Closing down prep schools another poor education policy decision

As the main opposition Republican People’s Party (CHP) has filed an appeal with the Constitutional Court to annul a controversial law shutting down Turkey’s private prep schools or “dershanes,” this week’s guest for Monday Talk says the government’s decision to close down these preparatory courses has not been wise, just like some other educational policy decisions.

“The evidence says that going to prep schools increases a student’s probability of entering university by 10 percent. This might mean a huge difference for a student. The second finding is that sending a student to a prep school is a big financial burden on a family. Third, if a child does well in school, the family of the student tries to find financial ways to send the student to a prep school; this and the first finding tell us that disadvantaged children can socially move upward if they go to prep schools. If you put all of this together, we are not convinced that shutting down prep schools will either improve quality of education in Turkey or increase educational equality,” said Batuhan Aydagül, director of the Education Reform Initiative (ERI or Egitim Reformu Girişimi, ERG).

In a surprise move, the ruling Justice and Development Party (AK Party) decided in November of last year to close down the prep schools, stirring a massive debate. These schools, with their affordable fees, are regarded by mostly middle or low-income families as an equalizer of educational opportunities. The AK Party’s bill was put to a vote and passed by Parliament on March 7, and signed into law by President Abdullah Gül on March 12. The law states that prep schools will be allowed to operate until Sept. 1, 2015, and all preparatory courses will be shut down after this date.

This is happening when Turkey prepares to celebrate April 23 Children’s Day, when politicians utter big words in regards to how important all the country’s children are to the nation. However, Aydagül says that the government is ignoring disadvantaged children across the country.

First of all, we have known that enrollment rate of children in schools have increased greatly in Turkey. Would you tell us about the rates and problem areas?

It is possible to say that schooling rates have improved significantly in Turkey in the last 10 years. We see almost a hundred percent schooling in primary educational level — the first eight years of education. This rate is over 70 percent in the following years of high school. However, preschool and early childhood education rates have been either stagnant or in regression, especially in the last three years.

Why is that?

First of all, the Ministry of National Education has shifted its concentration into other areas, such as restructuring the ministry, designing the 4+4+4 education system, bringing new systems of student testing, shutting down private prep schools, etc. Most importantly, the preschool is still paid by families in Turkey. We advocate that it should be free of charge and mandatory — there’s evidence that children gain a lot from going to preschool. Investing in early childhood education provides the foundation for further learning. The government in Turkey invests more — like exempting university students from paying fees for their education — on university students’ education, but this policy has not been wise, and this kind of policy making obviously is a result of political populism. We shared our results in regards to the benefits of the early childhood education with the ministry and we still cannot understand why the early childhood education still is not a priority of the government.

What has happened to the budget of the Ministry of National Education over the years?

Well, it has been increased, but it has not been enough of an increase. The Education Ministry’s budget has been increased to 3.24 percent of the gross domestic product [GDP] in 2014, from 3.05 in 2013. In 2014, public education spending, including higher education, will be around 4.5 percent of the GDP.

This is nowhere near to an amount to provide quality education. Besides, these figures are well below the average of 5.5 percent in the OECD countries and again below 6 percent suggested by the UNESCO for developing countries.

In order to meet the infrastructure needs in education — particularly new schools and classrooms — Turkey needs to increase its capital expenditures in education. This means that around 20-25 percent of the Ministry of National Education budget needs to be devoted to capital expenditures. However, capital expenditures [from 2013 to 2015] constitute around 10 percent of the ministry’s budgets annually.

When the government fails to provide needs for quality education, then, individual schools try to cover the costs depending on the wealth of the neighborhood. And this of course leads to disparities in providing quality conditions for educations.

‘Always three countries at the bottom: Mexico, Chile and Turkey’

What do the PISA (Program for International Student Assessment) results tell us about Turkish students’ performance?

We can look at it from two perspectives. One is that we can compare results in Turkey with the results in other countries that participate in PISA. Among the OECD countries, there are always three countries at the bottom of the list: Mexico, Chile and Turkey. The assessment has been done every three years since 2003.

Why do you think is that?

PISA results do not tell us why we are not achieving much. But we can use PISA for analyzing our educational system; this is important for the educational community. I’d put emphasis on the quality of teachers in order to provide quality education. The Ministry of National Education has accepted that we neglected teachers in the past 10-12 years of education reform in Turkey. The government has invested in textbooks, tablets, developing new curriculum, infrastructure, etc. — all solid projects for political popularism — but unfortunately it has forgotten the most important stakeholder of education system: teachers. We should all ask our government to do more evidence-based policy making. This is not happening in Turkey.

As the Turkish political scene has been further polarized, the government has been reappointing officials in the bureaucracy claiming that they have ties to “parallel state.” How is this influencing your work and cooperation with the ministry as officials that you have developed ties and understandings over the years might be reappointed to an unrelated position?

This is something we are used to. This is something that happens in Turkish bureaucracy all the time. Our responsibility is to form healthy relationships based on trusting whoever comes to the ministry. In that context, we have to stay out of polarization institutionally. We have to speak based on evidence and advocate children’s rights in education. We belong to one camp only, the camp of children.

