By the fall of 2016, Kazakhstan appeared to have gained momentum in the international educational arena. For the first time, the country’s students earned an international top-10 by performance in math and science, according to the Trends in Mathematics and Science Study (TIMSS). Kazakh eighth-graders demonstrated ability and knowledge comparable to their peers from countries like Russia, Canada, and Ireland, ranking higher than England, the United States, and Australia, with the latter very disappointed by this fact.
This was a great achievement for Kazakhstan and an indicator of a rising quality of education on the national scale. Yet, when disaggregated by region, language, or place of living, the data from TIMSS and other large-scale assessments reveal something not so glamorous.
There is a learning gap of several years in students’ knowledge and skills between the regions of Kazakhstan. According to the results of the OECD’s Program for International Students Assessment (PISA) administered in 2015, 15-year-olds in the Western (Atyrau, Mangystau oblasts) and South Kazakhstan regions are at least two years behind their peers in Almaty city in reading, math, and science. Half of the 15-year-olds in Atyrau oblast are functionally illiterate in science and over 50 percent of students in South Kazakhstan and Mangystau oblasts are functionally illiterate in reading — meaning they did not pass the first level of difficulty.
The same year’s results for TIMSS confirm this staggering gap in secondary education. Applying the World Bank’s learning-adjusted years of schooling (LAYS) measure lets us estimate that fourth- and eighth-graders in Almaty and Mangystau oblasts, by their graduation from school, will only have achieved knowledge equal approximately to eight-and-a-half to nine years of schooling, lagging behind by two to two-and-a-half years from their peers living in Almaty city, the highest-performing region in Kazakhstan.
This seems like an unacceptable result for a unitary state that is committed to quality education of all its citizens.
The main problem with current policy on this issue is that there is virtually none. Although concerns were voiced by some officials, and the issue of inequality in educational opportunity is regularly brought up in national reports on education, there is still no specific initiative in place targeting disadvantaged schools and children in these regions.
Meanwhile, drastic differences in both quality of life and quality of education in these regions call for a more specific approach. Twenty-one percent of the country’s school population live in the “losing”former South Kazakhstan oblast alone (now the city of Shymkent and Turkestan oblast) — compared to only 4 percent of students living in the oil-producing Mangystau oblast in the west.
The negative implications of such disparity in the quality of education are hard to underestimate. That to succeed in life one needs a good education is a no-brainer. In fact, education is a key indicator in all major human development indexes. Research also shows that education is the single most important factor in a country’s regional development. The fact that hundreds of thousands of Kazakhstani school students are not receiving a good enough education to successfully compete in the labor markets of the future will harm the national economy as well.
As Natalie Koch and Kristopher D. White pointed out in a 2016 article, Kazakhstan’s citizens consider its southern and western regions the “least desirable” to live in, with the lack of economic opportunity cited as the most important reason. Yet, there is also a certain degree of social marginalization taking place, with “southerners” being perceived as “aggressive,” “uncivilized,” and “unintelligent.”
The regions in questions are also sadly known in Kazakhstan for a “tradition” of “bride theft,” which often happens against a young woman’s wishes and can lead to tragic consequences. These are also regions with frequent cases of early marriage, with women seen as only housewives, thus not taking part in any education or work.
To at least reduce educational inequality in Kazakhstan, there needs to be a firm understanding of what causes it. There is a need for country-wide research on the reasons of regional underperformance and factors influencing student achievement.
Kazakhstan also needs to introduce human capital development programs specific to every region. The long-standing unified approach to educational planning apparently does not bring much positive change in this regard.
In the meantime, there are some concrete steps that can be taken; for example, opening public study facilities in disadvantaged neighborhoods to compensate for low family socioeconomic status. Another step could be applying positive discrimination in terms of providing financing to rural Kazakh schools.
That something needs to be done is not a question. The question is whether we are going to wait another decade to finally act. No child should be deprived of future social or economic benefits just because they were not born in the “right” place. Children in Kazakhstan deserve better.
Aigerim Kopeyeva holds a Masters in Education Management from King’s College London. She is a visiting fellow at George Washington University’s Central Asia Program.