The widespread use of private tutors feeds inequality and possibly corruption. Third in an occasional TOL series.
This is the third in an occasional series of articles on the implications of private education in TOL’s region.
TBILISI | Giorgi Gocitashvili, a 19-year-old high school student, says the education he received at a private school in Tbilisi’s Saburtalo district wasn’t enough to ace the university entrance exams. Although he believes the quality of education at his school was better than at most public schools, the work wasn’t difficult.
“They give you the materials but they don’t demand that you learn anything,” he complained. “The students don’t study until their final year. Then suddenly they realize that they need to work hard to pass the exams and they hire private tutors.”
While the country’s education system never fully recovered from the social and economic upheaval of the dissolution of the Soviet Union, huge progress has been made since the early 1990s. In particular, a higher education law pushed through after the 2003 Rose Revolution made university entrance exams mandatory and all but eliminated the rampant corruption that had plagued the system.
But despite these important inroads, serious problems remain. One of the most visible is the excessively high number of high school students who feel the need to hire private tutors to pass the entrance exams, a trend that shows no signs of abating.
In a 2011 survey by the International Institute for Education Policy, Planning, and Management (EPPM) in Tbilisi, more than 90 percent of respondents said private tutoring is necessary. As the institute’s report points out, that trend has troubling implications: in addition to widening the gap between those who can and cannot afford tutors, it can feed corruption by providing poorly paid teachers who moonlight as tutors an incentive to teach partial lessons, thereby forcing students to hire them outside the classroom to get the full lesson.
“Although the Higher Education law of 2004 instituted a national entrance exam and other reforms that cleaned up corruption in higher education, private tutoring has retained a formidable presence in general education in Georgia,” the report said.
The EPPM survey gives a mixed assessment of the quality of education in Georgia, and students’ scores on some international reading and math tests, while still below the global average, are improving. The country spends only around 2 percent of its GDP on education, trailing well behind EU countries, and its teachers earn the equivalent of about $175 per month, well below the national average.
Most Georgians believe the more money they spend, the better the education they will receive. As a result, private schools and tutoring centers flourish.
Enrollment in private schools skyrocketed from 12,137 in the 2000-2001 school year to 52,756 in 2011-2012, according to the EPPM report.
STILL NOT ENOUGH
Despite this increase in enrollment, even the most affluent students say the education they receive in their pricey private schools does not sufficiently prepare them for university entrance exams. Instead, nearly everyone who can afford to hire a private tutor does so, and studies cited in the EPPM report show that an equal number of private and public school students solicit the services of private tutors.
Students know their futures hinge on these test scores. Those with poor results have little hope of getting into public universities, regarded as the best in the country, or of receiving a scholarship. But fees for private tutors are lofty.
Giorgi Gocitashvili’s parents paid $900 to $1,000 to each of his three tutors for him to attend private lessons two to three times a week during his final year of high school. And while 65 percent of students interviewed in the 2011 study say they have hired tutors to pass exams, most receive tutoring throughout their final year of high school. All of the students interviewed for this article corroborated the study’s findings.
Both of Gocitashvili’s parents work in the energy industry and could afford to pay fees for private tutors that were equal to his high school tuition. But even students who aren’t as privileged feel forced to pay for tutors in order to get high scores on the exams.
Nini Kurdadze, a public school student in the southern city of Borjomi, said that although she was satisfied with the quality of education at her school, she wasn’t taught enough to get high scores on the exams without the help of a private tutor. Classes last only 45 minutes and even if teachers want to do a good job, the large class sizes – 28 to 36 students – make it impossible for them to give individual attention.
Kurdadze hired a private tutor for three subjects, one of which was the Georgian language. “We don’t learn Georgian grammar well enough to write the two essays required,” she said. “They expect us to know things they don’t teach us in high school. There were questions on the geography test I had never seen before.”
HOW FAIR A TEST?
That is a common gripe among students. The “general skills” section of the entrance exams, for example, tests mathematical and logical problem-solving ability. But none of the questions on that section is covered in the national high school curriculum.
Those in charge of preparing the national exams counter that the current tests are based entirely on the curriculum, except for the general skills test. Ivane Mindadze, a staff member at the National Examinations Center since 2000, said even if schools use different textbooks, the books are analyzed so that the exam questions will be familiar to any student attending public school in Georgia.
