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Not Ready for High School

Armenia’s new college-prep curriculum produces its first graduates this year, but it’s far from realizing its potential.

by Anna Muradyan 7 February 2014

When Byurakn Ishkhanyan was about 13, her mother decided that one day she would become a cardiologist “because being a doctor was not only respected, but also it’s also assumed that doctors are well paid.”

 

It was not Ishkhanyan’s first choice – she would have favored biology – but even in this pursuit she felt thwarted.

 

A secondary school class in Teghut village, about 60 miles north of Yerevan. Photo by Anna Muradyan.

 

“My teachers said I didn’t have what it takes to get into medical school, that I couldn’t do it. But I didn’t listen to them,” says Ishkhanyan, who eventually settled on psychiatry.

 

Ishkhanyan says she spent too much time studying subjects she would not need after secondary school, so she hired private tutors to help her bone up on subjects that would help her get into her preferred university.

 

Partly from experiences like Ishkhanyan’s, with schools ill-equipped to prepare students for university or to help them focus on a career path – and partly in an attempt to align the country with international norms – Armenia set out to revamp its educational system almost a decade ago. The first step was in 2006, when public schooling was extended from 10 to 12 years.

 

Then in 2010 Armenia introduced high schools, designed to let students specialize in a college-preparatory curriculum and to offer an alternative to regular secondary or technical schools. But as those high schools prepare to graduate their first class this year, they are getting failing marks from many.

 

The problem, critics say, is that a good idea has been left to wither for want of resources. The country lacks the necessary infrastructure and skilled teachers to make the high schools work, while an open-admission policy ensures that the skill level of their bloated student population differs little from that in regular secondary schools.

 

Anahit Bakhshyan, deputy director of the National Institute of Education, a government agency that focuses on teachers’ professional development and the improvement of textbooks, said the government drew up a strong strategy for reform, but it remains unrealized.

 

“If the foundation of the building is crooked, you won’t get quality after it is built,” she said.

 

The foundations are shaky, literally, in some of Armenia’s old and neglected schools, making them unsuitable for the kind of laboratory and technical infrastructure that a college-preparatory curriculum requires. A report by the Open Society Foundations last year noted “a disparity between the demands of the reforms taking place and the present state of the schools.”

 

“You can’t teach an 18-year-old in a Soviet-era building,” said Serob Khachatryan, an adviser on education for the OSF in Armenia. “It turns out we’ve been borrowing models from the outside and projecting them onto our reality, while we need our own educational model.”

 

Armenia’s Education and Science Ministry has a budget of more than 128 billion drams ($313 million), or about 9.5 percent of the total government budget. More than 15 billion drams was set aside for construction and maintenance this year.

 

Operationally, Khachatryan is especially critical of pressure on teachers to finish a new “educational program” by year’s end regardless of whether students are following along. He said data provided by high-school teachers show that 70 percent of pupils have fallen behind.

 

“Of course, this isn’t only specific to high schools – secondary schools also have this problem – but in high schools, it’s felt more sharply,” he said, as the problem only gets worse each year it is not addressed.

 

Robert Petrosyan is a 12th-grader in a high school in Dilijan, a resort town about 100 kilometers (60 miles) northeast of Yerevan, who pays a private tutor 50,000 drams a month for help in English, Armenian, and jurisprudence. “It’s impossible to get enough knowledge during 45 minutes in a class where there are 30 pupils,” Petrosyan said. “It doesn’t matter whether I’m in high school or secondary school, I would have to get private tutoring either way,” he said.  

 

Petrosyan said the textbook for his English class has stayed in a drawer all year, as it doesn’t align with the country’s university entrance exams.

 

SAME OLD TEACHERS

 

High-school teachers earn 20 percent more than their colleagues in regular secondary schools – teachers in public basic and secondary schools make about 70,000 drams ($170) per month for a 16- to 17-hour weekly work load. Due to a relatively small student population, few teachers work full time.

 

But the best teachers tend to head for private schools, which pay on average triple the public school wage. In public schools, then, there has been no significant shift in the teacher corps since the introduction of high schools.    

 

One teacher in a Dilijan secondary school who spoke on condition of anonymity said she and her co-workers expected that there would be a test for those wishing to teach in high schools, but no testing has been performed by the Education Ministry. “Many teachers wouldn’t pass and it would become obvious that teachers who have taught in that school for 30 years don’t meet the standards,” the teacher said.

 

Bakhshyan, the education expert, said finding the right teachers, which she said the Education Ministry had failed to do, was fundamental to making high schools work.

 

For her part, Narine Hovhannisyan, head of the Education Ministry’s department of public education, said the existing teachers had done nothing to merit being fired, “but there were many teachers who volunteered to leave, accepting the fact that they couldn’t teach with that program.”

 

Armenia’s high schools, like the country’s traditional secondary schools, are open to any student who has finished ninth grade. As a result students of differing abilities are grouped together, somewhat defeating their college-prep mission.

 

In addition, high schools tend to be more crowded, with an average of 439 students in each of the country’s high schools, versus 225 students on average in a secondary school.

 

Hovhannisyan said education officials can hardly tell a student to go to a regular secondary school instead of a high school, but she said students do some sorting on their own. “There are many children who know that it’s not easy to learn at high schools and they go to technical colleges, after which they can go to universities.”  

 

Armine Hayrapetyan, a 12th-grader at a secondary school in the village of Haghartsin, is one of those students who gave high school a miss – but not because of the more stringent requirements. She said the nearest high school is more crowded and she has heard that teachers are not able to control the students.

 

Hovhannisyan acknowledged that the larger high schools, with three or four additional classes of students, had had such teething problems but said they have been largely overcome, partly through the involvement of police officers in schools.

 

Of nearly 900 public secondary schools in Armenia, only 110 are high schools, and they tend to be concentrated in urban areas, their numbers restricted by a lack of funds to buy the first-rate equipment required by high schools, Hovhannisyan said.

 

As a result, “the [education] gap between city and village has gotten wider,” Khachatryan said, in a country already feeling that divide acutely.

 

The district that includes Dilijan, for example, has 81 public schools, but all four of its high schools are in towns. Twelve of the district’s villages have basic schools, which provide only a nine-year education.

 

Hovhannisyan said any village with a primary school will have a secondary or high school in the next village or town. But rural students are cut off from urban schools by the cost of transport, which some local governments do not provide, and even village schools can be difficult to reach for those living in the country’s remote mountainous reaches.

 

In the village of Teghut, none of the teenagers travels to Dilijan, the nearest town, to attend high school. Instead, they attend the village secondary school.

 

Sona Harutyunyan, a geography teacher in Teghut, said if there were no secondary school in the village, only five or six of the school’s 16 high-school-age students would be able to enroll at the school in Dilijan.

 

Hovhannisyan remains a defender of the high schools. She said the time for complaining is past and the schools are “on their way to accomplishment.” The next step is to get them there, she said.
Anna Muradyan is a journalist at medialab.am
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