Azerbaijan International

Winter 1999 (7.4)
Pages 78-79

Restructuring Azerbaijan's Educational System

by Misir Mardanov, Minister of Education

Misir Mardanov, Minister of Education of AzerbaijanWe are facing many problems in Azerbaijan's education system. Of course, it's impossible to solve all those problems right away.One of the problems that concerns us a lot is the education of refugee children. As you know, refugees are living in Sabirabad, Saatli, Bilasuvar, Imishli, Barda, Sumgayit, Baku, Ganja and other parts of the country. I would be lying if I told you that normal conditions exist for those kids to get an education. At the same time I would like to point out that just recently I've visited some of those refugee camps and have seen a very big difference, especially compared to last year.

Due to the Karabakh problem, we've lost more than 700 educational institutions, including kindergartens, schools, colleges and institutes. Among the 1 million refugees in our country, there are more than 100,000 refugee students and 10,000 teachers living in the refugee camps.

We have made some progress. Instead of tents, many refugee students now attend school in limestone-block buildings that were built by various international humanitarian organizations. But in order to solve the problem completely, we need to get back our land so that the refugees can return to their homes and continue their children's education there-not in tent camps.

Another problem is the dropout rate in our high schools. According to Azerbaijan's constitution, every child must complete 11 years of education, no matter what kind of family he or she comes from. It's significant that our country pays attention to its children by making high school compulsory. Since the economic conditions in Azerbaijan are so difficult, many kids drop out of school and turn to the streets, earning money by washing windows at traffic lights or selling things.

Also, in some regions of Azerbaijan, especially in the south around Lerik, Astara and Masalli, parents hesitate to let their daughters go to school after 9th grade. They think that a 15-year-old girl is old enough to get married. They don't want to let their daughters out of the house. We're fighting against this at the moment but are not achieving the results that we want.

I wish we had private high schools in Azerbaijan to compete with the public high schools. If Azerbaijan wants to move ahead with its market economy and integrate itself into the world economy, it needs more private schools. When the government sees that talented students choose to attend private schools, it will increase the quality of its public schools.

For example, there are many Turkish schools in Azerbaijan, and the level of education in those schools is very high. Graduates from Turkish schools are accepted in many different universities.

Help From the Outside
Our schools, including special schools for the blind, deaf or orphaned, receive support from various companies and international humanitarian organizations. For instance, in Masalli, UNICEF bought some land near one of the schools. With the help of the students and teachers, the school is planting various vegetables. The money from the sale of those vegetables helps the school pay for repairs and meet necessary expenses. UNICEF also put in some Xerox machines at a school in Baku. The school sells photocopies made with the copiers, giving the teachers a share of the profits.

EXXON helped us publish a book for kindergartners called "ABC with Poetry." Over the past two years, 100,000 copies have been distributed to various kindergarten classrooms. EXXON also published an Azerbaijani-English dictionary, both in Cyrillic and Latin, as well as a five-volume encyclopedia about nature, history and literature.

Likewise, BP Amoco has published 20,000 copies of an Azeri ABC book, distributing copies to the refugees. The company has helped us organize various contests among teachers and students, such as Best Teacher of the Year and Best Class of the Year.

President Aliyev himself has set up an incentive program for Azerbaijan's young people. So far, 50 children exceptionally talented in the areas of art, music or athletics receive a monthly $250 stipend when their names are placed in the "Golden Book of Talented Youth". This is paid by the Ministry of Education. We hope to help them develop their talents at an early age. I've also made a proposal to open a special department within the Ministry of Education that would help encourage gifted children.

Educational Reform
We have three main objectives for educating Azerbaijani youth. First, they need to learn the Azeri language and their own country's history and culture. Second, they should learn at least one foreign language. Third, they need to be able to use modern technology, especially computers.

In the old educational system, students began learning foreign languages in first grade but never became fluent in those languages as grammar was emphasized, not actual conversation and usage.

Our overall educational reform program will follow three stages. We've already finished the first stage, which was preparing the reform plan. We sent our specialists to the U.S., UK, France, Japan, Turkey and central European countries to study the educational systems in those places. The World Bank provided us with $295,000 for this segment of the program.

The second stage of our reform will be carried out from 2000 to 2003. We've chosen 20 schools throughout the country to be completely repaired and re-equipped. Their school programs will be completely changed, and their teachers will attend special training seminars. The World Bank has offered us a $5 million line of credit to get this program underway. All of Azerbaijan's first-grade teachers have already attended two-week training seminars to learn about the new programs. Now they are implementing what they've learned in their classrooms.

One major problem with the schools' existing textbooks is that they are written in very difficult language. Most were written by academics and college professors who had never set foot inside an elementary classroom. When I visited schools throughout the country, many students and teachers complained that the language in the textbooks was too complicated. So we're trying to simplify the textbooks, to make the content easier to understand.

We've given a certain amount of autonomy to every school. For example, the Ministry of Education used to decide which courses would be taught throughout the entire 36-hour school week. We've decreased that number to 22 hours; each school's administration decides what kinds of classes to offer for the remaining 14 hours. For instance, a school can choose to offer even more math or science classes to their students.
We've also decided to integrate similar courses and teach them as a single course. For example, when I examined the educational system of the West, I found out that many schools offered only one history course. Our schools had history classes under various names such as: history of the Middle Ages, history of Early Man, history of the USSR and history of Azerbaijan.

The third stage of reform will be our analysis of the results of this trial period. After that, we can start implementing these ideas and programs throughout all levels of Azerbaijan's educational system.

The University Level
Right now we have more universities than we need. There are close to 50 institutes and universities in Azerbaijan for only 8 million people. In other developed countries, there's only one university for every 600,000-700,000 people. We have three times as many universities.

For example, we have the Institute of Foreign Languages as well as the Institute for Russian Language and Literature. There's no need for us to have two separate foreign-language institutes.

In a few years, the market will narrow and the lower-quality universities will close on their own. For that to happen, we first need to educate people to help them understand which universities are providing quality education.

Since the salaries of university teachers are so low right now, some of them are behaving in unethical ways, taking bribes. We recently started a program to combat this. All first-year university students were switched to a 100-point credit system. The student earns 50 out of 100 points just by attending class, taking notes and answering the teacher's questions. The other 50 points are earned during the final written exam. The teacher is not present during the exam. If this program works, we will apply it to all university students.

We have nearly 4,000 students studying abroad in various countries, such as the U.S., UK, Japan, France, Turkey and China. We work closely with both the American and French embassies in Baku to set up short- and long-term study programs. In turn, there are nearly 4,000 international students studying in Azerbaijan.

Limits on U.S. Aid
Section 907* affects us across the board. Armenia has received $60 million from the U.S. just for its educational system, but Azerbaijan has only received $5 million. This is the result of 907. No American universities have serious relations with our state universities. This is also the result of 907. It's very unfair. I'm sure that the American people don't know anything about this. If they did, they would have influenced Congress.

I think every single Azerbaijani is guilty. We could do 100 times more in Azerbaijan, but people, including officials, put obstacles in our way and are always trying to block us. All of the problems we face today, including Karabakh, are really of our own making.
* Section 907 of the Freedom Support Act, passed by the U.S. Congress in 1992, denies all U.S. aid to the Azerbaijan government.

Azerbaijan International (7.4) Winter 1999.
© Azerbaijan International 1999. All rights reserved.

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