Dmitriy Shashkin: “Can’t stop pedaling!”

Georgia, of Mikhail Saakashvili has effectively reformed not only police and government institutes but also the system of education – one of the defining spheres for a future of any country. In our opinion it is a very interesting experience, which is important to get acquainted with for anyone including KR officials.

Out interlocutor is Dmitriy Shashkin who has a direct relationship with reforms in Georgia. During his term as a minister of education and science (2009-2012) he introduced a new government program “Learn and teach together with Georgia”, which was aimed also at replacing Russian language with English as a primary foreign language. Lawyer by education, he worked at various American organizations including IRI (International republican institute). He is the founder of “Reformers club”.

You can read about what was the essence of the education reform in Georgia and which issues reformers faced in our interview with Dmitiry Shashkin.

– Dmitriy, please tell us, how was education reform in Georgia carried out?

This was one of the most difficult reforms, because the sphere itself is immense. It is even larger than the healthcare system. A huge number of schools functions within it as well as universities, professional colleges, kindergartens. There are almost no families that in some way come in contact with the  education system and there is a constant conflict of interests within it. Teachers, kids, parents and the government have their own interests, thus – a plethora of factors that affect the effectiveness of reforms.

This is why it is very important to underline subjective and objective problems. In the education system, subjective problems are – ineffectiveness management, financing and corruption. Objective problem is low-quality content, when the knowledge that schools and universities provide, don’t meet the requirements that exist in the world.

We started reforms by trying to solve subjective problems. Also we started from schools rather than universities.

– Why from schools?

In our opinion schools aren’t an addition to higher education but rather a full-fledged institution, which provides the basis that later leads to results; thus it is important that schools provide education that meet the demands of the 21st century.

– How did you solve subjective problems?

First of all we changed the system of financing of schools to a voucher one. Let me explain, there are two system of financing in the world – voucher and so-called lump-sum one. Lump-sum supposes that a school puts in a request and receives funds from the government, while the voucher is a system when government itself determines, how much education of one child costs, and gives this money to a student via vouchers, which he brings to school where he wants to study – either public or private one.

With the lump sum system, financing of the school may depend on the personal relationship between school principal and some official from the education ministry. School principal doesn’t care what results the kid will have at the end of the year, he only cares about preserving good relationships with officials. Voucher system stimulates, first, creation of healthy competition between schools, and secondly, implementation of self-government, when parents, teachers, school administrators are elected to

boards, that control expenses. In Georgia it is these boards that annually approve school budgets and at the end of the year receive reports on what the money was spent on.

Moreover, in Georgia, a school is a legal entity by public law and can conduct commercial activity, offering services on a paid basis – after-school center, additional classes, etc. However, all of the profits go toward education of students and development of technical basis of the school. Control over expenses is strict.

Voucher system also provided for up to 20% saving on the payment for power. How are bills for heat, water, electricity are paid by the school on the lump-sum financing? However much was the bill, is how much they have paid. But we had crooked principals who illegally organized various workshops in schools. These workshops operated at night, produced something while the neregy expenses were paid by the government. Voucher system gave a chance to control how power, water, etc. is spent. If we saw that something was going wrong we changed management of the school. Trust me it only seems that you cannot save much of utilities – when you talk about thousands of schools, the sums ends up being quite considerable.

Reform of school financing was complicated. We conducted it for about 7 years, because at the start on 2006 we made some mistakes, that we alter fixed. As a result we created a unique voucher that still works ideally.

– Aside from financing you also mentioned corruption and ineffective management. How did you fight those?

– We introduced an institute of school bailiffs. The things is that Georgia has a serious problem of violence in schools. We are talking about conflicts between students and students and teachers. Security of children in schools was the main priority for parents – before the reforms only 7% of parents though that schools were safe.

Bailiffs aren’t policemen, but special people, trained to give first aid medical assistance. They are responsible for the school in case of natural disaster and patrol it throughout the day. If they see a violation of order, they write protocols: one copy goes to principal, another to ministry of education. If they see a violation of law, they call police.

In one year, we increased security of schools from 7% to 78%. Parents were finally able to send kids to school without fearing fro their security. Bailiffs also conducted lessons on traffic-safety, talked about harm of drugs and alcohol. They weren’t just beat cops, but rather an integral part of a teaching process and children got used to people in uniforms, responsible for order.

– And how were employee candidates for bailiff jobs selected?

– These were young folks 3 person per school. A requirement was that both young men and young women were part of the team. They didn’t have guns but still they were able to establish order.

