A lack of data remains a major obstacle to Uzbekistan’s efforts to reform public education, says Sherzod Shermatov, the country’s new minister of public education.
Shermatov spoke this week at Columbia University’s Harriman Institute. He was joined by deputy minister Atabek Nazirov, the first U.S. citizen to serve in such a senior government role in Uzbekistan, to talk about public education reform.
Shermatov began by listing the many challenges he inherited when he accepted his position in June, everything from Uzbekistan’s double-landlocked geography to the country’s history of under-financing schools and teachers’ salaries. He explained that because lycées and colleges were considered a higher priority for many years, secondary schools are now stuck dealing with basic problems like access to water and electricity.
Since Shavkat Mirziyoyev became president in 2016, there have been major changes to the structure of education in Uzbekistan. Last year, primary school was expanded from 9 to 11 years, and lycées and colleges that prepared students for university were closed down.
After this restructuring, today about 10,000 schools and half a million teachers serve 5.6 million students. Shermatov explained the challenge of monitoring such a large network without IT systems to collect proper data. Improving teachers’ pedagogical skills is also difficult, given the extremely low pay. “When we were living in a socialist country, everybody was seen as equal, so pay was similar,” Shermatov said. “We should develop a new payment system to provide the right incentives for the best teachers to come to the field.”
“So far there are more problems than achievements,” Shermatov acknowledged of his brief tenure, before redirecting the conversation toward questions from the audience. He took notes while Radhika Iyengar of Columbia’s Center for Sustainable Development offered her thoughts.
Developing and developed countries alike are grappling with many of the challenges Uzbekistan faces in its education system, Iyengar said. She praised Shermatov’s enthusiasm for introducing information and communication technologies (ICTs), but warned that “ICTs shouldn’t drive the entire dimension of the classroom.”
Iyengar also addressed Uzbekistan’s high literacy rates and inclusive coverage of schooling options, calling Uzbekistan’s focus on preschool “promising.” Uzbekistan mandates four years of pre-primary education, more than most countries, and last year the president established the Ministry of Preschool Education.
But this development means that three separate ministries now oversee the country’s education system: the Public Education Ministry is responsible for primary schooling, and the Ministry of Higher and Secondary Specialized Education manages the country’s universities and technical schools. The fragmentation of bureaucracy could introduce more problems than it solves, however, a member of the audience remarked, as pedagogical training for teachers is managed separately from Shermatov’s proposed reforms.
“Trying to build a new country is not an easy task,” he acknowledged.