Thursday, July 21, 2011

Kazakhstan’s education system

Aigerim Duiseneyeva, a young TFA corps member I met earlier this year who teaches at a high-performing inner-city charter school in California, sent me this email about Kazakhstan's education system and how it compares to what she sees here:


Dear Mr. Tilson,

First of all, thank you for amazing, inspiring and sometimes "blood boiling" (i.e. Ravitch) ed reform updates. 

I couldn't resist emailing you about Bob Compton's article regarding Finland's Education system (apologies for the length of this email). Though I am not from Finland, the education system in Kazakhstan, where I was born and raised until I moved to the states for college, is very similar to that of Finland, and I don't understand why it is surprising in the US.


I went to State School #124 a very average (some would argue below average) public school in my city, where we had teenage pregnancies, fights, bullying, drug dealing and many other "social" issues that many public schools face here. Yet, out of my graduating class of 90 students, 88 went on to 4-year universities and two went to 2-year technical colleges. Our school system is different, whereby we have 11 grades all in one school, not split up by elementary, middle and high school, and we have 3 classes of ~30 students in each grade (so I went to the same building with the same familiar faces for 10 years of my life, which felt very stable). We also don't have the system of "bachelor's" degree before specializing in Medicine or Law. Many of my classmates went straight to Med School or Law School out of college, partially because since 1st grade we were encouraged to think about what we want to be in the future, and not going to college was never an option.

By no means I am an expert in education, but based on my 2-year teaching experience as TFA corps and my education background from Kazakhstan, I think that there are 2 core issues with education system in the US that are not an issue in former Soviet Republics or Finland:
1. Standards for teacher qualifications.
2. State standards for students (I personally think all state standards should be thrown out of the window and re-written, but that's just my opinion).

On issue #1: I have raised this question many times, even in Teach For America (which I love and am a proud alumni of)... How was I qualified to teach US History, when I never even went to high school in the US nor had I taken any US History classes in college? I was a Business Major (granted, TFA did required us to pass the California Subject Examinations for Teachers, and I did pass all 3 sections in history... which in turn makes me (i) question CSET's grading scale and (ii) wonder how come that is not a minimum requirement for all teachers).  Anyone can get a teacher credential at an extension program, and be qualified to teach. How can we hold our students accountable, when the system doesn't hold the teachers accountable? In Kazakhstan, all of my teachers had a degree in the subject they taught, in addition to having at least 1-2 years of pedagogical training at the Ed School. When our math teacher was assigned to teach physics in 6th grade due to the lack of staff at my school, it was considered the most outrageous decision that could only happen in "failing" school like mine, and was overturned within a month.

On issue #2: Standards...I have had quite a few heated debates around this with people who argue that standards make us "teach to the test", which only covers "the basics". If teaching only "the basics" is a concern, why don't we create universally high standards across the country? Why is it in order to graduate from high school in California, student only needs to be able to do basic algebra (8th grade math)? I don't think it would be an issue that teachers "teach to the test", if the test requires students to do Calculus and be fluent in two other languages, in addition to my native language, in order to graduate from high school (this was a requirement I had to pass in order to graduate from high school). Moreover, if the teacher's salary and job depends on how well the students do on the tests, I don't think anyone would be hurt. My 11th grade students couldn't solve a quadratic formula, and I taught at a successful flagship charter school! How is it possible? Here is an example of what we had to be able to solve by 11th grade in Kazakhstan (and Russia): or (scroll down to see the question). 

Sorry for such a long email. I hope you are enjoyed Turkey. I've been there three times and am absolutely in love with it.

Thank you!


P.S. Here is the list of classes by grade that I was required to take in order to graduate (we don't have a choice in what classes to take and everyone takes the same classes every year, if you fail 1 class, you repeat the entire year; this is from my memory, so I might be missing some classes):

Every grade, 1-11: Russian grammar, Kazakh grammar, Russian and Kazakh Literature, English, Music, Painting, Math, PE, Sewing and Cooking for girls and Carpenter classes for boys
5: added History, Geography and Biology
6: added Physics
7: Painting replaced by Intro to Engineering, added Chemistry and Geometry
8: Physical Geography replaced by Economic Geography
9: Geometry turns into Trigonometry, added Calculus
10: Bio turns into Anatomy, added Computer Science and Intro to Law
11: added Astronomy

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