Bailiffs also helped in fighting corruption. It is harder to fight this evil in education system rather than in law-enforcement system. If they are “extorting” money form a kid for example, for curtains, desks, renovation, very often, parents don’t cooperate with ministry of education, since they are afraid that a child will become a hostage in school. Plus there is another peculiarity: in school, just like in a family, nobody wants to take the “skeletons out of a closet”. Principal tries to sweep the conflict under a carpet. Even though he has enough authority to solve any problems.

Bailiffs didn’t answer to school principals, but rather to ministry of education and to the minister personally. If they found out that the school is starting to collect money for drapes, they instantly started to write a protocol to the ministry. Thus, thanks to bailiffs, it has become impossible to hide problems, and principals quickly learned that if they don’t take measure to fix problems in their schools, ministers will take steps against them.

– Was there a way for bailiffs to amicably negotiate with principals?

– The ministry changed school principals once a month. Such a system was put into rotation: three bailiffs work in schools, once a month two of them go to a different school, and two new ones come in. One stayed for inspections.  But even he was replaced later.

We hired young guys to be bailiffs, wo were highly motivated. They didn’t have high salaries – they received the same salary as teacher. But they would never be in the cahoots simply because they understood: their labor can really change the country, through changes in school. This is a very good motivation for honest work.

– Did the reforms affect teachers?

– This was the third thing we did for solving of subjective problems – increased qualification of teachers and created conditions, so that teachers could constantly advance their skills. This is important because otherwise we could really lag behind because today the world develops at a really high pace.

For example, in the last five years physics has made huge strides forward. Or take for example periodic table: what I learned in school, differs a lot from its modern form – it has gotten bigger five-fold. The same goes for learning of languages: what we learned a year ago, our kids could learn in a month, based on new methods. Thus, science is developing in all directions, as opposed to teachers, who received education 20-30 years ago.

This is why we created so-called superiority centers (or teachers’ house), where we collected the most advanced technologies for teachers in the world, launched labs and various online-programs, invited best trainers in the world. Centers are open 24 hours, and they have rooms for kids: if a teacher comes to the center with a child, they can leave him or her in custody of a counselor,, while they study. Thus, we create decent conditions for teachers to increase their qualification.

Simultaneously, we  introduced the dependency of salary of a teacher based on knowledge, or more precisely, a presence of certificates on increase of qualification. For every such certificate, including the English language one and informatics, 100 dollars were added to the salary.

– So why would a chemistry teacher for example, need a knowledge of english?

– Self-development is very important for a teacher, and most materials for this are in english. We wouldn’t be able to keep up translating the volume of information needed for every teacher, thus we decided to teach english to teachers.

– Has the financial situation of teachers changed?

– When Saakashvili came to power in 2004, teachers’ salary was 18 dollars. When Saakashvili in 2013 left his post as a president, salary fluctuated between 400 and 1000 dollars, depending on whether a teacher had certificates. Thus, during the reforms, salary was increased from 18 USD to 360 USD, and the maximum salary of 1000 USD was received by teachers who have earned certificates. Certification of teachers was a difficult reform, not all teachers welcomed it, but creation of competitive conditions gave an opportunity to use it for the good of a kid, and teachers themselves started to earn decent wages and live comfortably.

– These were subjective problems, now lets talk about how the educational content was reformed.

– The educational content faces the same problem in all post-Soviet countries – it came out of the Soviet system of education. I don’t want to say that it was bad, but I don’t think that its content corresponds to realities of the XXI century.

Soviet education system was built on a principle that success of a child in the future depended 80% on the volume fo information that he or she received in school, and 20% on personal qualities. In the America system principle is exactly opposite – success depends 20% on the volume of education and 80% on personal qualities. And these 20% are supposed to develop personal qualities of a child – to be able to think critically, make decisions, create a team and work in it. Thus, it was important for us that kids don’t cram information, but rather develop skills that will make them into successful people.

We imported natives speakers of English from America, Canada, Australia and Europe, who in pairs with Georgian teachers taught kids conversational English. This was a very successful program. In each school we had one foreign teacher who helped local teachers, and taught kids conversational language. Thanks to this system a very good result was achieved – now 75% of kids who get accepted into higher education institutions, chose english as a foreign language, 15% chose Russian and 55 chose German or French.

If I was to sum up what I said, by solving subjective issues, we created a system which was aimed for success, and form an objective point of view, we chose for ourselves American and European education systems, which put as its goal development of skills, rather than cramming concrete subjects.

– In Georgia, as part of the reforms, Georgian has become the main language of instruction, thus theoretically, Russian schools closed?

– Russian schools weren’t closed but rather transferred to Georgian language. When I become the minister, we had approximately 300 schools with Russian language of instruction. I myself graduated from a Russian school, was raised on Russian literature, and neither I nor president had any desire to fight Russian language. There were other problems.

