BAKU | Under the laws of Azerbaijan, 15-year-old Sabina is entitled to a free education. She attends free public schools, yet her parents feel obligated to pay an annual 3,000 manats ($3,800) for tutors to ensure that she gets enough from her education to gain entry into a university or other form of higher education.
“It’s impossible for secondary school graduates to pass higher education exams without individual tutoring,” said Dilshad Azimova, Sabina’s mother. “We can hardly manage these expenses. I have two more children and we have to save money for their tutoring as well.”
Sabina is among a generation of Azerbaijanis promised a free education but denied it, according to parents and education experts, because public school instruction seems inadequate to prepare students for higher education. While education officials acknowledge the problem, so far they have not put forth a solution. Observers inside and outside of the state system also maintain that costly tutoring required for university admission has become institutionalized in the Azerbaijani public education system and is tacitly encouraged by the government.
Sabina says most of her fellow students do not go to formal classes regularly and attend two or more tutoring sessions a day, each lasting an hour and a half. “Tutors’ schedules are also very intense,” she said. “They’re working until midnight.”
‘MY DAUGHTER WAS BEHIND’
Elementary-school parents also use private tutoring. Gulnara, 32, who asked that her last name not be used, makes a living cleaning central Baku’s business centers. She says she has to pay 50 manats out of her 275-manat monthly salary for her 7-year old daughter’s tutoring. It has paid off.
“Before, the teacher repeatedly stressed that my daughter was lagging behind classmates, mainly in math. But now I hear only praise,” Gulnara said. The praise came only after that same teacher collected her after-hours tutoring fee, however.
What faces Azerbaijani students are classrooms where few understand what’s going on and can absorb the information needed to get out of high school and proceed to higher education.
“Only five or six students in a class comprehend what you teach. Moreover, some topics are so difficult that a teacher cannot explain it within the given hour,” said a tutor-teacher who, like many interviewed for this story, spoke on condition of anonymity.
A SCHEDULE OF FEES
The average tutoring price for each student in a group ranges from 50 to 60 manats. The price lowers in suburbs to 30 manats but goes up to 70 to 100 manats for individual tutoring. There are also so-called “bunker teachers” who prepare students for higher education admission tests. They charge 120 to 150 manats a month.
The practice of hiring tutors dates back to Azerbaijan’s birth as a nation in the early 1990s. Most teachers left their low-paying public-sector jobs for more lucrative private-sector work. That included tutoring, which evolved into something resembling a second education system that was clearly not free.
Azerbaijan spent more of its government revenues on education in 2005 than neighboring Armenia, according to a European Commission report from September 2011. Four years later, that percentage dropped from nearly 20 to 9 percent, falling behind Armenia’s 15 percent.
REFORMING A ‘FREE’ EDUCATION
At the same time, parents have lost faith in public classroom instruction, despite government efforts to modernize education. The passive learning practiced in Soviet-era schools has been replaced by a more interactive approach, with students discussing what they have learned and teachers encouraged to stimulate creativity.
Elvin Rustamov, an Education Ministry project director, said the modern curriculum, introduced for first-graders in 2008, offers broader chances to develop students’ capabilities. “Teachers are required to be more creative; certain textbooks are recommended, but they are free to choose their own online sources,” he said. “Teachers were led to destinations via certain roads before, but now only the destinations are declared, and [teachers] are to find roads leading there.”
Despite that new freedom, Rustamov said, teachers seem mired in the past. “Our teachers are simply not used to choosing teaching methods independently,” he said. Others, however, see a different problem at work.
One teacher who moonlights as a tutor said some government schools profit from the tutoring business. The tutor-teacher said officials of some schools take bribes to report students in attendance when they are actually elsewhere, receiving outside tutoring.
High-level government officials admit that the demand for tutoring – and the attendant irregularities – are a drag on the nation’s education system.
“Tutoring is a major obstacle in development of Azerbaijan’s education system and shadows public schools’ activity,” Education Minister Misir Mardanov said in September, before the academic year started. “Most people think one cannot get a credible education without tutors.”
Mardanov warned several months ago that the government would take action against abuses such as phony transfers and doctored attendance records.
LOW PAY, LOW PERFORMANCE
Getting more out of teachers seems to work perfectly well if they’re getting paid more money, according to parents and teachers. After working their standard government 24-hour week, many teachers then begin teaching their paying customers in earnest. Education officials are divided on this, with some encouraging higher government salaries and others saying that teacher pay is sufficient.
Consider the salary of the 7-year-old’s mother, Gulnara. Taking home 275 manats a month, she would likely make less money teaching than she does cleaning offices. The government pays teachers between 150 and 350 manats per month, a fraction of the 2,000 manats that successful tutors reportedly make.
Then consider Adil, who, as a physical education teacher, can’t offer the kind of tutoring paying clients demand. So to supplement his meagre government teacher’s pay, he says he commutes several kilometers from his home after school and on days off to move stock in a supermarket.
Critics say the lagging pay lowers government teachers’ enthusiasm and thus their performance, leaving untutored students at a disadvantage.
'TEACHERS SHOULD NOT COMPLAIN'
Others blame the way higher education admission tests are written, with questions so complicated that expensive tutoring is required to prepare test-takers.
In 2011, the most recent study of admission test success by the State Commission for Admission of Students showed that fewer than 29 percent of secondary school graduates passed. In the wake of these findings, the commission took the unprecedented step of lowering the points needed to pass the test by 25 percent.
In spite of the stark numbers, Education Minister Mardanov said teachers are adequately compensated, and he criticized those who spend their off-hours tutoring instead of boning up on the curriculum.
“When teachers’ salary is discussed, critics refer to the fact that some teachers earn 1,500 to 2,000 manats from tutoring. How does it happen while a teacher cannot teach more than 24 hours a week? Then such teachers should not complain of low salaries,” he told journalists in mid-November.
Until the “major obstacle,” as the minister put it, of a shadow education system is addressed, parents appear willing to demonstrate their dissatisfaction with public schools with their cash, paid to teachers who regularly demonstrate their capacity to educate for the right price.