Kazakhstan: the dream of better education

By Mihaylo Milovanovitch
Rapporteur and Team Leader for the OECD Review of Secondary Education in Kazakhstan

Everybody dreams of good things sometimes, of things one wants to do, be, or have. Countries can dream too: of economic prosperity, of peace, of a visa-free travel regime or of a quick way out of a recession…

Kazakhstan dreams of better education. The State Programme for Education Development 2011-2020 notes that by 2020 the country will be highly educated, with a smart economy and highly qualified labour force. The young state has many other dreams, but they all depend on this one dream coming true.

The leadership of the country seems determined and its vision for the future of national education is more than just a wish. It is a comprehensive strategy for a full overhaul of the education sector and its transformation into a carrier of hope for economic, political and socio-cultural prosperity. The price tag of this commendable undertaking is commensurately high. Between 2005 and 2012 spending on education has increased six-fold, by some USD 3.2 billion (PPP).

The Government of Kazakhstan invited the OECD to document to what level the authorities are “walking the talk” with respect to their ambitious plans and assess whether education reforms are on the right track. The first of several OECD education policy reviews undertaken in response (Reviews of National Policies for Education: Secondary Education in Kazakhstan) was released this January. The review takes a close look at the strengths and weaknesses of secondary education bearing in mind the profound changes ahead and discusses equity, assessment and quality of learning outcomes, policies for teachers and principals, education financing, and vocational education and training.

If education reforms were a train, operating it would require an engine to push (or pull) the carriages, tracks that point in the right direction, patience in the steep sections where the train slows down, firmness where it speeds up too much and, yes, high initial investment.

The OECD review took more than 12 months of careful work and a fruitful, in-depth dialogue with the country. It concludes that Kazakhstan is achieving remarkable progress in putting together a new, state-of-the-art reform “engine” and setting it on the right reform “track”. The evidence suggests, however, that the engine is much faster and stronger than the (outdated) “carriages” it is meant to pull.

Between 2010 and 2012 the centrally-administered State Programme for Education Development claimed up to 29% of the overall education budget and 40% of the increase in education spending. Despite (or maybe because of) the strong bias in favour of new ideas and pilots, vast parts of the regular school network remain underfunded, underdeveloped and untouched by the new ideas being launched. The OECD report expresses concerns about the feasibility of introducing reforms in schools and VET colleges that are under-resourced and outdated in terms of teaching and assessment practices, and where education professionals lack the support they need in their work. Another concern is that old and new policy priorities alike show great emphasis on rewarding excellence in students, teachers and schools, but fail to focus on reducing inequities in the system, for example by providing incentives and state-of-the-art training to teachers (and principals) struggling to help underperforming students. This group accounts for well over 40% of the student population in all the subject domains assessed by PISA in 2012 (mathematics, reading and science).

Some dreams are just compensation for a disappointing present. Other dreams come true. The OECD report contains a series of recommendations that are meant to help transform a good reform start in Kazakhstan into a successful onward journey. The timing seems right as the authorities adjust their plans amidst a growing awareness that the train of education reforms can only go as fast and far as its slowest, most fragile “carriages” allow.

Reviews of National Policies for Education: Secondary Education in Kazakhstan
The State Programme for Education Development 2011-2020
PISA 2012 Results
Photo Credit: A Vintage Steam Engine Pulling Traditional Carriages / @ Shutterstock

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