Armenia: Not Quite Ready

This article was originally published on Transitions Online, with support from the Education Support Program.

YEREVAN, Armenia—Lusine Khojayan is usually so tired after coming home from work, she has little energy to play with her three children. Khojayan is an elementary school teacher at Yerevan’s School No. 171, with a class of 28 first-form students.

“I am all for the new education system,” Khojayan says about the 12-year education system that started to be implemented in Armenia two years ago. “But when there are 28 children in a class and everyone needs individual attention, one teacher physically cannot manage it.”

Khojayan is typical of many Armenian teachers, struggling to come to grips with massive reforms to the education system in the absence of promised resources and clear instructions. In 2005, Armenia signed on to the Bologna Declaration, an agreement signed by 45 countries to make their academic systems more compatible with European standards. Supported by loans from the World Bank, it switched to a 12-year system of education beginning with the 2006-2007 academic year. The move replaced the traditional 10-year system of the Soviet era with a new three-tier structure comprising four years of elementary school, five years of middle school, and three years of high school, as well as an “individualized” approach to learning.

While authorities tout Bologna reforms as creating a modern, competitive education system in Armenia, many feel that the transition is only exacerbating existing problems. In spite of the Ministry of Education’s lofty plans, Armenian schools continue to grapple with a critical shortage of resources and qualified teachers, especially in rural areas, due to persistent low public spending on education—only 3.2 percent of GDP according to the most recent figures from the World Bank.

Divided Opinions

The new 12-year system has generated a heated debate among parents, educators, administrators, and public officials.

Gayane Abrahamyan’s daughter, Alisa, went to school for the first time this September. She says she is pleased that her daughter will study under the new system, because she will be given more time to absorb information: “Before this, first grade was unbearable for children at this age. Now, my daughter will learn subjects in more detail and in a more interesting way over the course of a year. All of that was learned within only a semester before.”

However, few seem to agree with Abrahamyan’s point of view. Many parents are not thrilled that their children now have to study for an additional two years.

Yerevan resident Rima Balyan’s son also went to school for the first time this year. “It’s wrong,” she argues. “Poor children. What couldn’t they learn in ten years, that they have added another two?”

Many have taken issue with the pace at which authorities are implementing the new system.

Anahit Bakhshyan, a member of the National Assembly of Armenia and its standing commission on science, education, culture, and youth affairs, thinks that too little thought was given to the 12-year system’s long-term repercussions before the government pushed through its plans.

“The advocates of the new system should have first considered it in depth. There has not been a great deal of deliberation. They cannot fully understand its effects because they did not receive that [type of] education,” Bakhshyan, who previously served as a school principal for decades, said.

However, the head of the Department of General Education in Armenia’s Ministry of Education and Science, Narine Hovhannisyan, dismisses such criticism, saying that the new system solves many problems, including that of overburdening students.

“We also had the objective of introducing new subjects to the curriculum,” she said. “We have now added, for example, ‘informatics’ beginning in the fifth grade, and ‘myself and the environment’ beginning in the second grade. Simultaneously, the number of daily lesson hours was reduced,” Hovhannisyan explained.

Julia Hakobyan, a parent and journalist who specializes in education themes, says she is withholding judgment on the 12-year education system until its effects are more clearly seen.

“Only in 12 years’ time will it become clear whether it was worth introducing this system or not. Curricula, textbooks, and manuals were adjusted to the former 10-year education system. Do they work now? First, they should have developed curricula for the whole 12 years, prepared textbooks and manuals, and then introduced the system,” Hakobyan said.

Lacking Resources

According to data from the Ministry of Education and Science, education standards, curricula, and textbooks are in the process of being updated. By the academic year 2009-2010, the Ministry plans to complete its adjustment of curricula and textbooks to fit the 12-year education scheme. According to Hovhannisyan, textbooks for humanities have already been prepared, while the development of textbooks for foreign languages and natural sciences is underway.

The new education system envisions the application of an individualized training method for each of the 477,300 students at 1,430 general education schools across the country. To that end, according to Ministry of Education data, 6,000-7,000 teachers are being retrained every year in line with the new curricula and textbooks.

However, many schools have yet to see new textbooks materialize and continue to operate with a shortage of necessary resources. Parents are regularly called upon to pay for everything from heating schools to textbooks and chalk.

The picture is worst in rural regions, even those that are close to Yerevan. In the village of Hayanist, about seven kilometers from the capital city, the manager of its secondary school, Margarita Aghayan, says her school lacks proper equipment for its young pupils.

“We haven’t received anything new yet. Furthermore, our teachers have not been invited to seminars to get a proper idea of what they are supposed to teach and how, so they do exactly what they have been doing up until now,” says Aghayan.

Although the Ministry of Education and Science has provided assurances that all the necessary measures for the full operation of the new system will be completed by 2010, many educators remain skeptical.

Manvel Papoyan, the principal of secondary school No. 83 in Yerevan, calls the transition to a 12-year education system a double-edged sword. On one side, it was necessary for the advancement of the education system; on the other side, it caused many new problems.

“Schools need more funding to cope with the new challenges,” Papoyan says. “Schools lack textbooks and qualified specialists. For example, according to official plans, lessons should be provided on computers but, first, the teachers have to learn how use computers. Furthermore, the schools should be provided with advanced technical equipment, laboratories, and a sufficient quantity of textbooks,” he argues.

New System, Same Disadvantages?

Under the new system, high schools will operate separately from basic schools. “The idea is that children should have the opportunity to graduate from basic school, receive an education certificate, pass examinations, and choose the high school they prefer—natural sciences, humanities, arts, or trades,” said Hovhannisyan from the Ministry of Education. The Ministry plans to increase the number of high schools across the country to 300 within three years.

“Pupils will study what they need to enter higher education,” she says. “There will no longer be the need for studying with tutors. Our goal is to eliminate the ‘shadow’ education system, in which pupils are registered in the 10th grade but do not attend classes.”

Absenteeism is rife in Armenian secondary schools. Many high-schoolers are registered in the public system but do not attend classes, opting instead to study with expensive private tutors in order to prepare for university entrance examinations.

Many students say they feel more confident studying with these tutors, since they tend to be moonlighting university professors who can give them better tips on how to prepare for standardized exams.

According to popular stereotypes, public school teachers are less interested in seeing their students succeed, in large part due to the low salaries they receive. The average monthly salary for an Armenian schoolteacher is about 90,000 drams (approximately $300). Though this is on par with the nationwide average, teachers widely consider it to be unsatisfactory, and many solicit additional payment from their pupils’ parents for extra lessons or special attention.

The critical shortage of qualified teachers across the country, particularly in frontier regions and in highland villages, also contributes to the perceived need for tutors. As of January 2008, only 70 teachers have participated in a government initiative to attract teachers to rural areas.

Senior student Gegham, from Yerevan, says he attends his regular classes only in his free time between tutoring sessions. “Guys from my grade come to school when they want to. I know some of them even pay money so that they don’t have to attend at all, but if they are allowed to do this by the school administrators, it’s fine by me,” Gegham said.

Many feel that those without the necessary means to hire tutors are put at a serious disadvantage going into their exams.

“I have to borrow money to give to tutors, so that my son can obtain the knowledge he needs to pass admission exams,” says Hranush Chilingaryan, a resident of Yerevan, whose son is currently in his last year of school.

Education authorities promise that the new 12-year system will eventually correct this situation, but many parents remain unconvinced. “It will make the school authorities take money from students,” says Chilingaryan, “and then they will be in a situation where they will have to pay both to the school and the tutors at the same time—to the school for access to the final exams they need to graduate and to the tutors for knowledge.”

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