Khatia Dekanoidze

Khatia Dekanoidze: The school has acquired value

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It has been several months now that Khatia Dekanoidze has been serving as the Minister of Education and Science of Georgia. Her appointment in early-July coincided with an active summer schedule of national unified entry exams as well as teacher certification exams. Next year, the Ministry intends to introduce a new “8+1” system requiring students to pass eight high school graduation exams in order to be eligible to take one requisite higher-education entry exam. The new Education Minister spoke with Tabula about preparations for the shift to that new examination system, the quality of teaching, educational priorities and further anticipated reforms.

Your appointment as Minister happened not long before the commencement of a massive event – the unified entry exams. In addition to serving as the Minister, you also perform the duties of the Director of the National Examination Center. What sort of difficulties have you encountered? Now that the unified entry exams have ended, will the Examination Center have a new head?

I have not been dealing with the activity of the National Examination Center only in the capacity of Minister. You know that, before becoming the Minister of Education, I had been appointed as the Director of the Center and I was appointed during quite a busy period in late-May when the exams were nearing. I dealt with the entire pre-examination preparation then. Consequently, the hectic summer exam schedule was not a novelty for me as the Minister. Quite the contrary, I am actively engaged in the activity of the Center even today. The unified entry exams were conducted without any technical or logistic problems. The teacher certification exams went on well too.

As regards the new Director, the National Examination Center has much work to do now. The establishment of the 8+1 system is planned and we intend to engage actively from the very first days of the academic year to make twelfth-grade students familiar with this strategy. Therefore, in the foreseeable future, I suppose I will still have the honor to be directly responsible for the activity of the National Examination Center.

The Center itself is running smoothly. I am grateful for everyone who participated in that activity during the exams; it was very labor consuming.

Has the work on a new 8+1 strategy been completed? The new strategy was to be ready by the end of August. When will it be made public?

The work on the strategic document has actually been completed. Many people are interested in the 8+1 system – parents involved in the education system, children, teachers, school principals, higher educational institutions. We have not left any question of interested persons unanswered.

I personally want to introduce the 8+1 system to students of the graduating year. During this period that I have been the Minister, I have met teachers and discussed the 8+1 model with them. Many ideas have been initiated by teachers themselves. These people are directly involved in the process and their opinions are important to me.

As we have already declared, we intend at the end of November to register those entrants who failed to clear the minimum-competence hurdle or who did not receive high enough scores in the unified entry exams. I think, by January, they will be able to improve their results. The main idea of the 8+1 model is to enable students to improve their results and not to have to wait until next summer. We want to change the system – not to tie exams to one month alone, but to have them be part of a constant process.

Another main feature of the new system is that children will be able to take their exams at schools – in classrooms, at computers, now that each school can afford that. Taking exams in a familiar environment will be more advantageous for them. Of course, we must separate a favorable environment from lenience toward the level of knowledge. The latter is unacceptable, but kindness and a familiar situation for children are desirable.

When will the process of establishing the reliability and validity of the tests begin?

Tests are being drawn up. When I came to the National Examination Centre, I tasked relevant people to work on tests and they are writing them. Instead of a few options, we want to have many test options. That is a labor-intensive process.

Establishing the reliability and validity of the tests will necessarily be completed by the time we finish the final registration; otherwise, tests cannot be properly administered. We believe that, by the beginning of 2013, we will be prepared to put this revolutionary model of exams in place.

Can you go into details of that strategy and describe the 8+1 model? For example, will the Graduate Record Exam be based on the principle of competition or will there be a barrier set for students to clear?

I can reveal a “secret,” though many teachers know this already: A barrier for obtaining a school graduation certificate will be established. I cannot tell you the exact figure because tests will be replaced entirely and it is up to experts to decide on coefficients for school subjects. Students clearing the barrier will receive graduation certificates and can continue participating in the competition to

enter higher educational institutions.

As regards hurdles per subject for entering higher educational institutions, we gave universities the freedom to decide for themselves and we are now discussing this issue with them. In our view, the fairest approach is based on a competition principle but upon agreement with the universities. They are to decide what knowledge and quality level students need at various faculties. I think, by the time we meet with twelfth-grade students, we will already have the list of those hurdles which may be set for the 8+1 model.

The 8+1 model is a good one for further bringing children back to school. General education is the right of every child. By “general education,” I mean that all the subjects which are taught at school must be studied by children.

The unified entry exams, when apart from the school Graduate Record Exam, required that entrants pass four additional entry exams. Many students had private tutors in those subjects, which means that the knowledge they acquired at school was not sufficient to enter higher educational institutions. Why do you assume that school certification exams will not lower the standard for entering universities?

That depends on tests. Professionally compiled tests provide a guarantee that students’ knowledge will be assessed objectively.

I do not think that that will lower the standard. Quite the contrary, when students are oriented toward learning and know that, with the knowledge they acquire at school, they will be able to receive school graduation certificates and be admitted to universities, that will encourage them to do well at school.

Moreover, we have many other novelties. We want to introduce centralized writing standards – to have schoolchildren write more school essays, to be involved in various Olympiads more actively. Those who will cope with that successfully can be encouraged by, say, easing exams with a certain coefficient.

That will bring about consistent knowledge – from the first through twelfth grades and not just during the final two years of exams. This is the response to the question of how to raise the level of general education.

As regards quality, the Ministry of Education often declares that the level of school education has increased. How can you substantiate that?

I will put it simply: I was already excited during the ministership of Dimitri Shashkin that he managed to bring children back to school; the school has acquired value.

