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Testing the Teachers

Are Georgia’s educators really as bad as their shockingly high exam-failure rate suggests? A TOL special report. by Molly Corso 30 October 2013

TBILISI | For three years Georgian teachers have failed to make the grade in state certification tests. While teachers have lambasted the exams as unfair and ineffectual, educators and policy makers warn the consistent low marks underscore fundamental problems in the country’s school system.

 

In August, about 60 percent of the Georgian teachers who took them failed assessment exams on teaching skills – and received even lower scores on specialized subject tests like math, science, and social studies.

 

Natia Chichieshvili, a guard at a Tbilisi school, greets students between classes. Georgia’s schools are grappling with the fact that teachers are having difficulty passing the country’s voluntary certification exams. Photo by Molly Corso.

 

The annual tests of skills and teaching theory, which use a mixture of multiple choice and essay questions, are part of the Georgian government’s education reform strategy. While teachers are not obligated to take the exams until 2014, over the past three years thousands have volunteered in the hopes of receiving a passing grade, and the higher salary that goes with it. Once they have passed the exam, teachers are certified for eight years.

 

But year after year, thousands of Georgian teachers have failed.

 

The scores were bad across the board this year, but they were worst in physics (a 96 percent failure rate) and social studies (83 percent). But Ivane Mindadze, a deputy director of the National Examinations Center, said the results are not as dire as they appear to be. He said that test scores – like any statistics – are open to interpretation.

 

For example, he pointed out that while 91 percent failed the chemistry exam, the test takers represent just a small fraction of the country’s 3,000 chemistry teachers.

 

“If you look at the numbers … you will say, ‘Oh it is terrible, just 10 percent are good teachers and 90 percent are bad teachers.’ I don’t think that is quite true,” he said.

 

Mindadze said only 1,200 – 40 percent – the country’s chemistry teachers had taken the exams in the past three years, and half of those had failed.


The exams, based on examples given to TOL, appeared thorough, although not particularly difficult. English teachers, for example, were tested on reading comprehension, grammar, and writing skills. In addition to spotting mistakes in tense and word usage in text, they were expected to write a 180- to 230-word essay on the merits of a two-exam teacher certification process.

 

Of the country’s 65,000 teachers, however, just 14,000 have passed the exams to date.

 

Ia, an English teacher at a private school in Tbilisi, dismissed the exams – and the low scores – as ineffective ways to measure quality in the classroom.

 

A piece of paper does not change a teacher’s ability, said Ia, who asked to be identified only by her first name. “I know several certified teachers who are still not good teachers,” she said.

 

International exams, such as the Teaching Knowledge Test for English language teachers, are a better benchmark for assessing a teacher’s ability than a theoretical state exam, Ia said. She added that “teachers need experience,” and more opportunities to learn their craft and the see modern teaching methods in practice – the sort of opportunities that teacher exchange programs, for example, typically provide.

 

 

Simple answers about practices abroad, such as how much homework teachers in Britain or the United States assign, could help Georgian teachers be more effective in the classroom, Ia said.

 

Administrators like Amiran Jamagidze, head of the prestigious First School in Tbilisi, have also questioned the legitimacy of the exams as a pure indicator of quality in the classroom.

 

“There are certified teachers who have passed both exams – theoretical and practical – but still cannot manage to run a good class,” he said.

 

Jamagidze, a school principal for four years, said a “third” type of assessment that includes feedback from the school and evaluation of classroom performance would be a more meaningful measure.

 

“School has a big role, especially the school administration, in improving teachers’ ability, …” he said. “Schools need to give teachers the chance to develop professionally, and schools need to assess teachers’ development level.”

 

Tea Kvintradze, deputy director of the National Center for Teacher Professional Development, agreed that the certification process needs to stress professional development over simple test scores.

 

“We don’t think certification is a top achievement of a teacher; we think that teachers have to grow professionally, work on their professional skills continuously. We have to create a system which helps them to do that – which stimulates them to do that,” she said.

 

“If you create a system which motivates them to develop professionally and deliver better classes – that is our objective. We don’t need certified teachers; we need better educated pupils. That is where we are heading to.”

 

Mindadze, of the National Examinations Center, said discussions are under way about more flexible qualification criteria, including allowing teachers to accrue points toward certification in multiple ways, such as publishing a textbook, attending internationally recognized trainings, and, of course, passing the exams.

