Under President Nursultan Nazarbayev's leadership, Astana is pumping millions of dollars into flagship educational projects bearing his name. The goal is to equip the Kazakhstani economy and political system with capable managers. But critics are concerned that the Nazarbayev approach may create a two-track school system that leaves the bulk of students with limited opportunities.
Nazarbayev has expressed a desire to see Kazakhstan develop into one of the world's leading economies. To reach that aim, the country will need a dependable corps of technocrats, but creating such a corps presents a challenge. Kazakhstan scored 59th out of 65 countries on the latest standardized exam administered by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development under the Program for International Student Assessment (PISA). Authorities have long recognized a need to reform the education sector, which is still largely modeled on the Soviet system.
Reform efforts began in the 1990s with the Bolashak (“Future”) scholarship program, which sent qualifying college and graduate students to study in the West, with the proviso that recipients return and work in Kazakhstan for five years upon completion of their education.
Kazakhstan still lacks sufficient intellectual capital, said Irina Smirnova, Almaty head of the Ar-Namys Association for the Protection of Teachers, a lobby group. Smirnova suggested that the country was in need of more young people with an entrepreneurial spirit. "We're talking about [an era of] globalization but [today’s] schools are almost exact copies of Soviet schools, when the Iron Curtain existed – in both methodology and an authoritarian management style," Smirnova told a roundtable at Almaty's Institute of Political Solutions last October.
In his January State of the Nation address, Nazarbayev seemed to agree. “Education should provide young people not only with knowledge, but also with the ability to use it,” he said.
To encourage change, Astana’s Nazarbayev University was established in 2009, partnering with several internationally renowned universities, including Carnegie Mellon, Duke and University College London. A network of Nazarbayev Intellectual Schools (NIS) under the direct control of the presidential administration has also been established. Of the 20 planned nationwide, six are currently operational (by comparison, according to the national education strategy, Kazakhstan has 7,576 schools serving 2.5 million students between grades one and 12.)
The NIS – one in each of Kazakhstan's 14 provincial centers and two each in Astana, Almaty and Shymkent – will have purpose-built facilities and classrooms equipped with the latest technology. They “are destined to become engines of development throughout the whole secondary school network," Education Minister Bakhytzhan Zhumagulov told a ministry meeting last month.
Winning a place at a Nazarbayev school is a high-stakes affair; after 6th grade, tuition and extras are covered by a state grant. All Kazakh students are eligible to take entrance exams to place into the 7th grade. To ensure the process is corruption-free, students keep copies of their answers; later, when the answer key is published, they can check their scores have been calculated correctly.
The schools push intensive math and natural sciences, such as physics, chemistry and biology, as well as foreign languages. In the senior grades, the subjects are taught in English with native-speaking teachers recruited with the schools' generous budgets. The emphasis on science provides an ideal fit with the courses on offer at Nazarbayev University.
Officials insist that best practices from the program will be used to improve curricula at regular schools. The NIS “programs are being developed taking into account the best of international and national experience, with the use of new approaches oriented toward deepening the knowledge of students through the development of knowledge-seeking skills and their application in practice," an NIS spokesperson said in a written response to queries from EurasiaNet.org. "The development of new integrated educational and study programs for NIS will in the future be translated into the Republic of Kazakhstan’s secondary general education system.”
Yet education experts fear the government’s emphasis on the few NIS schools is coming at the expense of most children. The NIS schools are managed by the president’s office, rather than the Education Ministry, where increasing resources are being diverted to the program. At the same time, the nationwide switch from 11-year to 12-year schooling is straining the ministry's budget because new curricula and materials need to be developed.
“Smaller class sizes and well-equipped classrooms will not replicate themselves without significant government investment. This reform could leave fewer resources for children most in need of them," said Kate Lapham, Senior Program Manager for the Open Society Education Support Program, who has many years experience working in Central Asia. [Editor’s Note: The Open Society Education Support Program is a part of the Open Society Foundations. EurasiaNet.org operates under the auspices of the Open Society Foundations.]
Coordinated reform programs and support for teachers, particularly in isolated villages and disadvantaged areas, is vital if the NIS program is to have any lasting effects on the education system as a whole, said Lapham, yet it seems some administrators are simply expecting the new programs to trickle-down into village schools.
"NIS seems set up to be much better resourced than ordinary schools, which will make them attractive to the best teachers in the system. Thus, rather than knowledge and good practice trickling down into the general education system, it is more likely that talent will trickle up, leaving the general education system worse off than before,” said Lapham.
Paul Bartlett is an Almaty-based freelance writer specializing in education issues.
Sign up for Eurasianet's free weekly newsletter.