Prep school row not prepping Turkey for better future

Prep school row not prepping Turkey for better future

I chose not to write about the row between Islamic cleric Fetullah Gülen’s movement and Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan over the latter’s desire to shut down prep schools for university entrance exams, one quarter of which are close to the Gülen movement.

As is usually the case in Turkey, the ensuing discussion turned into one of ideologies and conspiracy theories, whereas the real, important analytical questions were left out. That changed on Friday when the Education Reform Initiative (ERI), a think tank established by Sabancı University, released a short note summarizing the existing empirical research on prep schools.

The few studies all agree that going to a prep school increases the chances of earning a place in a university, but the effect does not seem to be linear. One study finds that spending less than 3,400 liras on a prep school does not help. Another paper shows that attending one for more than 100 hours per year has limited marginal impact.

But what determines attending a prep school? While kids with richer or more educated parents are more likely to enroll in one, the strongest determining factor seems to be the student’s academic performance in high school. These results are intuitive.

The impact on equality is less clear-cut. For one thing, prep schools are not distributed evenly across the country. While only 8 percent of high school students in Hakkari go to prep schools, 55 percent do so in Van. You could argue that this imbalanced distribution enforces inequality, but students from poor families are significantly benefiting from prep schools.

If the impact of prep schools on educational inequality is uncertain, I am pretty much sure that Turkish education is unequal without them. As I argued in my September 9 column based on another ERI report, there is a huge inequality in Turkish students’ performance in international assessments of math and science knowledge, even at the pre-prep school level.

Similarly, the country ranks at the bottom of OECD’s PISA exams for 15-year-olds. And while English proficiency improved in Turkey more than in any other country during the last six years, according to a recent report by EF Education First language centers, the country ranks 41st out of 60 countries. All this is very worrying, especially because studies have found that Turkish growth suffers from low productivity, with human capital being the binding constraint.

Like it or not, prep schools have become a necessity in a malfunctioning education system. Even Justice and Development Party deputy (and ex-footballer) Hakan Şükür, a known Gülenist not known for his wits, correctly argues that shutting down prep schools without eliminating the need for them would result in chaos.

It would not be the first time, but as ERI’s director Batuhan Aydagül notes “it is somehow possible to buy your way out of this chaos.” Incidentally, Erdoğan is against prep schools because they put a disproportionate burden on poorer households. Go figure!