First problem. I asked kids’ parents who studied in these schools: when the kids graduates school, where would you want him to go with this knowledge? Most spoke of going to universities of Georgia, Europe and USA. Then I asked, why does the kid study in a Russian school if he is planning to stay in Georgia, where all of the business is conducted in Georgian? And if he is planning to go to Europe or USA, why does he need education in Russian, if over there he will need totally different skills?

The second issue was this. Education in Russian schools was done using Russian textbooks, and Russia is known for using education system for their ideological goals. And I don’t think that textbooks in Russia are any better than those say in France or Germany.

What did we do? First, we introduced so-called bilingual education. I.e. every subject in Russian schools was taught one-third in Russian and two-thirds Georgian language. Textbooks were bilingual” Sentence was written in two languages – Georgian and Russian. When kids were studying say biology, they simultaneously learned concepts in Georgian. And in two years we transferred all school to Georgian, which gave teachers time to prepare and students could easily study further in Georgian.

By the way, we also had Azeri and Armenian schools, we worked with them as well. There were kids, who didn’t know Georgian at all, and they were allowed to attend universities in their native languages; they would study Georgian language for a year, and then would finish their studies in Georgian.

We started this reform in 2009, and back then two Azeris and one Armenian student got accepted into unviersities through it and in two years there was already three thousands of them. They started studying the language because there was motivation. There are officials who think that people are stupid., which is untrue and is the other way around. If people will see the goal, and realize that it is good for them, they will gladly pursue it.

By the way, a good example of clumsy reforms is Ukraine, its authorities also decided to get rid of schools, where education wasn’t done in Ukrainian, but due to it being done clumsily, they messed up their relations with Romanians and the Polish, having created problems for themselves, which simply shouldn’t have existed.

In conclusion of the subject of schools I will note that we phased out all area and local school districts, as unnecessary, parasitic institutions, but created resource centers, where instead of a huge cohort of officials only a few people work, who play a role of facilitators of communication between the ministry and school rather than being a warden.

– Ok, the situation with schools is clear. But what was done in the system of vocational education?

– In every country trade colleges have their own goals. In Georgia we outlined such priorities as tourism, engineering, IT, agriculture. It was important for us that kids studied these particular trades, but then we faced a problem.

I will explain using engineering as an example. A welder from Georgia receives a salary of two-thousand USD (three-thousand USD in the world market). So it is easy for people with this profession to find a job – good welders are always in demand. But what does a good qualification of a welder depend on? Professionals say – on the number of welded joints that he makes. So, in order to train a future  specialist, not only theory matters as much as equipment, for him to get some experience. But equipment is expensive, just like the process of training. This is why it was always more beneficial for a trade college dean to train assistant-secretaries and sales reps, since all that’s needed to train them is a desk, a chair a blackboard and a teacher. We changed this system.

Lao, special centers were opened, where future students study demand for various professions on the job market and chose who they will become in the future.

– And finally higher education. What reforms were done there?

– For example we completely reformed Academy of sciences, where huge finances were concentrated. Today it operates on a grant system: scientists receive money not because there is some research institute, but because there is an interesting research project, aimed at achieving concrete results.

We also changed the system of taking exams for universities, ridding it from corruption. Today, in Georgia, exams are conducted not by universities but by special centers. Kids there take four exams, receive education grants and with them attend chosen universities. Size of the grants depends on results of exam-taking – 100%, 75%, 50% or 25% of the cost of education. Universities don’t participate in exam process and due to this corruption was defeated.

Student grants also go towards private universities. Of course we still have public universities, but if a kid wants to attend a private university and has received a grant, government fully carries out obligations.

Why did we go for this? In order to create fair rules for competition between universities. And I think we succeeded. Universities in Georgia have very decent budgets. Tbilisi state university makes around 80 mil. USD, medical – 70 bil. USD. A lot of students from India study there, who pay a lot of money for it. Professors make around 3000 USD, starting teachers around 1500 USD, which is a good starting position.

How did we achieve this? We got rid of regulation in the education system. I believe that the less government is involved in higher education the better. For example, there was a norm that got inherited from Soviet times that a professor in a university must be a PhD. Sounds nice, but who will teach children entrepreneurship? Doctor of which sciences?

Among successful businessmen, PhDs are extremely rare, simply because they don’t deal with theory, but rather make money. Meanwhile, their knowledge and experience is much more interesting to children; or does a practicing successful surgeon have time to write a dissertation? In other words, people who could provide modern knowledge, based among other things on extensive practice, were deprived of opportunity to teach. And we got rid of this requirement and were able to bring young professionals into universities.

