The story of the Turkish education system
The Education Ministry announced on Sept. 19 that the national examination system for high school placement would be changed this year. The policy change would affect 1.2 million eighth grade students who had been preparing for the examinations for at least a year as well as their families, teachers and schools.
With so many stakeholders affected, the policy change excited public expressions of consternation and led to heated debates. Although the focus of the debates has been the exams and the placement criteria, these aspects are only the tip of the iceberg. The root problems of the Turkish education system, unfortunately, have gone unaddressed.
This is not unusual for Turkey. The high school placement system has been changed a total of five times in the last 20 years. At each turning point, the Education Ministry presents the same reasons: “To reduce the need for out-of-school resources, to prevent success in tests being the sole purpose for students, to prepare students for life and not for tests, to promote equity in high school placement, to increase extracurricular activity opportunities for students.”
However, none of the alterations to the system have resolved these matters. For decades, middle-school students in Turkey have been studying day and night for tests in order to be successful at the national examinations and get into a good high school. As the student population rose, exams became more competitive, leading students to register for out-of-school courses and withdraw from extracurricular activities. This puts a lot of pressure both on children and their parents. However, there should be a period when students try out new things, figure out their aspirations, and develop a sense of identity.
Between 1997 and 2008, a national exam was held at the end of eighth grade. The Education Ministry introduced a new system where three national exams were administered at the end of sixth, seventh and eighth grades. The aim was to relieve stress on students, who had only a single chance to succeed in the exam. However, under the new system, students seemed even more stressed than before, because now they had to prepare for the exam starting from the sixth grade. So the Education Ministry changed the system again and again.
This year the Education Ministry has changed the system yet again, citing similar motives. In the new system, students are to be placed in schools based on their home address. For high-quality, selective high schools there will be a single examination at the end of eighth grade. Any student who wishes to take the test can try their chance to get into a selective high-school. If not, they will be placed in a high school closest to their home. This is the fifth system change in the last 20 years.
Each time the system changes, how students are placed in high schools becomes the focus of heated debates in the media. Yet decades on, despite long and heated debates, the country is still stuck with the same problems.
The real issue is the quality of education at high schools in the country. Placing students in high schools is only the tip of the iceberg. There are very few high schools in the country that provide high-quality education to students. And as long as opportunity and access to high-quality education remains limited, the system will always be competitive, leading to permanently high stress levels for students and concerned parents.
The only way to solve this decades-long problems is to increase the quality of education in all high schools. So instead of changing the placement system every couple of years, the Education Ministry should devise long-term reform strategies to raise the education quality in all high schools. It is time to pay attention to what is beneath the iceberg instead of constantly discussing the tip. This would be a good start on a journey to a “magical solution.”
Didem Aksoy is a researcher at Education Reform Initiative.