Can Georgia have the best school education system in the world? Will we achieve such heights if we plan our education policy properly, obtain the necessary resources and take each step reasonably? If you think the answers to these questions are simple, I will have to disappoint you. Not only is having "the best education system in the world" a doubtful ideal, but striving towards that can actually harm education policy. We must, therefore, set our orientations elsewhere.
Finding the best education system is historically something that has long been sought. Special missions were sent from Napoleon Bonaparte's France to England, Holland and Switzerland to gain such knowledge and experience. This quest, which was commenced by French revolutionary Marc-Antoine Jullien, finds its continuation in comparative education studies today. The nineteenth century Georgian educator and author of the ABC book Iakob Gogebashvili had also studied the education policy of the Russian Empire and different social groups, and the European experience of the publishing business. It was exactly with this knowledge in mind that the Society for the Spreading of Literacy Among Georgians was established and the first Georgian textbooks and children's literature were created.
Despite the long history of serious comparative studies into education, discussions in Georgia during the Soviet period were often based on over optimistic generalizations of individual cases. These still echo in the recollections of older representatives of academic society. A private story from the Perestroika era that "my student went to America and proved to be the best among his/her peers there" has today transformed into the new myth that "many Georgian scientists are being begged to arrive for work abroad," thereby trying to prove that the Soviet education system was not inferior to the Western one.
While the popular aim of comparing systems during the Soviet period was to legitimize the existing one, today, the experience of the West is used to justify the changes needed. Over the past few years, Georgia, invoking these international arguments, took some steps to reform its education system (for example, by introducing school graduation exams). In parallel with such changes to education policy, one sees articles being released via electronic media that concern those countries with the so-called best education systems and which compare Georgia's characteristics to those systems.
We read that exams are a rarity in Finland whilst the profession of a teacher is prestigious there; Singapore is the best in training teachers; and school pupils in Hong-Kong have especially high achievements in mathematics. Georgia, by its education indicators, is among the countries trailing in the ratings. The rhetoric of the authors of such articles and of politicians is similar: there are certain mechanisms characteristic of successful education systems that, if introduced in Georgia, will bring our system close to that of the best.
What has caused the shift of focus from individual cases onto the characteristics of the entire system when making comparisons? Clearly, after the breakup of the Soviet Union way more information became available to us. However, the change in the form and content of comparison is a phenomenon not confined to countries on one side of the Iron Curtain alone. This is a global phenomenon.
The new vision was prompted by larger-scale international comparative studies. Since the 1990s, surveys in mathematics, literacy, natural sciences and other subjects have become the standard mechanism for assessing the education system for the majority of developed countries. Ratings, drawn up on the basis of the test results of school students, largely define the content of discussions.
From the beginning of the 21st century, more developing countries have increasingly joined this international comparison system. Georgia is one of them. Since 2006, a segment of our school students, selected according to a special algorithm developed for such surveys, have regularly taken the same tests as their peers from the other countries participating in these surveys.
Over the past two decades, Finland, Singapore, Japan, Canada and South Korea have ranked among the best education systems according to various different tests. According to these international studies, the results of the tests undertaken by Georgian schoolchildren are bad compared to those of the majority of other participating countries. By using simple logic, the conclusion drawn from these studies is that the education systems of other countries are better than ours and if we follow the experience of more successful education systems, we too will make it into the list of the top countries.
In reality, however, steps based on such reasoning will not take us far. There are several reasons for this.
First, the results of tests on school students do not provide sufficient information to describe the education system and represent the wrong type of indicator. Does Singapore have a better education system than, for example, France only because school students show better test results in maths or in natural sciences? Do these standard assessment instruments tell us anything about which system is better at, for example, raising active, creative, tolerant citizens with critical reasoning skills?
Second, it is absolutely incorrect to generalize the results of those countries participating in such testing to describe the situation throughout the entire world. The majority of countries involved in these international studies are those with developed economies; countries that not only have incomparably greater resources, but also those that, in reality, determine the content of these tests and the methodology of their scoring.
Third, the attitude that makes education systems compete with one another based on the quantitative results of these studies implies that education is a product independent of the impact of individuals or societies. A counter-opinion, which I believe is correct, is that education is a process of gaining experience that a specific individual or social group goes through in the conditions of interlinked private and, at the same time, common aspirations, values, capacities and cultural norms.
Had an objectively good education system existed, the task facing any responsible politician would have been simple: to create a system identical to the best one. To illustrate that this is impossible, I suggest answering the following question: had Georgia had an education system identical to that of Finland, with identical aims, teacher qualifications, school equipment, textbooks, et cetera, would Georgian school students have achieved results identical to those of Finnish students?
The answer to this question is no. From a systemic perspective, education cannot be viewed as something separate from other systems. It depends on a country's economy, social conditions, demography, political stability and, in general, the quality of administration present. In Finland, for example, less than three percent of school students live below the poverty level. The number of such pupils in Georgia ranges between 10 and 24 percent. Poverty is, of course, a relative notion too and comparing it as one variable affecting the quality of education systems is also problematic. However, we can say for sure that in Georgia way more school students have to go hungry whilst doing their homework than do those in Finland, Singapore or Japan.
Even though the comparison of education systems is inaccurate, does it not still provide some benefits? Of course. One can find many beneficial elements in such comparative studies, but here we are discussing the threats they pose. On this very topic, a British educationalist of the early 20th century, Sir Michael Sadler, published an important essay, "How Far Can We Learn Anything of Practical Value from the Study of Foreign Systems of Education?"
In this essay Sir Michael Sadler was among the first to describe the threat which incautious treatment of comparisons may pose. He writes: "We cannot wander at pleasure among the educational systems of the world, like a child strolling through a garden, and pick off a flower from one bush and some leaves from another, and then expect that if we stick what we have gathered into the soil at home, we shall have a living plant. A national system of education is a living thing, the outcome of forgotten struggles and difficulties and of battles long ago. It has in it some of the secret workings of national life. It reflects, while seeking to remedy, the failings of national character. By instinct, it often lays special emphasis on those parts of training which the national character particularly needs."
We must plan our education system in accordance with our educational climate, landscape and aspirations and not based on any imaginative "international standards." By so doing, we will be more likely to succeed in having such a school, teacher, textbook, media, state and any other institution, that will facilitate the upbringing of citizens in a system that cares for their personal dignity and freedom, and not just statistical units and "winning" international contests. This is exactly how we will create the best system for us, but not necessarily that which would be best for other countries too.