– And do university graduates have problems with employment?

– There are difficulties with employment everywhere. Unfortunately, I wasn’t able to implement another reform, which was planned for 2013 and was related to employment. We had an interesting idea that consisted in getting universities interested in future employment of their students. Say, if the student gets employed after graduating from university, he gives a part of his salary to a special college fund. Universities would get a financial incentive to help their graduates find jobs.

This reform of course requires some adjustments, but the idea, I think could prove useful to any government. By the way, in US they practice endowments to universities from future students, but on a voluntary basis.

– From which sources did financing of the education reform come?

– Financing was conducted through government budget. There were rumors that Georgia receives exorbitant amounts of funds for reforms, but I was the minister of education for three years, and didn’t receive any outside financial infusions. We made by with the budget we had, simply because nobody stole anything.

And thanks, for example to implementation of electronic system of voucher control, we saved 20 mil. USD a year, which we spent on reforms. It cost us around 50 thousand USD. Before we had it, school principals could register same kids and ask money for them, while the electronic system self-deletes repeating identification numbers of vouchers, and results in considerable saving of government funds, due to which we were able to technically equip schools and students.

– Are you talking about supplying schools with computers?

– Not only schools. Every child in Georgia, upon entering first grade receives a personal laptop as a present from the president. And by the way, in the first year, this program was fully financed through the ministry of interior of Georgia, whose employees literally dug the money made by drug traffickers from underground – they buried jars with money made from drug-trafficking into the ground. Ministry of interior dug these banks out, president told the ministry to transfer them into the budget of ministry of education, and the first computers for first-graders were bought with this money too.

Generally the entire reform was based on correct use of financing. There is always money in the education system, but it is so immense that even if you ease the control a little, people start stealing right away. Seems like they aren’t stealing too much, but since the system is very large, as a result the end sum is gigantic.

– So it turns out that any reform starts with smart management in the entire system – from schools to ministry?

– They are trying to reform the system of education in many countries, and the first mistake that reformers often makeis reform of management and control goes to the back burner. I’m not saying that the system must be vertical, it shouldn’t be, but a proper management must be built, when everyone knows what they are responsible for and what is their goal. Then the decisions will be implemented.

Otherwise there is a risk of facing sabotage, and sabotaging of decisions in the education system usually is at a very high level, because there are a lot of schools, and minister of deputy minister cannot visit each one, and if there is no system of control, there is a chance that nobody will ever know of sabotaging of decisions of the ministry. Principal will write nice reports to the top while in reality the situation might be completely different. This is why we first solved the issues of management, financing, control of implementing.

– What in your opinion was possible to radically change in the education sphere throughout the reform years and what should be worked at?

– We have solved subjective problems, and much more time is needed for solving of objective ones. These days many provide the example of Finland’s education system. It really does move forward in quantum leaps. But many forget that Finns have been reforming their system for almost three decades. In this time they raised teachers of absolutely new formation and now cancel all subject-based education, because they trust teachers so much, that they are allowed to not use textbooks now.

Same as US, where there is no norms for textbooks. In our countries, they talk a lot about good and bad textbooks, and in US the teacher himself decides whether he will use a textbook or just a page from it, in his education process. Thus the level of preparation there is very high and is equal throughout the country, which gives them such opportunity.

When starting the reform, Finns gathered representative from the entire political spectrum of the country and announced, that whoever comes to power, cannot cancel the reform that they are starting, since it will only show results in 20-30 years. Unfortunately there was no such agreement in Georgia. And we weren’t able to fully change content, qualification of teachers and many other issues, that are very necessary to solve for the education system. Thus, we were able to pass the point of no return.

– Do you have fears that the reforms might be curtailed?

– Even iron rust if you don’t take care of it. In Georgia today even if something moves in the education sphere it is only through inertia, and there are some things that are already showing recoil now. For example, the new government changed the system of financing of bailiffs and brought them under school principals, killing the entire idea. As a result, violence and corruption started to return.

You see reforms are like a bicycle, fi you stop spinning the pedals, the bicycle can move by inertia for some time, but then it will inevitably fall.

– Nonetheless not many people in Soviet countries were able to do something similar to what you told us now. What is the secret?

– In the political will of Saakashvili, I think, otherwise no reforms would have been implemented. And the second thing is the presence of a professional team that was chosen for success and was able to implement reforms in accordance with his vision of changes necessary in the country. Thus, any reforms must be molded for particular result, achieving chosen goals, otherwise there is a risk of them turning into simple talk.

– Thank you for the interview.

Read the material on this topic Lessons from Georgian reforms.


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