Issue 6, 2015. December-January

   

Georgian Education: Turning the Clock Forward

Georgian parents are increasingly turning to private schools and tutors to fill the gap left by public education. Georgian teachers, education specialists and even entrepreneurs believe new methods for teaching and learning are necessary to reboot the country's education system.

Joseph Larsen

Each week, hundreds of people come through the doors of Nata Buachidze's Studio in Mtatsminda. Children and adults come after school, in the evenings and on Saturdays. They come to take courses like English Language, Photography, Art History and Book Illustration. They come to receive instruction in English, Georgian and Russian. Regardless of the subject or language of instruction, creativity is the top priority. "We are all experimenting together," says Buachidze, an artist who opened the school in 1999.

Creating an alternative

Buachidze began teaching 16 years ago when a few students needed an art teacher. People were looking for something they couldn't find in public schools. "In the 1990s, the education system was falling apart," she recalls. "Our school was an alternative to what people knew." What began with three pupils swelled to 14 by the end of the school's first year. Now, Buachidze's school counts more than 300 students.

Her school is one of a growing number of private outfits injecting innovation into Georgia's education sector. According to The National Statistics Office of Georgia, there are currently 246 private general education schools in Georgia -- roughly 10.6 percent of the country's total. Of 553,945 general education students, 53,600 are enrolled in private schools. That represents a 60.4 percent increase from the 2005-2006 school year, even as overall general education enrollment fell by 20.2 percent over the same period. And these figures don't include schools like Buachidze's, which supplement rather than replace general education. In exchange for an enrollment fee (an amount she calls "moderate") students receive instruction on top of what they get in school.

Ideology "From Another Century"

Private schools are held in high esteem by many Georgian families. But for some, their popularity is less a reflection of effectiveness than an indictment of the public education system. In 2010, only 38 percent of Georgian 15-year-olds who took the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development's Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) attained proficient scores in literacy. Only 34 percent were proficient in science, and 31 percent in mathematics.

"The largest problem is that the [teaching] ideology is from another century," says Simon Janiashvili, a former schoolteacher who is now a PhD candidate at Columbia University in New York. Georgia's overall education culture is stagnant, with outdated methods and teachers ill-prepared for contemporary demands, he notes.
While certain private initiatives are doing impressive things, their overall impact on a country of 3.7 million is small. "You rarely see private schools do really different things from public schools," he says.

"Poorly" Conceived Reforms

Nutsa Kobakhidze, a PhD candidate in education at the University of Hong Kong, maintains that Georgia's educational failures are more about policy than culture."Soviet institutional legacy is a significant barrier to changing leadership and teaching style. However, poorly conceived and implemented reforms, as well as inadequate evaluation and policy adjustments have much powerful influence on what happens at schools," she says. While disagreeing about causes and solutions, nearly all observers agree that change is necessary. Since coming to power in 2012, the Georgian Dream coalition has increased spending on education every year. Central government spending on education was 739.7 GEL per student in 2014, according to statistics from the Ministry of Finance, a 13 percent increase from 2012. The results haven't been impressive, however. A 2014 report from the Geneva-based World Economic Forum ranked Georgia 95th out of 144 countries for quality of education. According to Kobakhidze, "A more fundamental problem than finances [is holding education back]."

Building Skills Through Logic

Kakha Kokhreidze isn't happy about the state of schooling in Georgia. "What the system is doing now is, unfortunately, wasting the time of the students," he says from his office in Saburtalo. He doesn't own or operate a school, but he does aspire to improve education quality. Kokhreidze is the founder of Logicmeter, a private initiative designed to prepare students for success in a knowledge-based economy. An entrepreneur by profession, he founded the company in 2014 to redress what he sees as the failures of the current system. This July, Logicmeter launched its flagship program: a web-based training module in which students build math and reading skills by working through logic games.

"Everybody needs critical thinking and logical reasoning," he says. These skills are especially important for Georgia, a developing country attempting to make the jump from an agriculture-based economy to one with dynamic technology and service sectors. For Kokhreidze, the ability to think outside the box is paramount."We need people who are open minded...It's necessary for the economic development of Georgia," he stated. For 15 GEL per month - minus discounts for buying an annual membership and for families with more than one student - users can access more than 300,000 interactive tasks. The module provides detailed feedback for each task, allowing users to track their progress and get extra help in problem areas.

Potential for a Better Future

Georgian education currently falls short of international standards. But both Buachidze and Kokhreidze view the future with optimism. "I think there are more and more schools that are doing a good job," Buachidze says.

When asked whether she sees potential for successful private initiatives to "spill over" into the public sector, she is unequivocal: "Of course there is potential."

And while Kokhreidze doesn't smile upon the current state of affairs, he is optimistic that his training module can help improve performance in public schools.

"We already have five schools working with Logicmeter," he proudly states.