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Education policy maven Rick Hess of the American Enterprise Institute think tank offers straight talk on matters of policy, politics, research, and reform.

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A Few More Thoughts on Georgian School Reform

By Rick Hess — July 02, 2010 2 min read

Today, I want to just offer a few more thoughts spurred by time in Georgia. First, the movers and shakers are young. Key ministry personnel are seemingly all twenty- and thirty-somethings. As one observer commented to me, “Anyone over fifty has a hard time keeping up, just because of the cultural shift from the Soviets. Everyone in power is young.” More interesting is the degree to which they voice views that would be anathema in U.S. educational circles. Respected, highly influential, former ministry officials who are now at Tbilisi’s major university routinely discuss the advantages of a free market in professional development, the virtues of school choice, and the importance of incentives. It’s amusing, given that several spent time at Teachers College or the Harvard Graduate School of Education through international exchange programs. I can only imagine how so many of the ideological tropes voiced by TC and Harvard Ed professors must have struck young reformers who see markets as a healthy corrective to nearly a century of Soviet oppression.

Second, policy can change frequently and abruptly depending on who is currently serving as the Minister of Education and Science (they’re averaging better than one a year of late) and on the government’s desire to slake favor with teachers and parents in advance of elections. In particular, the libertarian instincts that are fueling so much of the government’s agenda are beating a haphazard retreat in education, where decentralized authority, local control over principal selection, and a novel strategy for allowing teachers to select their own professional development in an open market are being reversed by the current minister. The reversal is especially jarring if you consider that just last week Saakashvili said, "[Our broad reform agenda] has been achieved despite great public opposition, but we never set out to be popular.” It’s not hard to understand this shift, though, if you consider that the government is more concerned about Russian invasion, NATO admission, and economic liberalization than about schooling. In a nation with urgent concerns about self-preservation, it’s easy for the governing party to settle for a minister who is doing what he can to keep education from being a distraction.

And third, while it’s clear this broad reversal is currently underway, it’s not entirely clear what national policy actually is at the moment. On the one hand, this is a common frustration (e.g. in the U.S., ask a superintendent what “supplement and supplant” specifically requires), but it is made particularly challenging by conflicting translations and newspaper accounts. For instance, while exploring means to clarify director authority over staffing and then hold directors accountable for their decisions, it was announced that part-time faculty either would or would not be dismissed. It was also announced that directors either would or would not be required to equally allocate instructional hours to faculty in each subject without regard to skill or performance. The “would or would not” depended on who one spoke to and which news account one read or heard. This is what we call a suboptimal environment for forging coherent policy.

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