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Ex-prison chief in charge of schools

Tuesday, December 21, 2010

By Sopho Bukia

Institute for War & Peace Reporting

TBILISI, Georgia

Given the level of concern some American have expressed over the performance of the nation’s public schools, some might want to follow the lead of the Republic of Georgia by putting the former chief of that nation’s prison system in charge of the country’s schools.

In a move he said was intended to drive up students’ performance, Education Minister Dmitri Shashkin has ordered the installation of hidden cameras in classrooms to keep an eye on students, and teachers as well.

Since he was appointed a year ago, he has restricted the autonomy of school governors and educational resource centers, and increased the powers of his ministry.

Shashkin has been critical of the old system, arguing that it was “too liberal.” At a conference earlier this month discussing the progress made this year, he said, “A teacher told me once that school is like a jungle. Happily, we’ve managed to get out of the jungle.”

The tighter rules being introduced mean pupils who miss classes will have to clean playgrounds, while repeat offenders will be sent to a special boarding school in the west of the country.

Dancing lessons

And starting in September 2011, patriotism will be introduced as part of the curriculum, while compulsory dancing lessons will start in January for some schools. Both are part of an attempt to foster a greater sense of Georgian identity in the youth.

And to ensure rules are being followed, schools in Tbilisi and elsewhere will be monitored by hidden cameras, and also by teams of observers deployed to watch how things are being run.

The government has shown that it intends to apply the old saying “Spare the rod, spoil the child” to teachers and school administrators, firing eight principals for failing to respond aggressively enough to quash a student protest.

Even President Mikhail Saakashvili got involved in the controversy, calling the protesting students a “revolution of dunces.” It was Saakashvili who created the decentralized system of autonomous schools after coming to power in 2003.

The policy reversal seems to have been sparked by massive protests in November 2007, after the president called early elections to head off challenges to his rule.

Popular measures

Ahead of the election, Saakashvili courted teachers with promises to abolish compulsory testing for staff, to change the system for appointing principals, and to provide better pay, holidays and social benefits for teachers. These proved popular measures, although not all were delivered.

Georgia’s education leadership seems to have decided now that the stick might be more effective than the carrot.

Sopho Bukia is a reporter who writes for The Institute for War & Peace Reporting, a nonprofit organization in London that trains journalists in areas of conflict. Distributed by McClatchy-Tribune.