It is important that children attend school. School is a place where knowledge is accumulated. I believe that, for instance, absenteeism without excuse impedes the acquisition of general knowledge.

An important component is the teacher as well. Certified and qualified teachers mean a good quality of general education. There have been several waves of certification in order to ensure continuous improvement of teachers’ professionalism.

I think that teacher training must be not only for certification but for the improvement of professional qualifications. The rise in professional qualifications will lead to improvement in the quality of education. Therefore, we plan wide-scale training which will actually encompass the entire Georgia. Upon the start of the academic year, each school will receive questionnaires in which teachers will specify what sort of training they need. Thereafter, we will collate those opinions and draw up a plan. That will enable us to make communication between the Ministry and a teacher more interactive.

What will happen to those people who received school graduation certificates in earlier years but plan to enter universities now?

Those people who have already obtained school certificates will not be required to take school graduation exams.

My approach in this regard is liberal. I do not think that there should be any restriction. Tests can be taken several times and whoever is not content with their results will have an opportunity to improve them. Those who graduated from school two or three years ago, or failed to enter university this year because of low scores, can improve their results.

However, university admission takes place only once a year – in the summer. Therefore, their scores will be calculated in the summer, when the 8+1 system will be planned and implemented.

To exhaust the topic of teachers, the number of certified teachers has increased two-and-a-half times as compared to last year, now reaching eight thousand teachers. What is the reason for such significant growth? Is that because of simplifying the exam? The “to create comfort for teachers” motto previously used by the Ministry gave rise to doubts back then that tests for teachers would be simplified.

Tests could not be simplified for the simple reason that they had already been drawn up when I was appointed as Director of the National Examination Center. Like many teachers, I also have many remarks concerning those tests. But that is already the past. Let us now be oriented on the future.

As regards creating more “comfort for teachers,” the Police Academy complex housed a teachers’ center and [as Rector of the Police Academy] I witnessed myself with what enthusiasm it was created. We plan to provide almost every district center with a teachers’ center in order to spare teachers from travelling from one district to another.

I reiterate that we do not think that we should be lenient concerning the level of knowledge. Teachers, however, must have a place where they can improve their knowledge.

Speaking in more general terms, the governmental program “More Benefit to People” will increase financing for education to four-billion GEL for the following four years. Given that funding, what will be your priorities and how will that increased funding be redistributed?

My priority is a higher level of general education, more respected teachers and rehabilitation of each and every school. There still are schools, especially in regions, which require prompt and comprehensive rehabilitation. We already have a plan for their rehabilitation. We also want to increase the average salary of certified teachers, install labs in every school and hook them up to fiber optic internet.

Another interesting topic is school textbooks. What is your opinion of the results of establishing stricter rules for textbook approval and imposing a textbook price ceiling of ten GEL? Have those rules not inflicted damage on publishing houses because the price of their books is set by the state instead of by the free market? What is your take on that?

Quite the opposite, the regulation of price and the reality that each school knows what books children will use to study has enabled parents, who often could not afford expensive textbooks, to provide their children with an education.

The price of books, as well as what books were sold on the black market, was out of control. Parents were unaware what books their children would need until the children went to school. This is now an open process; every school has chosen books.

The approval of those textbooks happened in accordance with the national curriculum. That was a big relief for parents and a very good development for general education.

In previous years, some claims have been leveled at the Ministry of Education. Those claims basically concerned centralization of the sector and increased state intervention in the education system. The textbook-approval rule will do as an illustration. Another example is the existence of the Council of Regents, which many view as a facade for the autonomy of higher educational institutions, or, say, the existence of privileged faculties, school branding, etcetera. What is your future vision of education reform – should it be directed toward decentralization or vice versa?

I do not know why some regard textbook approval as “centralization” when we managed to bring textbooks in line with the national curriculum.

As regards my vision, let’s take a school in which a principal can make a decision… When these people will have been absolutely formed – will have undertaken financial, legal training, which has started and is expected to be continued – school principals will pursue the main direction which they deem proper for their schools. However, there are rules apart from that; for example, internal regulation of school, Minister’s decrees or normative acts which are binding on everyone.

I think a school principal should be the person to decide school personnel reform because that is the person who knows better than anyone else what is going on in each class.

There is yet another issue of interest: public schools are required to seek coordination and approval from the Education Ministry when interacting with media, as well as when they want to conduct a lecture, seminar or training. If a school is an independent legal entity, why should it not have the right to decide such issues itself?

I do not know whether that happens or not. Georgia counts more than two-thousand schools. Can you imagine each school principal calling the Ministry and asking about everything, even when interacting with the press? On the contrary, at meetings I try to encourage teachers to conduct many lectures and seminars. But that must fit with general educational principles and curriculum.

No matter how centralized the system is, it is impossible to control two-thousand schools in a centralized manner. Even if we wished to do so, it would be difficult. However, the integrity and professionalism of good school principals, teachers and administrative staff allows us to entrust them, at least partially, with the reins of administration. At least, that is how I imagine it.

I believe, however, that the main task of school principals and others is to instill order in an educational institution, to ensure that children attend school and that all textbooks comply with the national curriculum. In general, the key aim of every school must be the achievement of good results. I was interested myself to find out how many teachers we have who have not undertaken certification but show good results on national entry exams. There are many such teachers, and I respect them immensely and believe that one serious measure of a teacher’s professionalism is his/her results in the classroom.

 

This article first appeared in Tabula Georgian Issue # 113, published 10 September 2012.

 

 

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