Monday, December 28, 2009

Kazakhstani School System

The Kazakhstani school system is quite different from the America system. For starters, students only study for 11 years, rather than 13; they start in first form and go through 11th. Kindergarten here is more like our preschool. It's not mandatory, and parents have to pay to send their children to it. Also, students study six days a week, including Saturday. However, they don't study for as long each day. The younger students are only at school for about four hours, although the 10th and 11th formers stay for about six hours. They can't study for longer because there are two shifts of students studying in the school, one group before lunch and and the other after lunch. There's not enough classroom space for everyone to study at the same time, so classrooms are used by two different groups of students. This means that teachers must often be at school from 8:30 in the morning until 6:00 at night. All of the students study in the same building; there's no separate buildings for elementary, middle, and high school.

Classes are divided very differently than in the States. Students are put into a class group, and they will stay with that same group of 20 or 25 students throughout their entire schooling career. The groups are divided based on a test the kids take when they first enter school at six or seven years old. The “smartest” students, who do the best on the test, are put into the “A” group, the next best into the “B” group, then “C,” “D,” etc. (Although, of course, the names are Cyrillic letters, not Roman.) For the rest of their schooling lives, the students will be identified by their class group, and everyone knows that the A's are the “smartest” and the D's aren't very smart at all. However, this is all based on one test when the children are very young, so it doesn't divide them up very well and there are still slower students in the A group and quicker students in the lower groups. Luckily, my school is quite small, so most of the grades only have 2 classes and the division is not as obvious. In fact, some of the B groups at my school are much better students than their A counterparts.

In addition to studying with the same students throughout their school career, classes also study with the same teacher. There is only one division, between primary (1st-4th forms) and secondary, so primary teachers start with 1a or 1b, and teach those students until they become 4a or 4b, then cycle back down to first form. After that, if a teacher is assigned to 5a for Kazakh history, then they will continue to teach those same students Kazakh history until they graduate. Therefore, you might find some teachers working with both fifth formers and 11th formers. And since English starts in third form at my school, I have both third formers and 11th formers. If I were to stay in Saumolkol for long enough, I could keep teaching my third formers until they graduate from school.

Some of the teachers from my school. The only man in the picture is our "director," or principal, and the lady with the flowers is one of our "zavuchs," or vice principals.

Because classes always study together, they stay in their classroom, and teachers move around. There are no substitute teachers, so if a teacher is sick the school can do one of two things. First, they can make another teacher teach the absent teacher's classes. This is what my school likes to do, and I've found myself standing in front of several different groups of students, without a textbook or any idea about what they're studying, and 45 minutes to fill. Right now, my counterpart is gone for one month to attend a session about methodology, and during that time another English teacher (who already has a full teaching load of 20 hours) is expected to also cover my counterpart's 22 hours. The other option for the school is to rearrange the schedule. If the history teacher is absent, then the periods she taught are dropped from the schedule and all of the other periods move up one hour so that the students get out early. This is what the school I worked at during Pre-Service Training liked to do. As a result, you never knew when in the day you were teaching, and a fifth period class might move up to third, with no reliable way to let you know about the change except a piece of paper hung in the teachers' room.

Grades here are not letters, but numbers from 1-5, with 1 being like an F and 5 being like an A. However, because you have to stay with your group, no one ever receives a 1. And even a 2 is very rare. You might receive a 2 for your daily grade, but never your quarter grade. Students are given a grade every day, in every class, and this is recorded in a giant class journal. The students also have a “kundelnik,” where teachers write their daily grades and they take them home weekly for their parents to sign. The grades are not normally based on tests or homework, but instead are very subjective, depending if the student was well behaved, participated in class, or did whatever a particular teacher wanted. There is no transparency, so teachers never have to defend why they gave a particular grade. At the end of each quarter, students are given a quarterly grade. These can be improved with a few thousand tenge given to the right teacher. Also, if your father happens to be the director or the mayor or someone else important, you're more likely to get a better grade.

A lot of the bribery is because teachers are paid so abysmally poorly. A starting teacher might make the equivalent of $100 or $200 a month. In a country where things are not cheap, this puts them below the poverty line. Teachers are paid based on the number of hours they teach, so everyone is angling to teach the limited available hours. Also, pay checks almost never come through on time. Last month, the teachers at my school didn't receive their salaries until the 20th of the month. This month, everyone was shocked when their money was already in the bank by the 4th.

There's the look of discipline and respect in the classroom here, with students standing when teachers enter the room and also standing up to answer questions. But discipline is normally quite terrible. There's no detention or vice-principal to send misbehaving students to; in fact, they can't even be sent out of the classroom because they are required to receive an education. The general discipline method here seems to be ignore the problem, until there's too much noise and side-conversations, and then yell at the students for several minutes. Immediately afterward, the students are talking again. But sometimes, I can hardly blame them. Most lessons are quite boring. There are no visual aids, just a blackboard. Most of the classes I've observed involved one student at the blackboard working out exercises, either grammar work or math problems, while everyone else copied them in their notebooks (or goofed off with their friends.) In English class, the focus is almost entirely on grammar, and students can barely speak, much less form a sentence. Whenever they are asked to speak, it's normally repetition after the teacher. If they have to come up with an answer on their own, they normally flounder and the teacher harshly corrects them, whereupon they repeat after the teacher and learn nothing but to fear speaking up in class. Everything is translated into Kazakh, so students hardly pay attention to English instructions because they know they'll be translated immediately afterward.

All teaching is geared to the two huge tests that all students must take, the PGK during their 9th year, and the ENT during their 11th year. Students can leave school after 9th form to go to college, which is four years long and either trains them in a trade or makes it easier to get into a university. The most motivated students stay through 11th form, when they take the very difficult ENT in hopes that they do well enough to go to university. The English section of the ENT is almost entirely obscure grammar questions, thus explaining why the teachers teach what they do.

Teachers from our school performing a traditional Kazakh song during a concert for Kazakhstan's Independence Day.

1 comment:

  1. Good article, actually explained things I had suspected but not actually known, like the significance of 9A, 9B, 9V...I should point out that in Astana in the schools I work with, students move around, not teachers and that usually when a teacher is sick, the kids don't have to go to class--meaning they run around the halls yelling and screaming! You also didn't mention the dezjurnii, that 2-8 kids will miss class all day so they can ring the bell, guard the door, do errands for teachers and be hall monitors.