Mindadze said it is the Education Ministry’s responsibility to verify whether the exam questions match the national curriculum before the exams are administered. He said the ministry has never asked that exam questions be modified.
School officials appear to be barely involved in the design of the exams.
Each year the National Examinations Center uses around 10 to 15 consultants to advise on the subject material, most of whom are high school or university officials. But due to fears of corruption, the consultants are not permitted to see which questions will be included on the exams and to provide feedback, Mindadze said.
Mindadze said the exam-writing process makes tutors unnecessary. “The tests are based on the national curriculum,” he said. “If you go to school, then you should have covered this materials and be prepared for the exams. The only exam not based on the curriculum is the general skills test, but you can prepare for that by downloading copies of the test from previous years. The tests don’t actually change much from year to year.”
One 19-year-old university student, who agreed to speak about the subject only on condition of anonymity, said the public school he attended provided a terrible education, but that wasn’t the only reason he looked elsewhere for help.
“If everyone hires a private tutor then you have to hire one too, otherwise you’ll fall behind your peers,” he said. He, too, said the curriculum doesn’t mirror what appears on the tests, especially for the study of the Georgian language. For that subject, he hired his school’s Georgian teacher – the only teacher he considered dedicated.
That is against the law. Schoolteachers are not allowed to provide tutoring to their own students, though the practice is widespread. Most of the students interviewed for this article admitted to hiring at least one of their high school teachers, who turn to private tutoring to supplement their meager salaries. Around 69 percent of private tutors are also schoolteachers, according to the 2011 report.
The result is that teachers whom students accuse of not teaching the exam material in class are often hired as private tutors to provide personal instruction after school.
In their defense, teachers are often too overwhelmed with large classes to help individual students prepare for the tests.
Tamar Ramishvili, a Georgian grammar and literature teacher who has taught in Tbilisi’s public school No. 55 for 21 years, said the 45 minutes she has to teach the 25 to 28 students in each of her lessons cannot prepare them for the exams. Unless the classes are extended and the number of students cut, Ramishvili said it will continue to be almost impossible for students to do well on the national exams without the help of a private tutor.
“Of course there are exceptions, but these are perhaps one or two students per class,” she said.
Apparently, teachers understand their own limitations and turn a blind eye when students skip their regular classes to study with a private tutor instead. “When you’re preparing for the national exams you hardly go to school,” said Giorgi Ramzadze, 18, who graduated from a Tbilisi public school. “Sometimes you go to class twice a week or less. The large classes ensure that teachers can’t pay attention to individual students, so they understand if you’re busy with other things during the exam period.”
The entire format of the exams would need to change in order for students to do well on the national exams without extra tutoring, according to Mzia Polikashvili, a Georgian literature teacher in the private School of Creative Education in Tbilisi. Currently, the national curriculum doesn’t teach essay writing, for example, a skill necessary to pass the exams.
Moreover, Polikashvili, who used to work in public schools, said most public school teachers cannot afford even to buy the textbooks they are expected to provide students out of their own pockets. Private schools can also afford to print practice tests, unlike public schools.
While private tutoring might seem to fill the gaps left by an inadequate education, the poorest students are left behind, say educational experts. According to the 2011 report, 64 percent of high-income families in Georgia pay for private tutors, while only 24 percent of low-income families do so. And education is the second highest expense, after food, for families with school-age children.
That such a relatively high percentage of poor families scrape together the cash to pay for private tutors is testament to the importance given to these extra classes. Of those who did not hire a private tutor, 60 percent cite money as the reason. And almost all of the final-year students from better-off families in Tbilisi use tutors, widening the already yawning divide between the urban and rural populations and exacerbating social inequality.
The government’s response to this phenomenon, however, has been practically nonexistent: decision-makers have not responded to the issue with any official statements, and the 2010-2015 general education strategy fails to mention tutoring at all.
There could be some hope on the horizon. This academic year, Georgia’s schoolteachers must pass certification tests for the first time in the country’s history. While the change won’t thin out crowded classrooms or put teachers’ pay on par with the national average, it could lead to better instruction and fewer reasons to hire a tutor.
Cristina Maza is a freelance journalist in Tbilisi. Irina Kvelidze contributed reporting for this article. This article was originally posted on Transitions Online.