Educating the Vulnerable


Situation in Schools

On the last September of the final year of the Twentieth Century, some 60,078 confused, scared, happy and curious children entered a classroom for their very first time ever. By the time that generation reached its legal school age, the majority of schools had been refurbished, heated and equipped. The length of the educational cycle had been extended to a full twelve years. More teachers had begun applying modern planning, evaluation and learning methodologies. School materials had been modernized too. State funding of education had increased by hundreds of millions of lari. And school graduates were finally given an opportunity to enter higher educational institutions without having to pay bribes and to secure state funding without nepotism. Yet, despite all those advances, many of those students were, unfortunately, unable to reap any of the benefits of those investments made by the state in the educational system. They were deprived of existing opportunities and future possibilities because of an unsound education policy.

Over the course of each twelve-year school cycle, one-third of each generation drops out of school before reaching the final year of study. According to data of the National Statistics Service of Georgia for the 2011-2012 academic year, only 40,257 students were enrolled in the graduating year. That means that nearly 20,000 of those excited young schoolchildren who showed up for their first class back in 1999 had gradually dropped out, most of them after completing only nine years of study. Out of the remaining students, 5% failed to pass their high school graduation exams and, consequently, to obtain graduation certificates. Out of the original 60,078 students who had entered the school system twelve years earlier, a little more than 38,000 of them celebrated their high school graduation.

Advantages of Education

Many Georgians do not view the school drop-out rate as a problem. What’s the problem if not everyone stays in school for the full twelve-year course of education, if education is compulsory for only nine years, if it is not necessary for everyone to study at institutions of higher education, if people are themselves responsible for their own choices? To understand the implications of that mindset, let us ask: Is it more advantageous for us if our citizens are better educated or if they are less educated? We must also ask: Is the system itself to blame for the large number of students who do not want to get the most they can out of the possibilities which the educational system offers? And a third question: How acceptable is it that the state education policy does not benefit every social group?

Looking at education as a fundamental human right, it is apparent that the more the state makes education available to all students, the more that right is realized. From that very perspective, it is immoral to judge who deserves to exercise that right more than others.

If we consider education to be an investment made by the state and its citizens in our individual and collective welfare, then the answer here is clear – more education works. A host of empirical surveys corroborate a correlation between more education and economic success.

Systemic Marginalization

The premature outflow of students from school coincides with the establishment in 2009 of strict barriers to high school graduation, of rating schools on the basis of how their students score and punishing or encouraging school directors based on those ratings. The myth that “the introduction of high school graduation exams brought students back to schools” resembles reality only if we ignore the reality that a large number of students have dropped out of school altogether.

Yet another myth is that the majority of Georgian school graduates want to acquire a higher education. In fact, only about half of all eligible students enter institutions of higher education and even fewer of them eventually graduate from universities.

Whose Interests are Protected?

The educational system of Georgia is tailored to benefit people belonging to certain socio-economic classes, not to the overall needs of the larger society. The greater the financial possibilities, the more the state-created system increases chances for more-affluent students to acquire a better education while, at the same time, decreasing educational possibilities for less-affluent students. The poorer you are, the more the system predisposes you either to say “no” to education altogether or to settle for lesser achievements.

Education researcher Maia Chankseliani has studied the backgrounds of university applicants with equal academic achievements. Her research shows that graduates of Tbilisi city schools are twelve times more likely to enter prestigious universities than are graduates of mountainous village schools. The university-entry exam scores of graduates of village schools lag behind those of urban graduates. As a result, more than 80% of university entrants are students from urban areas. And that is happening at a time when almost half of Georgia’s population lives in rural areas.

The inequities between village students and urban students are even more conspicuous when it comes to state funding, which goes mainly to benefit those with higher incomes. Four-fifths of all university students are from cities, where average incomes are much higher than they are in villages. State educational funding for universities is mainly distributed according to exam scores, which are normally higher for urban applicants compared to rural ones. Thus, budget funding for education is used mostly for the higher education of urban populations and less for rural residents.

Obtaining an education provides disadvantaged people with their best chance of overcoming poverty. The existing educational system, at both high school and university levels, serves largely to advance the opposite aim – maintaining existing social inequities. The system predisposes economically vulnerable students to drop out of school early. The system also predisposes economically disadvantaged school graduates to make less-advantageous higher education choices than their more-affluent classmates. Education grants at universities also are mainly distributed among those who are financially better-off.

Inclusivity as a Solution

It is necessary to understand that providing greater opportunities for the educational advancement of more students is not a greater burden for the society, but a greater opportunity for advancement of the society. It is also necessary to recognize that each political step, regardless of its surface appeal, requires serious examination of its compatibility with pedagogical aims and fairness.

For example, it has been two years now that educators have been proposing that the so-called British model be established in Georgia. Under that proposed model, secondary education would comprise ten grades with an additional two years devoted to university preparation exclusively available to students who plan to move ahead with higher education. The fact that there were only 40,000 high-school graduates this year and only 35,000 of them sat for university entry exams strongly suggests that we are already very close to the proposed ten-year model, which, in reality, has not much in common with the British perception of a sound education policy. We must understand that that approach, given the existing scheme for funding higher education, would only worsen the situation and make the system even more unfair. That is because poor working people would have to pay a heavier share of the tax burden to fund the higher education of more-affluent people who attend the best universities.

The system may also become more unfair with the abolishment of payment in the educational system. Systemic filtering of the relatively poor is already carried out at both the high-school stage and at universities. That means the introduction of “free” higher education would result in the redistribution of taxes paid by all citizens to fund educational costs for those who are relatively better-off. Thus, the system of financing higher education would mainly serve the aim of rendering free education to the middle class and to the elite without necessarily helping the poor to enter universities or to finance their education.

The state must abolish those artificial instruments which impede inclusivity of the educational system. Those impediments include applying a uniform standard for the evaluation of all students; punishing schools according to how their students score on high school graduation exams; incentivizing school directors by rewarding them for a higher number of university applicants among school graduates, etcetera.

It is desirable also to change the existing scheme of competing for educational grants. Financing should be more tailored to individual needs. Poor youngsters possessing sufficient learning competences to do well in higher educational institutions must be given the same opportunities as their more affluent peers. Educational inequities could be reduced, for instance, by using other criteria in addition to standardized testing or by increasing the number of seats in higher educational institutions. Also, no matter how strange it might seem for Georgia, it is absolutely acceptable and, even more so, fairer in some situations to distribute limited seats among comparably qualified applicants through random selection.

The education policy must be oriented toward bringing maximum benefit to everyone, not just to some. Only when that happens will we be able to say that the system is effective and fair too. Only then will we have a chance for education to play an important role in the social and economic success of the entire society.



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