I have my Kazakhstani friend, Tatyana Kazanina, to thank for the following talk she gave the summer of 1993 to the first Peace Corps volunteer group who arrived in Almaty, Kazakhstan. Tatyana, Polish by ethnicity, was my soulmate who was one of my bridesmaids when I got married in December of 1994. She had strongly encouraged me to marry Ken when I was wavering by saying in her characteristic, Russian accent, “You’d be a fool to NOT marry Ken.” (emphasis on the word “fool”) Somehow Russian speakers have a way of showing their passion in how they talk. Tatyana didn’t mince her words either.
Tatyana was also a very good English teacher to her young pupils maybe because she had experienced living one year in Arizona through the FLEX program. That’s how good her English was, she was passionate about mastering it. Sadly, she died of thyroid cancer, several years later. I was shocked that my friend, whom I had met in Almaty, had lived only 40 some years. I still miss her even now as I write out the words that she had so carefully crafted for the Peace Corps volunteers in 1993 to understand Kazakhstan’s educational system. Here is what she told them:
Until recently the educational system in Kazakhstan was very much the same as the educational system in the whole of the Soviet Union. Actually, it was a part of that huge machine called the Soviet educational system and thus had the same features, suffered the same problems. It had its merits and shortcomings and drawbacks but it was the state system we lived in.
First of all, education was inseparably connected with ideology and thus was strictly controlled by the government. Usually all the instructions came from the Sate Committee on Public Education residing in Moscow to Republican Ministries of educational and then to the local departments of public education. Some deviations were possible with respect to national or regional peculiarities of different republics, but the core, the essence was usually the same.
At school students were taught either in Russian or their native tongue, but the curriculum remained the same for al school-goers. All schools were expected to follow general guidelines. Textbooks on all subjects were the same for the whole Soviet Union. So, schools were kept within certain bounds and it was forbidden to wander off from them. Under these circumstances, experimenting was hard.
Second, as everywhere else, education in this country depended on the state of economy. No wonder schools were and are poorly facilitated. Teachers have always been overloaded and miserably paid. When I first started teaching at school, my monthly payment was 80 rubles (about $100 a month). A bus or trolleybus driver those days could be paid 300 rubles a month. The gap was incredible. It was clear that something was wrong with the educational system. Besides, in schools same as in the whole Soviet society, there was a contradiction between what was being said and what was actually being done. Everybody saw this, but nobody spoke about this publically.
Under these circumstances, a reform of general education became necessary. In 1984, the program document envisaging the all-round development of education was approved by the first session of the USSR Supreme Soviet. It was doomed to fail, though, because the main reasons why our education was in such a poor state or condition hadn’t even been revealed and the main emphasis was again made on the teachers’ enthusiasm. Some innovations had been introduced but they never worked:
Before the reform, children in Kazakhstan started school at the age of 7 and finished it at 17. Usually a regular secondary school comprised all three types of education. Elementary from 1st to 3rd grade, the incomplete secondary (from 4th till the 8th grade) and then complete secondary (from the 9th to 10th grades). Secondary education was mandatory for all. Thus, all the subjects were obligatory. You could not choose. So, no matter what your future profession would be, a librarian or a language teacher, you were obliged to study math, for example, in the same amount that would allow you to pass the entrance exam to be in a math department of a university. The same thing happened with chemistry, physics and biology.
So, the requirements on these subjects were initially raised unreasonably high and it was a reason of constant complaints on the part of parents and students. So, rather than make the school system more flexible, look over the programs on certain subjects to meet the requirements of students the reform proclaimed the switchover to an 11-year education, to spend four years on a three-year curriculum.”
(to be continued)