.
Article 24 of the Convention obligates governments to “ensure an inclusive education system at all levels … enabling persons with disabilities to participate effectively in a free society.” Signing the Convention was an important step, Israilov said, but only ratification by parliament would give it legal weight.
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.
Turkey faces numerous domestic challenges, but reforming the country's out-of-date education system is without a doubt one of the most significant ones. No matter how you slice it, Turkey's performance in the field of education leaves much to be desired. Guven Sak, a columnist for the Hurriyet Daily News and head of the Ankara-based Economic Policy Research Foundation of Turkey (TEPAV), laid out Turkey's education woes in a recent piece:
Let me split the problem into three components. First, Turkey has a young population. The average age is still around 28.5. That is a good thing. With that much potential, Turkey’s European convergence should have been through education and training. Neither the European Union nor our government had the wisdom to design the process accordingly. Secondly, our population has only 6.5 years of schooling on average. Turkey has the youngest population with the poorest education performance among the top 20 economies in the world. That bodes ill for our future. We have a population of middle school dropouts. On top of that, OECD PISA tests show that our students’ academic skills leave much to be desired. Our kids are among the worst around the block, which any decent economist will tell you puts us straight into the middle income trap. Thirdly, Turkey’s female labor force participation ratio is the lowest, even among Muslim majority countries. Only one among four women participates in the workforce. Why? Because of low educational attainment.