There is no doubt that Turkey has been further polarized in the past couple of years. You can feel this in every aspect of social and political scene. Despite that fact we have been able to sustain a collegial exchange with the Ministry of National Education. This is critical for us and the ministry. Despite all the harsh criticisms that they get, they are in need of constructive and objective feedback in regards to what they do. We don’t agree with them with everything they do. They are in a bureaucratic institution driven by ideology behind — that’s how the political system works in most countries. We need to ask them to use evidence and put things in perspective while implementing the wishes of the political will behind them. For example, back to 4+4+4, the AK Party government wanted to restructure the basic education — fair enough. The party might have believed that this is what people want. Then the ministry needed to look at how to make it possible in the best pedagogical way. However, the 4+4+4 system has no rational background, except the lobbying power and drive of just one teachers’ union — Egitim Bir-Sen [pro-government Education Personnel Labor Union] — without international references. The government did not double-check. That’s wrong. We have no idea why they came up with the 4+4+4 system, except that they might have seen it in Germany and tried to imitate it.

‘Kids pay the price’

Do you think the government might have looked at questions and problems concerning education through the lens of the imam-hatip religious schools at the time? Some observers noted that the only reason for transitioning to the “4+4+4” education system was to strengthen the underpinnings of the imam-hatip schools. What is your opinion?

In a democratic framework that can be discussed. The critical point is that you need to discuss this in a participatory mechanism if you want sustainable educational reform. I can’t say yet that the reform has been terrible for the kids — because it is the first year and we have to observe it for a longer time — but children always pay the price for incompetent policy-making decision of the ministry. It is obvious that you can’t make policy like this in a country where you have a robust Education Ministry with competent people in it to design and implement policy. However, there is a top-down policy approach that lacks evidence and scientific foundation, has no reasonable and well calculated implementation plan, and risks are not taken into consideration.

One another hotly debated issue is the government’s decision to close down private tutoring or prep schools [‘dershane’ in Turkish]. What is your evaluation of this decision?

The evidence says that going to prep schools increases a student’s probability of entering university by 10 percent. This might mean a huge difference for a student. The second finding is that sending a student to a prep school is a big financial burden for a family. Third, if a child does well in school, the family of the student tries to find financial ways to send the student to a prep school; this and the first finding tell us that disadvantaged kids can socially move upward if they go to prep schools. If you put all of this together, we are not convinced that shutting down prep schools will either improve quality of education in Turkey or increase educational equality.

The challenge is that the government is removing a support system, prep schools, for kids. The prime minister says that schools will provide the necessary help for the students instead of prep schools. If that is the case, that will be good but it is not realistic to expect that it will be done. Still, it is hard to reach a conclusion now. More likely, families will find private tutoring for their kids, and that will be more expensive. That means that we adopted another law in the country where rich will buy their way out! This is what happens in Turkey all the time.

The ministry adopts a law — like the 4+4+4, like the prep schools — and because of poor policy preparation, you have a chaotic environment in the first few years. And if you are rich enough, you buy your way out; if your kid attends private schools, you are not affected as much; if you live in a wealthy neighborhood where your kids attends a public school, again you are better off. If not, you are doomed to this chaos. I can’t believe this is acceptable to a party which claims that social equity is one of their principals. The statistics showing the average might not change dramatically but if we keep looking at the average, we always skip the problems related to the children at the bottom. If we keep designing policies for the average, Turkey will always sacrifice a lot of children that can’t make to the average. The basic problem related to education in Turkey is that education does not provide equity, education reinforces inequities. I can give you an example.

Would you please?

Four or five years ago, the government adopted a policy to expand early childhood education across the country. They aimed at reaching 100 percent schooling for five-year-olds in 81 provinces in phases. We advocated wıth the Mother Child Education Foundation, AÇEV, that they should start with the most disadvantaged children because they are in dire need to receive early childhood education; we need to help them first to close the gap between them and the better-off children. On the contrary, the government started the project with the least-populated provinces, and most advanced ones as far as pre-school attendance is concerned. They have not been able to reach the provinces that were at the bottom of enrollment rates. The government is ignoring disadvantaged children across the country.

‘Investing in teachers should no longer wait’

What is your basic policy recommendation to the government?

We ask the government to be more egalitarian; value participation of civil society; make evidence-based policy decisions; and adopt a progressive equality prospective in designing and implementing education policies. The government owes it to the children of this country. Otherwise, we will keep losing generations of children to poor education and then realize that most of them lack the skills needed for the 21st century’s economy. We also need people to ask for more quality education for all from the government. Unless people keep demanding it, unfortunately I don’t see the government seeing it.

I’d like to add that there is a draft, National Strategy on Teachers that is waiting for Cabinet’s approval and support. It’s been more than 2.5 years for this strategy to be endorsed and implemented. However, there are always other agenda items discussed. We no longer want this to be delayed. This is because unless we invest in teachers, we will really not achieve much in terms of quality education.

PROFILE

Batuhan Aydagül

He is the director of the Education Reform Initiative (ERI or Egitim Reformu Girişimi, ERG), and an education policy analyst with more than 10 years of experience in both developing and post-conflict countries. Throughout his policy career, he has skillfully advised policymakers, authored policy documents, designed and implemented projects, interacted with high level officials in public and private domains and led advocacy campaigns.

He has a BA in business from Marmara University and an MA in international comparative education from Stanford University Graduate School of Education. A recipient of the Distinguished Service Award from the Liberia Ministry of National Education, he was also awarded the Patricia Blunt Koldyke Fellowship for Social Entrepreneurship in 2012 by the Chicago Council of Global Affairs for his contributions to public education in Turkey. He serves on the advisory board of Mother Child Education Foundation (AÇEV) and on the boards of the Teacher Training Academy Foundation in Turkey and the Network of Education Policy Centers, a regional network with headquarters in Croatia.

SOURCE: TODAY’S ZAMAN