Shashkin and Defense of English

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“Why don’t you leave me alone?” Aka Morchiladze, “Flight over Madatov Island and Back”

The Ministry of Education and Science of Georgia has succeeded in its declared goal of entering the textbook market. Its success in cornering the English-language textbook market deserves a failing grade, however.

Before September 2011, Georgian schools and schoolchildren had a choice of English-language textbooks. In September 2011, the Ministry of Education stripped them of their choice. Thanks to the efforts of the Ministry, schools and students are now left with a single compulsory English-language textbook.

In February 2011, Education Minister Dimitri Shashkin made an official visit to Great Britain to sign a memorandum of understanding with Macmillan Education Publishers. The Ministry Website proclaimed at that time that Georgian students would be given the opportunity to learn English from Macmillan textbooks, beginning in September 2011.

“Opportunity” – that was the word the Ministry used when Minister Shashkin traveled to Britain back in February. The Ministry was still talking about “opportunity” a few months later at an international conference held in Tbilisi to discuss modern methods of teaching the English language. The public was informed at the June conference that Macmillan Education Publishers had agreed to retrain Georgian public school English-language teachers and to provide them with textbooks along with auxiliary audio, video and visual materials – all free of charge. Each of the 4,200 Georgian public school English-language teachers would undergo a three-day training course.

By September, “opportunity” had become an obligation. In fact, the Ministry of Education made it clear that only textbooks published by Macmillan Education could be used to teach English to Georgian students. Given the increasingly centralized management of the public educational system, the Ministry’s dictate could be expected. Public schools obeyed without uttering a word. Their mute acquiescence to the state decision abolishing their right to choose textbooks was reminiscent of what happened in Soviet times when, like it or not, you had to vote for a single candidate.

Some believed, naively as it turned out, that private schools would still retain their right of choice. That illusion was shattered in September 2011 when private schools received the decree from above that henceforth they also would be required to use only the single Macmillan textbook for English-language instruction. By that time, private schools had already invited, at their own expense, linguists from Great Britain to train private school English-language teachers in the use of whichever textbook each private school had previously selected for itself. The private-school selections were not limited to textbooks published by Macmillan. Some opted instead for, say, Cambridge University Press textbooks widely used in schools in advanced Western European countries. Naturally, saying that private schools provided this training “at their own expense” means the cost was paid by parents of private-school students, parents such as myself whose money now seems entirely wasted.

The next chapter in the textbook saga unfolded on 9 September 2011 when the Ministry of Education announced that it had decided that first-through-sixth-grade students would learn the English language exclusively from Macmillan textbooks beginning this year and that seventh-through-twelfth-grade students would do so at the start of the 2012-2013 academic year. A month earlier, on 8 August 2011, the same Ministry had publicly announced it would hold a competition in the year 2012 for approval of all school textbooks, including textbooks for “English language for basic and intermediary levels.” What the Ministry resolutely decreed with one hand, it quickly wrote off with the other. The competition it had so recently touted as fair and reasonable was dismissed by the Ministry as lacking any sense because the winner was already known. What can be made of the Ministry’s 180-degree turn?

Minister Shashkin boasts repeatedly that he has delivered on his promise and that textbooks that used to cost 26 Lari now cost no more than 10 Lari. In truth, a set of textbooks for one subject still may surpass that 10-Lari threshold. Even so, parents of private-school students might think it well worth paying 26 Lari for those textbooks which their children have used quite successfully until now. That is especially the case without any substantiation – not by the Ministry or by the Education Minister himself – that any of the different private-school textbooks are inferior in any way to the Macmillan textbook. Is it really any business of the Education Ministry just how much I and other parents pay to educate our children at private schools? Has anyone complained about this to the Ministry? The state contribution to this cost – in the form of vouchers – is insignificant. When parents opt to send their children to private school, they have myriad reasons for doing so and one of those reasons may be the desire to be left alone by the state as much as possible. I choose to pay more and do not want the Ministry to impose its unsubstantiated notion that a standardization approach to teaching English will improve each child’s English-language proficiency. Money paid to a private school is an investment parents willingly make in the future of our children and the upgrading of our children’s teachers. Selection of the appropriate textbook for teaching English in private schools is a choice better left to the wisdom of private-school administrators than to the whim of state bureaucrats.

The state’s agreement with Macmillan Education clearly and explicitly states that the British publisher will retrain only public school English-language teachers. It is neither fair nor reasonable to expect private-school teachers to reject their own informed textbook choice in favor of whatever textbook the Ministry provides. It is neither fair nor reasonable to force private-school teachers to figure out for themselves the best pedagogical method for teaching English from an untried textbook. It is equally unfair and unreasonable to expect their students to somehow manage to switch overnight from one textbook that has proved effective to another that is as-yet untested.

In my book, that’s just plain wrong.

 

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