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Uzbek education for all - or just the 1%?

Updated: Nov 20, 2022

“If you were given the space and resources to create the perfect school to develop our

country’s leaders for the 21st century – what would you do?” That was a question posed to us during an educational seminar in 1984 by my favorite Dartmouth professor and mentor, the late Faith Dunne. At the time I was about to embark on my student teaching adventure, working under master teacher Bonnie Lihatch learning the ins and outs of trying to build energy and interest in life science for 25 6th graders at Richmond Elementary School in Hanover, NH.

More than thirty years have now passed, each spent in some form or another working in schools with kids – I’ve taught a plethora of subjects including nearly every science, computers, and even Russian to students from Kindergarten to 12th grade in places as diverse as Kaktovik, Alaska, Washington, DC, Magadan, Russia and Punta Arenas, Chile. It’s been an incredible journey of opportunities, many of which have come about as a result of my minor in Russian language during those undergraduate days. Little did I know that those early morning hours spent on the lawn in

front of Dartmouth Hall enduring the relentless drilling on case endings of prepositions from my Rassias TA would be the foundation of a skill that has opened countless doors of opportunity. From coaching with the US Biathlon team since I could translate for their new Lithuanian coach to teaching in Rostov na Dony, USSR at the height of Gorbachev’s glastnost and perestroika, I find myself deeply appreciative of my liberal arts education in ways I would never have imagined.

Today I find myself in the ancient city of Khiva, Uzbekistan – a small oasis town in the northern desert that was first settled over a 1000 years ago as a stopping point for camel caravans as they traveled the Silk Road from China to Europe. I’m a Fulbright DAST Fellow, invited by the UZB Ministry of Education for six weeks in order to help the country achieve President Shavrat Mirziyoyev’s ambitious vision to overhaul their public education system.

My homebase is the Samarkand Regional Institute for Teacher Training, where five hundred teachers from all over the oblast spend one month every five years undergoing an intensive recertification program. My task is to introduce them to how our schools approach the STEAM subjects of science, technology, engineering, art and math. My school district in Burlington, Vermont generously agreed to grant leave from my usual task of guiding makerspace learning and innovation for Charlotte Central School and it’s been full steam ahead since late January when I first arrived in Tashkent.

But today is not my usual gathering of thirty teachers for a STEM seminar at the Institute,

instead I’ve accepted an invitation to work with students and teachers at the Khiva Presidential School. Much like Professor Dunne proposed to us three decades earlier, President Mirziyoyev has challenged the Uzbekistan Ministry of Education to design, build and open 12 brand new schools across the country – and in doing so jump start an

educational revolution in the country. From the initial decree in 2018, it was just over a year before the doors on this state of the art facility opened in December 2019. From more than 10,000 applications, an initial cohort of 144 students in grades 5-10 was selected to be part of the school. They draw from the entire Urghenst Oblast – coming from as far away as 100 km away to live and study in the school every Monday to Friday.

My host is Rychard Pasvkowski, an experienced International School Director from Winnepeg, Canada who came on board in August to help assure that the school was up and

running with a small staff of 8 international teachers to support the core curriculum of science, math, technology and English. These subjects are specifically taught fully in English which is possible even in 5th grade

since language ability was the primary factor in the admissions competition. In the hope of spreading both their knowledge of English and pedagogy, the international teachers

partner with another 15 Uzbek staff who are responsible for teaching the other 15 subjects built into the national curriculum. The core subjects follow the Cambridge curriculum which seems to be a really comprehensive project / activity based curriculum that also has what appears to be an excellent internet based set of teaching supports. The curriculum does provide comprehensive final exams, and assuring

success on these exams is clearly one of the highest priorities for everyone at the school. Despite wanting to embrace more progressive instruction like project based learning, the teachers are struggling to “get through the text” especially since they started the school year almost 4 months late and most of the material does not align well with what is covered in the Uzbek national curriculum.

As far as the facility goes, it might be the most beautiful public school I’ve ever been in, it’s clear from the moment you enter the wrought iron gates with granite posts that literally billions of som (aka millions of dollars) went into the project. The grounds feature the only sod grass I’ve seen anywhere in the country and there is a half-size turf soccer field, a

full outside basketball court and number outdoor study and relaxation spaces on the 2 acre campus. From the gold lettering highlighting President Mirziyoyev’s vision, you enter the front doors onto a beautiful open atrium with skylights, a combination marble staircase / stadium seating gathering area and class walled classrooms housing dozens of computer

and science laboratory stations. Every room has a 65 inch touch screen monitor with large whiteboards on either side and the rooms are decorated with colorful handpainted designs, slogans and information. Four students share what would definitely be considered four star hotel accommodations and there are similar single rooms for any teachers desiring to live on campus. There is a good sized gymnasium, an indoor pool, full dining room and every classroom is well designed and well lit.

There are only 144 students since the Ministry of Education also has set a strict class size limit of 12 students per class, that means in many classes the student / teacher ratio is 1:6. Students are also provided with a laptop computer, and the computer labs, which are available for student use anytime outside of class hours were equipped with the Chinese PC version of the Imac. During a week students will study 19 different subjects – all aligned with the Uzbek national curriculum with the exception of the Cambridge curriculum for math,

science, English and Information Technology. My little time with the kids – they beat on me pretty badly in ping pong all Sunday night and I taught 3 different classes on Monday – definitely made it clear that the school was full of high achieving, hard working young men and women.

As I drove away I was struck by a multitude of varying thoughts and opinions. On one hand it was really impressive to see what could be done in a very short time to create a school that has all the potential to create some of the best and brightest young minds in the world. But at the same time it felt so elitest, as I was heading back to Samarkand I wasn’t sure if I even wanted to share the reality that this school and it’s achievements was likely going to become the standard by which educational success is going to be judged in Uzbekistan. The teachers who I work with typically have

between 30 and 45 students in each of their classes and as far as materials go if they even want to give paper handouts to kids they are responsible to purchase the ream of paper out of their monthly $200 salary. Most schools were built in the Soviet era which makes them anywhere from 29 to more than 50 years old, and most have not aged well. One school we used for STEM studio moved their single

lcd projector and screen from room to room so that teachers could show a powerpoint and most have ancient chalkboards for instruction. I couldn’t help but wonder whether those millions might better serve the existing schools better than the elite 1% that will be able to attend.

Sitting here tonight, savoring the end of my nightly BBQ Burger milkshake, I think I’ve convinced myself that this is likely the best road – that the potential Presidential Schools

offer likely does exceed the downside that it creates by introducing deep inequity into the Uzbekistan public school system. I’ve slowly learned that my recommendations really carry great weight as I represent not only the US Dept of State but Fulbright which is looked on throughout the Middle East and Central Asia with great respect. So I’ll be talking directly with all of my Ministry of Education contacts about the need to be sure that these schools become centers for teacher training – places where teachers and trainers can come to have hands on experiences in how to integrate technology, use project based and proficiency based methodologies, and then can return to their home schools to adapt them and improve the education of students all over the country. As I talk with folks involved in education around the country there definitely is deep hope that these Presidential School will truly be the catalyst for broad educational innovation all over the country. Reminds me of the energy and optimism I felt the first time I met Christa McAuliffe, a NH teacher who had been selected by NASA to become their first ever “teacher in space.” Her words, “I touch the future, I teach” have been my mantra ever since and I truly hope that these school really do improve the future for all in Uzbekistan. Time will tell for sure.

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