Azerbaijan: Failing Grade

faling gradeBAKU, Azerbaijan | Many students in Azerbaijan now sit in modernized or brand new classrooms equipped with dramatically increased access to information technology, at a cost of millions of dollars to the Azerbaijani state.

Yet those same students are often faced with archaic teaching methods, poorly paid teachers who demand bribes for better grades, and a public education system that does not provide them with a solid foundation for higher education.

Despite numerous attempts to reform the education system since the country’s independence in 1991, long-awaited changes remain mostly that: long-awaited. Many education experts, government officials, and school teachers lament that after losing the best traditions and practices of the Soviet educational system, Azerbaijan has failed to introduce a modern and efficient system of its own. And a hotly debated draft law, currently on the table in parliament, has faced widespread criticism for introducing a radical restructuring of the education system without getting to the heart of its problems.

Unlike in most other post-Soviet countries, the lack of progress in Azerbaijan cannot be chalked up to a lack of money, at least in the past few years. Buoyed by massive increases in oil revenue, the government has pumped millions of dollars into the education system. Speaking this past September on the occasion of the new school year, Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev said that government allocations to education have increased 3.3 times over the last four years. In the 2008 state budget, $1.3 billion (11.4 percent of all budget expenses) will head in the same direction, with $250 million alone to be spent on the construction of new secondary schools.

Education Minister Misir Mardanov has touted 14 different reform programs currently underway; however, in an interview with TOL, he acknowledged lingering problems tied to the need for even more money and better policies. “I have no concerns about the direction we took, but the path should be much faster,” Mardanov said.

In addition to the building boom that has seen the opening of 1,200 secondary schools over the past five years, the government has clearly made headway in outfitting the country’s secondary schools with free textbooks and modern computer equipment, in line with a presidential decree signed in 2004. According to the Ministry of Education, in just three years, the country has boosted the number of computers from one per 1,000 students in secondary school to one per 29.

Yet, as many involved in the field of education have pointed out, investments in new buildings and computers are certainly a step forward but they do not, in themselves, address the main failing of the present-day system: primary and secondary schools do not adequately prepare young people for higher education and their future careers.

The simplest indicator of this reality, say education experts, is the poor record of most students taking the standardized tests administered by the State Commission on Students Admission (SCSA), an independent body separate from the Ministry of Education. Introduced in 1992 and based on a model similar to the United States’ standardized admission test (SAT), these written tests are designed to judge a student’s aptitude for university education. According to SCSA Chairwoman Maleyka Abbaszade, almost 40 percent of those who take the exams do not reach the 100 point-minimum score required for university admission, and this figure has remained constant for the past few years.

“Such a situation is not normal,” said Abbaszade. “It is not possible that so many young people in Azerbaijan could be intellectually weak … The current system does not allow pupils to acquire even a minimum level of knowledge,” she argued.

Although more secondary school graduates have been admitted to university in recent years (an increase in 2007 from 34 percent to 37 percent), education specialists point out that those figures may only reflect more (or better) use of private tutors to prepare for university admission exams, not improved instruction within the regular academic environment.

Based on his own observations, Jamil Hasanly, a professor at Baku State University (BSU) and a member of parliament, estimates that more than 90 percent of entering BSU students previously studied with private tutors. He worries that children from low-income families may be completely deprived of university education in the near future because they will not be able to afford private tutors, which cost an average of $80-100 USD per month, while the average salary in Azerbaijan is the equivalent of around $260.

Private tutors will continue to outshine “official” secondary school teachers as long as teachers lack proper incentives for improving their performance, argues Malahat Murshudlu, chairwoman of the Free Teachers Union, a Baku-based NGO. “The current salaries of teachers do not motivate them to provide quality education. A school teacher with 20 years of experience receives $115 per month, and the salary of one with less than three years experience does not reach even $90,” Murshudlu said.

For the past few years, the Ministry of Education, with technical assistance from the World Bank, has been experimenting with different models designed to improve the financing of secondary schools. Until now, each school has received funding tied to the number of its teachers, their salaries, and other expenses—regardless of the number of students. As a pilot project, two Baku-based secondary schools have now been allocated a certain amount of funding per student. If the model proves successful, the Ministry plans to implement it throughout the country.

For the time being, however, the exodus of younger teachers from the profession and the continuing failure of universities to produce qualified replacements have led to an aging class of educators—many of whom have difficulty adapting to new concepts and employing methods that often require computer skills. “Only a few hundred out of the 130,000-strong army of teachers in Azerbaijan encourage debates and creative thinking methods,” Murshudlu said.

Low salaries also foster a vicious cycle of corruption in Azerbaijan’s secondary schools. School principals pay bribes to regional and city educational departments in order to hang onto their positions and escape inspections, then demand payoffs from their teachers. The teachers, in turn, accept money from their students in return for better grades.

A First Step or Out-of-Step?

Proponents of the long-awaited draft law on education hope that it will remedy many of these shortcomings and modernize the current legal framework, in place since 1992. Since then, the country has joined the Bologna process and is aiming for a more European style of education, rendering much of the existing legislation archaic. If implemented as planned, the new law would overhaul the current system and shorten the period of compulsory primary and secondary education from 11 to 9 years. In late December 2007, the parliament approved the draft during its first reading, but more readings are still in store.

Some have criticized the passage of a law that would allow Azerbaijan’s top students to be accepted into university without taking the SCSA-administered standardized tests. “It is the wrong approach,” says Asim Mollazade, a member of parliament from the opposition Democratic Reforms Party. “All pupils should have equal conditions for university admission and that is through standardized exams. Otherwise, corruption in secondary education will definitely increase.”

Malahat Murshudlu from the Free Teachers Union (FTU) complained that the new law would do little to help the core problem of bad wage conditions, even after including an automatic pay adjustment tied to inflation. “Without providing normal salaries for teachers, even a perfect law has no chance to improve the education system in Azerbaijan,” she said.


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