Kazakhstan education system: 10 reasons to ring the alarm

2019 has become a representational year for Kazakhstan education system. Results of the most prominent international assessment tests have been published, including PISA, TALIS, ICILS and PIAAC. Kazakhstan has scored low by many indicators. What do these results tell us?

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First, they provide us with the objective assessment of our education system and acquisition (or lack of thereof) of skills of different age groups. This can be considered as a reality check through which we can see our education and skills system compared to other countries.

Second, they provide us with the evidence at the country level through which we can see the picture at the regional, urban/rural lenses, language of instruction and other characteristics. The selection of people who participate in these tests is representative: based on these results one can make objective conclusions about the whole country. The methodology is developed by the world experts in the field, is used in more than 30 most developed states, and results are considered valid.

Thirdly, they provide us an opportunity to adjust our education and training development plans, identify weak and strong points and set up priority directions where focus should be made for further improvement.

Therefore, based on these test results at least 10 reasons can be laid out to understand why we need to ring the alarm when it comes to the national education system. I would like to emphasize that the purpose of this blog post is not to criticize the Ministry of Education as the responsibility to raise and educate our kids lie on us, not on education policy makers only.

Reason #1. One of the most important reasons is teachers and school administration. Some initiatives stipulated in the new Law on Teacher’s Status do not solve main problems of teachers’ preparation, high quality training, motivation, professional prestige and selection of the best at the entrance stage. This is despite of the international evidence which confirms that the main factor of education outcomes is the teacher.

Reason #2. Pedagogical universities and colleges. Life of these education institutions is behind a real world. If you have ever been there, you know, that it feels like the life stopped there 30 years ago – old Soviet infrastructure and methodologies, teaching staff who had officially retired ten years ago and often times do not have skills to prepare 21st century teachers.

Reason #3. Absence of a dialogue and connection of central and local executive authorities with schools, school administration, teachers and most importantly – with students and their parents who are main beneficiaries of education services. I keep receiving feedback about ongoing reforms in education from teachers and parents, but their voice is not always heard, unfortunately.

Reason #4. Resolving small issues over complex and systematic matters, and resolving them formally, for reporting and just to tick the box. It is much easier to deliver computers or introduce e-journals, rather than focus on teachers, their preparation and building constructive dialogue with the teachers and parents. It is indeed not an easy task. But are there any countries with excellent education systems that do not focus on teachers? When I speak with policy makers in Finland, Singapore or Estonia (with highest PISA results) I constantly hear that the most important in the education system are the teachers.

Reason #5. Growing gap between strong and lagging schools. Through creation of elitist NIS schools, the gap with general public schools has increased. What are 17 NIS Schools (where less than 1% of students study) compared to over 7000 public schools? PISA results show growing gap between Kazakh and Russian speaking schools (difference of 1,5 years) and socio-economic status of students (“rich” and “poor”, the difference on 1 year). The argument about high NIS students’ scores is not a strong one, when we speak about the whole system which should provide equal opportunities to anyone in the country, whether born in urban or rural area or which language his/her family speaks.

Reason #6. Unequal distribution of finances. NIS and Nazarbayev University budgets “eat up” most of the budget allocated to education. Many policy makers make a point that the budget is limited and education is already provided a lot. The issue lies not only in the quantity, but in the fact how effective, equal and efficient these funds are allocated throughout the system. Most of developed states strive to provide equal access to social goods.

Reason #7. Rankings chase. Disappointing results of Kazakhstani students in PISA 2009 and 2012 tests led to development of the National Functional Literacy Plan, and changes to the Education development plan had been made to include PISA indicators. Did these results improve? Obviously, not (see Reason #4). It might be more effective to stop the rankings chase and address complex matters.

Reason #8. Absence of school autonomy and accountability. According to international evidence, better school autonomy allows inclusion of schools’, teachers’ and parents’ voices in the education improvement process. School autonomy in our country is limited (see Reason #3). The working mechanism includes decision making process done at the central level where decisions are merely laid down for implementation (top down approach).

Reason #9. Excessive load of paperwork for teachers and schools. As an example, introduction of E-learning system forced teachers to fill out two reporting forms – one in electronic format for national authorities, and another one in paper format for local authorities, doubling their workload.

Reason #10. High turnover or “depreciation” of human resources. Due to low salaries, huge amount of work and paperwork “whitewash” (see Reasons #4 and 7), real professionals and pedagogues who know the issues inside out do not participate in policy level dialogue. High staff turnover kills many efforts to change things to the better, and lack of professionalism of these who join (who might not be here year after) aggravates daunting situation with the reform implementation.

Herman Gref, Sberbank CEO, once said: “Main minister in the government should be a minister of education, who provides foundation for cultural code”, noting that “the abyss divides western and Russian education systems”. How can one describe a division between Russian and Kazakhstan education, taking into account that Russian results in PISA and PIAAC are better that ours (479 compared to our 387)?..

Education system is multidimensional. There is no person in the world who is not concerned about today’s education. We all have children, grandchildren, parents, relatives or friends who somehow relate to education sector. Therefore, it is our common task to contribute to its improvement. What I mean by “contribution” is not to criticize education and complain “how awful our system is to introduce these summative assessments”. Instead we need to show our civic engagement, identify issues, propose solutions, build a dialogue as collectively and civilized as possible and become responsible for self-education at home. The Ministry of Education and schools will not be able to resolve all the issues without our contribution. As my colleague used to say: “I would never want to be in the policy makers’ shoes – it is difficult to make decisions and take responsibility for 18 million people; no one will thank you in any case”.

At the end of the day, we all (recipients of education services, schools and government) have the same goal – so that every citizen of our country receives high quality education and skills needed in the 21st century. Key foundation of any civilized and economically sustainable society is high quality human capital.

Aliya Bizhanova, Almaty Management University researcher, OECD consultant

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