 

There have not been any studies that tie the low test scores to pupils’ performance in the classroom, noted Magda Nutsa Kobakhidze, a doctoral candidate in education at the University of Hong Kong who has researched the exam process.

 

In fact, Georgian students’ scores, while still below the international average, have largely improved on international tests like Progress in International Reading Literacy Study (PIRLS) and Trends in International Mathematics and Science.

 

The public outcry over the poor certification scores, however, has put teachers on the defensive.

 

“The news in media, that teachers scored poorly, humiliated many current teachers, which may negatively affect their attitude and motivation to teach at schools,” Kobakhidze said in an email interview from Hong Kong.

 

The tests, which are based on the curriculum taught in schools, were also open this year to teachers with no classroom experience; their scores were not separately tabulated and might have “skewed” the overall results, Kobakhidze said.

 

Still, for the 559,400 boys and girls registered in Georgian public schools, even the perception of low teacher test scores is chipping away at the trust parents have in the education system – and the perceived value of a Georgian diploma.

 

The issue of underqualified teachers is just one in a litany of perceived obstacles to getting a good education here.

 

While Georgian pupils are scoring higher on PIRLS and other tests, the reality of overcrowded classrooms, decrepit infrastructure, and the lingering legacy of inefficient Soviet-era teaching methods are pushing parents to pay for their children’s education – either in private schools or with private tutors, a service widely available in urban areas but less prevalent in villages.

 

Over the past 13 years, enrollment in private schools has skyrocketed, from 12,137 pupils in the 2000-2001 school year to 52,756 in 2011-2012, the latest year for which data are available.

 

Private schools, eager to distance themselves from the waves of teachers failing the certification exams, have started posting their own instructors’ test results on websites such as www.skolebi.com. On 16 October, one school proudly displayed a row of near perfect scores from teachers on subjects ranging from geography to physics.

 

The gap in the quality of education is disturbing, noted Tamar Mosiashvili, a former teacher and policy maker who now serves as the ‎education program manager at the Civic Development Institute in Tbilisi.

 

While the teachers’ exam is not a “valuable” indicator of the quality of education in classrooms, she said, regional disparities in scores on international tests like PIRLS are revealing – and troubling.

 

“We have a problem: students in the capital city and other cities had higher results than students from villages. And the difference between students is 40 [points on the tests]. As an example, in Finland, the difference is only eight,” Mosiashvili said.

 

Kobakhidze said the spread is even wider between private and public schools: on the reading test’s scale of 1,000, Georgian public schoolchildren scored an average 482.97 points, while their counterparts in private school averaged 542.81.

 

The poor teacher exam scores, disparities in student performance, and public education’s falling popularity are all part of one vicious circle, Mosiashvili said.

 

“I think if Georgia wants to improve this situation in education, we have to start new reforms” – of university programs, certification exams, and teacher development, she said. “High school students who have high academic performance … do not want to become teachers. This is a great problem.”

 

To fix that problem, Mosiashvili said the government should show that it values teachers and knows how to attract good ones, starting with raising their salaries.

 

Kvintradze said the National Center for Teacher Professional Development, also known as the Teachers’ House, is working nationwide to improve instructors’ skills. It has introduced a mentoring program to help first-year teachers and is rolling out month-long trainings, bringing the sessions to teachers in rural areas based on demand.

 

The low level of interest in the teaching profession, she agreed, often comes down to salaries. Monthly pay for Georgian public school teachers ranges from 355 to 1,000 lari ($213 to $600).

 

“If the salaries are increased and they are more or less adequate, then the best and the brightest will wish to go to the schools,” she said. “[T]he salaries have increased during the past few years and just recently, but it is not as high as comparable to other jobs."

 

But Jamagidze, the school principal, said the issue is not just about money. Georgians’ view of teachers – that they are generally unsuccessful and pitiable people – has to change, he said.

 

“Now teachers need to be seen as respectable members of society, and the government needs to create a policy for this,” he said. “This [attitude] really affects the education that children receive.”

Molly Corso is a freelance journalist and photographer in Tbilisi. She is a frequent contributor to EurasiaNet.org and Business New Europe
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