Uneven OpportunitiesIn Education System Impede Big Work Force
By WILLIAM ECHIKSON WSJ January 24, 2007
ISTANBUL -- The 41 blue-uniformed 8-year-olds in third-grade math class at the Capa Ataturk Primary School are on the front line of one of Turkey's most important battles: improving its unequal, underperforming education system.
Turkey is last or next to last in almost all rankings of educational achievement by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, whose members include most of the developed countries of Western Europe, Asia and the U.S. Its average math, reading and science level is 60 points under the OECD average and almost 120 points below the leader, Finland. Only 40% of Turkish youth have a high-school diploma, compared with the European Union average of 85%.
"We have the largest working population in Europe but also the worst educated," says Neyyir Berktay, coordinator of the Education Reform Initiative, a nongovernmental think tank. "Unless we radically improve the educational and skill set of the population, there's no way we would be competitive, or ready to join the EU."
While membership in the EU may be more than a decade away, experts say fast-growing, Westernizing Turkey must improve its schools if it wants to take the next step up the development ladder and remain attractive to foreign investors. Turkey's economy has grown an average of 7.7% for the past three years, and foreign investment jumped to an estimated $17.4 billion last year from $2.8 billion in 2004.
Experts say university-educated Turkish workers are as productive as their peers in Western Europe, but the mass of less educated workers, often employed in Turkey's "informal" economy, falls behind. As delegates at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, get set to discuss how to improve educational standards for the world's economy, Turkey offers an example of the promise of such initiatives but also the difficulties they often face in the developing world.
"Education is a common problem in developing countries, but the opportunity in Turkey is tantalizing because of remarkable progress made by the modern, well-educated side of its economy," says Rauf Gönenç, author of the OECD Turkey report. "If there is a better performance in education, the country could harvest a much broader, remarkable rise in living standards."
Turkey has made some progress over the past decade. Instead of five years, the law now requires free eight-year compulsory basic education. One million more students are in school this year compared with 1997, an increase of 5%. A new curriculum replacing memorization with active learning was introduced last year.
Critically, educational investment by companies has been made tax-deductible, allowing the private sector to fund 14,000 additional classrooms in the past two years, adding almost 25% to the country's classroom capacity. New, high-level private universities, including Sabanci University and Bilkent University in Ankara, funded by corporate leaders have been established.
While these elite English-speaking universities are considered without parallel in the Islamic word, some worry they consume a disproportionate amount of spending and perpetuate an unequal educational system. Turkish public spending on education is below the OECD average, but private spending on tuition and private schools pushes total educational spending to 7% of gross domestic product, behind only Denmark and the U.S.
"While at the top our education system resembles Yale, the vast majority of our universities are like junior colleges in the backwoods," says Deniz Gokce, an economics teacher at Istanbul's Bosphorus University who previously taught at Emory University in Atlanta. "We need a much more equitable system."
A particular problem is female education. One out of five adult women in Turkey is illiterate and one in 10 girls doesn't attend compulsory primary school, according to a World Bank study. The poor performance of girls is a major reason why a small portion of Turkey's overall population enters the formal work force. While three-quarters of women with higher education hold jobs, only about a fifth of those with no or minimal education does, the OECD estimates.
In response, the government has launched a campaign, "Girls! Let's Go To School," focusing on the impoverished eastern part of Turkey, where the problem is worst. Dogan Group's newspaper Milliyet has built 20 dormitories in last 18 months, allowing 5,400 girls from the east to go to high school.
Another private-sector program is phone operator Turkcell AS's "Snowdrops." Since 2000, Turkcell has given high-school scholarships to 12,000 girls, "snowdrops," almost all from the impoverished East. Some now work in the company's call centers, while others are studying at university.
"Even if school is free, you have to pay for uniforms and school materials and transport," says Lale Saral Develioglu, the Turkcell marketing manager who runs the program. "In rural areas, that means that for families with eight, even 10 children, not all can go to high school. If fathers have to choose, they educate their boys and the girls stay home to help with the housework."
Some progress is visible at the Capa Ataturk Primary School in Istanbul. Half of the 10-year-olds are girls. The school boasts a brand-new theater with 250 seats and two just-finished computer rooms, each with 18 computers.
But many resources are stretched or lacking. Limiting enrollment to 41 per class requires logistical gymnastics for school principal Kenan Kirali. Half the students arrive in the morning, the other half in the afternoon.
"I've visited schools over Europe and even in the worst of these countries, Bulgaria, classrooms cannot have more than 30 students," Mr. Kirali laments. "Our government is spending much more on education -- look at all my new classrooms and all my students get free textbooks. But you just can't teach 40 children at the same time."
The OECD urges increasing spending on nursery schools. Only about 20% of Turkish children attend, compared with 70% in Scandinavia. Vocational schools must also be upgraded and spending increases targeted at the eastern part of the country, at the expense of the richer west, the OECD said.
While the country's moderate Islamic government accepts these recommendations, the debate on education often focuses on another issue -- the role of religion in school. Turkish law bans schoolgirls from wearing traditional Islamic headscarves and limits religious education. Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan came to power pledging to end the headscarf ban and promote religious schools called Imam Hatip schools, which have become popular among families seeking a more traditional religious education.
But Turkey's secular president and army have blocked his initiatives, and grades at Islamic schools receive less weight than from secular schools when applying to university. As a result, enrollment in the Iman Hatip schools has fallen to 100,000 from 185,000 a decade ago.