With a fast-growing population, teacher shortage and an outdated curriculum, Tajikistan is confronting an educational crisis that, if not quickly addressed, could leave an entire generation of Tajiks ill-prepared to meet the challenges of the 21st century, experts say.
Almost 35 percent of Tajiks are under age 15, according to US government statistics. In primary schools, classrooms of 40 or 50 students per teacher are not uncommon. In some, classes run only 2.5 hours a day because students attend in two or three shifts.
On the surface, an acute teacher shortage appears the primary problem. With salaries topping out at a paltry $52 a month, few qualified Tajiks are opting to become teachers. "There are no incentives for young teachers and for teachers overall. Teachers' salaries are low and in the villages where they are sent the conditions are not the best," Bubuhafiza Majidova, Head of the Preschool and School Faculty at the Pedagogical University in Dushanbe, told EurasiaNet.
Beyond the teacher-shortage issue, though, there are structural problems that also require urgent attention. For example, there is a glaring need to revise the curriculum, one western-education expert with extensive experience in Tajikistan told EurasiaNet. Still reliant on a Soviet approach that placed excessive emphasis on ideology over practicality, basic reading, writing and arithmetic skills have suffered, said the expert, speaking on condition of anonymity.
"Subjects are political. There is a huge emphasis on fantastical history that shows Tajikistan at the center of the Persian Empire," as well as advanced sciences designed to feed the bygone Soviet scientific apparatus, he said. Instead, the educational focus should be on subjects essential to daily life, he added.
"If Tajikistan would decrease the number of subjects to reflect the reality of the students' needs and the economy's needs, it could substantially reduce the need for so many teachers and thus raise wages for the remaining positions," he added. "Even if Tajikistan cannot invest more in education, it is possible to invest more wisely by modernizing the curriculum. A solution would be to focus on math, literacy and basic science skills through a curriculum that focuses on student outcomes, [rather than] the ability to recite a million irrelevant facts."
For now, officials prefer to concentrate on the teacher shortage. But even in this sphere, the government is encountering problems, especially with what might be described as draft evasion. In April, Tajikistan's Education Minister Abdujabbor Rahmonov said that of the 4,700 university students who had been signed up to teach in 2009, only 3,158 showed up to work.
Pedagogical students are not living up to their end of the bargain, complained Deputy Minister of Education Tojinisso Mahmadova. In exchange for a free education, these students promised to teach for at least three years after graduation. Reports the government is forcing graduates to become teachers are exaggerated. "Certainly, the problem with shortage of qualified teachers exists in Tajikistan," she told EurasiaNet. But "graduates of universities are not made to teach by force... They teach after graduation because their education was paid by the government."
To close the teacher gap, the government has begun drafting high school students to teach in some remote areas. Paid "bonuses" of up to $20 per month, 500 high school students are now teaching in schools around the country, the ministry maintains. Though they differ on the merits of employing teenage teachers, analysts agree the number is probably higher.
Shodibek Kodirov, an education policy expert with Pulse, a non-governmental organization in Dushanbe, argued that having high school students teach primary classes is, though far from a perfect solution, better than nothing. "High school students are working in rural areas on one condition. They will teach only students of lower grades," he said. "For example, if there is no English teacher in one school and an eleventh grade student knows [English] well, then why not teach the second graders? It is much better than having nothing at all."
But the western education expert sharply disagreed. Untrained teachers can do little more than keep order in a room of 40 seven-year-olds, he said. "This solution is worse than doing nothing because it wastes money and hides the problem. What happens in that classroom is the same as nothing. No learning is happening but they're spending money on it. Worse, education statistics reflect that learning is happening even though nothing is happening. So in addition to doing nothing, they are spending money doing nothing."
In a sad paradox, the economic crisis may provide Tajikistan with an influx of potential teachers. "People would rather go work in construction in Russia or Kazakhstan and make much better money than work as a teacher and make nothing," said Kodirov of Pulse. Yet with the Russian and Kazakh economies contracting at an alarming pace, there may be more teachers available in the coming year.
Hiring returning migrants begets another problem. "If I'm not mistaken, only 29 percent of all teachers in Tajikistan are qualified to teach," Kodirov concluded. Returning migrants are unlikely to offer a substantial pool of qualified talent.