Education in Darkness

Simon Janashia

"In the Country of the Blind the One-Eyed Man is King," thinks Nuñez, the main character of The Country of the Blind – a short story by H. G. Wells. In the story, Nuñez finds himself cut off from the rest of the world in a settlement that for many generations has only been inhabited by blind people. He tries to explain to the blind what the visual world is like; he tells them about the sky, stars and sunset but this is all in vain. He believes that his eyesight will become a source of power, but the locals, fully adapted to life without sight, manage to function perfectly well within the limited scope of their knowledge and demand that Nuñez conform to their local norms. They do not believe that he has the faculties of the fifth sense that they lack and consider him mad. Ultimately relations between Nuñez and the locals come to a catastrophic end.

Discussions about education often resemble the adventures of sailors lost in a dark night. Society lacks objective data about the education system of Georgia. The state has access to that data, but rarely conducts any impartial analysis. As a result, no dialogue between the state and society in this area is established. The level of mistrust is huge and any information that is provided loses its value.

Clear illustration of this problem was seen in the recently held discussions about the disappointing results of teacher certification examinations. Several indicators, reflecting some of the results of this examination, were made public by the National Examinations Center. These served to create an illusion that society has not had enough information about the catastrophically low levels of knowledge and skills of teachers in public schools. The main, and often the only, outcome of adopting such a superficial attitude towards the release of information is finger pointing towards a newly identified or re-identified "culprit," rather than efforts being undertaken to tackle the problem.

A similar outcome occurred as a result of the recent discussions. The director of the Examination Center first engaged in an extensive discussion about both the use of crib sheets by teachers during the examination and the prejudices of teachers. She then quoted the percentage of teachers that failed to pass the exam. Finally, she pointed her finger at the former education minister and, for neither the first nor the last time, declared that everything that had been done previously was bad, but from now on everything will be perfect. The former minister and the political opposition, meanwhile, blamed the new government for their lack of attention towards teachers. Several representatives of higher education institutions expressed doubt that the teacher certification examinations had deliberately been made more difficult. A segment of teachers directed their aggression towards the state, including the developers of the tests; whilst a segment of society vented their anger towards the teachers. In that exchange of accusations, however, the main question was lost: what, in reality, have we learned from the results of the teacher certification exam about the level of teachers' qualifications, and what can be done moving forward?

It may appear that the situation is clear enough. In reality, however, we do not have sufficient information to make accurate assessments. Among those who passed the exam, what was the proportion of teachers who were sitting it for the first, second or third time? What was the number of those who already had teacher certificates but decided to sit the exam to obtain additional certificates for other school subjects? What was the share of incumbent rather than prospective future teachers among the applicants for the certification examination? How do the results of the examination differ among applicants of different ages, work experience or place of residence?

We also know too little about the teacher certification examination itself. One can only find test samples for this year's exam published on the website of the National Examinations Center. Nor has the statistical data for previous years been made available there. We do not know specifically which test assignments were difficult for teachers. Were they those that required knowledge of a specific school subject or those requiring the skills to use knowledge of that subject during the teaching process? Were they those assignments that were introduced under the new teaching plan or those that have always been taught in Georgia?
Why is it important to have answers to those questions? Imagine a situation where we have learnt from the media that the majority of residential houses in Georgia have been damaged and are about to collapse. Before starting to panic, seeking culprits or even repairing them, should we not first discover what element of the houses are damaged – is the problem with the foundations, the walls, the roof or something else? What size of buildings are in danger? What construction materials are perishing? Which generation of houses face this problem? So many fundamental questions would need to be answered before making an assessment or devising a plan.

Similarly, before we rush to spread unsubstantiated assumptions about various complex processes in the education system, just as some public servants have done, we must find out more precise data about the teachers who have successfully passed the certification exam. What are their ages? Are they from urban or rural areas? Are they newcomers or experienced teachers? Have they undertaken training or not? After all, how can society verify these assumptions if it is forced to blindly discuss issues which largely remain in the dark due to the unavailability of data?

One can cite many other examples to illustrate the problem of access to data in the education system. For instance, we do not have complete data on the results of school graduation exams or the unified national examination. Nor are databases available about the assessment of the performance of Georgian school students. Such surveys were conducted in Georgia in 2003, 2004, 2009 and 2011, but the reports on the majority of these have not been made public.

However, the publication of such reports would not itself be sufficient for deep analysis. This would require the availability of precise data on the surveys, exams and other aspects of the assessments. It is currently impossible to double check the situation described in the surveys, and reports published by the state are often incomplete and biased.

It was exactly in such a manner that the National Examinations Center presented the results of an international survey on the performance of school children last year. The emphasis was mainly placed on the extent to which Georgia's results lagged behind those of other countries. However, analysis of the data shows that Georgia has also achieved success in some areas. For example, the results of Georgian schoolchildren coming from urban areas are actually higher than the average international indicator. Compared to the surveys conducted in 2006 and 2007, the most recent survey generally showed improvements. That the information concerning positive results would be suppressed was predicted by many – for years a significant segment of the employees of the Examinations Center have been instilling the opinion that Georgia's education reforms had caused a deterioration of quality.

The responsibility for publishing data about the education system does not lie solely with the National Examinations Center. The Teacher's Professional Development Center, the National Center for Educational Quality Enhancement and the Agency for the Educational Management Information System, each possess a vast amount of information too. However, such databases are not freely accessible. Whilst it is true that on occasions various public servants will provide some data to interested individuals, this depends on goodwill rather than on the obligation for openness, which is defined as a legal norm.

In Georgia, the data collected on the education system with the involvement of the state is available only if it relates to surveys conducted by international organizations. Such surveys include international assessments of students in the fields of literacy, natural sciences and mathematics. Such data can be freely downloaded from the websites of various foreign organizations.

It is not only in Georgia that those organizations holding huge databases concerning education systems fail to properly use them, this happens in developed economies too. They may lack sufficient time, adequate human resources or political freedom to process that data. Therefore, even in countries poorer than Georgia (for example, Kenya, Tanzania and Uganda), locally generated databases are made freely available to interested parties. Such data is studied not only by local specialists, but also by international researchers on education issues.

In Georgia, however, the Ministry of Education and Science often deliberately conceals data from citizens in order to cover up its own mistakes. According to an official statement published on the website of the Agency for the Educational Management Information System, free textbooks were supposed to be handed out to 650,000 school students. However, after the media released information that, according to information published on the official website of the Education Ministry, Georgia counts only 560,000 school students, that information instantly "disappeared" from the webpage of the Educational Management Information System.

The path of gaining power through restricting information is an illusory one. Characters involved in such an endeavor look like one-eyed kings trying to achieve success in the country of the blind; but, in reality, they fail to benefit either themselves or society. It is necessary to make information, including the databases, existing in the hands of the state public. Doing so would spare Georgian and foreign researchers interested in the education system of Georgia, teachers, organizations engaged in upgrading teachers' qualifications, representatives of the media, and even parents, from blindly having to feel their way through a darkened education system in search of a solution. Releasing such information would most probably build the foundations for more efficient cooperation between society and the state, something which represents a necessary condition for taking shared and substantiated decisions.


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