Kyrgyzstan: Still Waiting

Osh, KYRGYZSTAN | Looking back on the tumultuous events of March 2005, Kyrgyz President Kurmanbek Bakiyev once said that the Kyrgyz nation was “put on the edge of losing its traditional cultural and moral values, of losing its identity.” The so-called Tulip Revolution, when public protests over an allegedly fraudulent election toppled the government, soon brought Bakiyev a landslide victory on the promise of sweeping social and economic reforms.

“We should revive a classic education system capable of providing a strong foundation for our culture,” he argued, when listing some of his government’s key priorities.

Kyrgyz schoolboy. Photo by Ben Paarmann. Creative Commons licensed.

Kyrgyz schoolboy. Photo by Ben Paarmann. Creative Commons licensed.

However, since then Kyrgyz students have languished in the gap between good intentions and tangible improvements. In a speech to parliament in January 2008, the President himself confessed that “long years of reforms in the social sphere have not yet brought about expected results.”

Alarming statistics from the Ministry of Education also confirm a downward slide in education: as of 2007, more than 60 percent of Kyrgyz primary schoolchildren and at least 80 percent of secondary school students do not possess even basic knowledge of mathematics and display poor reading skills.

Cash-strapped Schools

The dire lack of funds allocated to education is the main reason why the government’s initially enthusiastic reform plans have failed to get off the ground, say policymakers and education experts alike. Government spending on education has steadily dropped since Kyrgyzstan won its independence from the Soviet Union in 1991, reaching a current low of around 5 percent of the country’s GDP.

Meanwhile, in the absence of adequate state support, Kyrgyz educators frequently turn to their pupil’s parents for “donations”.

In March 2006, the Kyrgyz Education Ministry eliminated the official practice of collecting money from pupils’ families to help renovate their children’s schools. Previously, pupils were required to donate 160 Kyrgyz soms (approximately $4.50 USD) toward the maintenance and repairs of schools—money that frequently ended up in corrupt administrators’ own pockets. Eliminating the fee was touted as one of the first steps toward reorganizing Kyrgyz education policy and promoting transparency in public institutions.

Regardless of the ban, school administrations continue to informally collect money from children’s parents to supplement their operating budgets, as well as their own salaries.

However, Zamira M., the mother of a pupil at school No. 20 in Osh, does not blame teachers and administrators for asking. “We cannot refuse them,” she explained, “…since we would like to create more or less tolerable conditions for our children. We realize that this practice is illegal, but we see that our country is poor and the salaries of our teachers are meager.”

Aging Infrastructure

While the Kyrgyz government flaunted an impressive economic growth of 8 percent in 2007, even Bakiyev has stressed that 80 percent of the country’s infrastructure, including school facilities, is obsolete.

To date, the government has made modest progress in refurbishing the country’s 2,111 educational facilities. Around 300 have been renovated in recent years, and 75 new schools were constructed in 2007 alone, according to the government.

The government also plans to modernize Kyrgyz schools by outfitting them with much-needed computers and technological equipment, earmarking some 90 million soms (approximately 2.5 million USD) for that purpose in 2008.

Currently, the ratio of computers to students in Kyrgyz schools is 1 to 78. If the government succeeds in equipping each class with at least one computer, this figure should drop to one computer per 58 students by the end of 2008, the Ministry of Education announced in September 2007.

However, renovations and computers do little to address another major problem in Kyrgyz schools. “Our primary and secondary schools lack teachers,” Sergey Makarevich, an education expert from the Osh Education Department, said. “In some schools, administrations are compelled to hire senior students from the pedagogical faculties of universities, and that negatively affects the quality of instruction children receive.”

At present, Kyrgyzstan faces an estimated shortage of 3,000 qualified teachers, according to the Ministry—due in no small part to the paltry salaries teachers receive. Even after a pay rise of 15 percent in January 2007, a teacher’s average monthly salary is still about 1,700 Kyrgyz soms, or $47.

The shortage of teachers in rural schools is particularly acute. Faced with relative poverty and the lack of infrastructure in the villages, most young teachers migrate to urban areas in search of better opportunities. The Kyrgyz government has tried to attract more young teachers to rural schools by means of the “Young Teacher Deposit Program”, offering to deposit an additional 2,000 soms into their bank accounts each month on top of their regular salaries. But to many Kyrgyz teachers, that is not incentive enough.

Multicultural Woes

In multiethnic Kyrgyzstan, it is not uncommon for schools to be segregated according to ethnicity: there are Kyrgyz and Uzbek-language schools, as well as Russian-language schools that are attended not only by ethnic Russians, but also by Kyrgyz and Uzbeks.

In 2004, a working group of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), called “Integration through Education”, presented a list of practical recommendations on how to promote a multiethnic and multilingual society in Kyrgyzstan through the gradual adoption of an ethnically-integrated education system. Though Bakiyev’s government approved the OSCE working plan in April 2005, the situation in Kyrgyz schools has scarcely changed.

“Training based on ethnicity still prevails in our schools, and it does not promote the integration of our society,” said Nigora Akhmedova, an education expert affiliated with the Osh-based Multicultural and Multilingual Education Center, which develops methodological materials for second-language learning in southern Kyrgyzstan.

One factor contributing to the lack of multicultural content in Kyrgyz schools is the virtual absence of books originally written in the Kyrgyz language, not to mention books dealing with Kyrgyz culture and history. “Our authors do not write books for children at all,” lamented Sultan Rayev, the Kyrgyz Culture and Information Minister, in a recent press conference.

However, the shortage of books in Kyrgyz schools is not limited to Kyrgyz-language materials. In September 2007, the official press office of the Kyrgyz government reported that schools were lacking 14.8 percent of the necessary textbooks. The shortage affected schools across the ethnic spectrum, with Kyrgyz schools lacking 15.5 percent of books; Russian schools, 11.1 percent; Tajik schools, 10 percent; and Uzbek schools, 23 percent.

Equal Access

Though they follow the same curriculum as their peers in the regular system, students with disabilities who attend special schools are even less likely to receive instruction in local languages.

At Osh’s special school for the blind, the language of instruction is Russian by default, since teaching materials based on the Braille system do not currently exist in Kyrgyz. The school’s pupils usually arrive with no prior knowledge of Russian; therefore the teachers have to teach them Russian before they can move on to other subjects.

Despite the shortage in specialized resources, the institution is considered a “dream school” by its 102 pupils, many of whom come from low-income families and find it hard to leave upon graduation.

“Usually when children are brought here, they are exhausted… aggressive, and afraid of sleeping in their beds, since they have never slept in beds with sheets and pillowcases,” said Aigul Kudaikulova, the school’s principal. With the help of funding from international donors, local organizations, and the Kyrgyz authorities, the school has been able to equip the live-in facility with computers, televisions, and other modern conveniences.


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