15 policy recommendations for educational reform

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By Mrs. D.Oyunsuren, Managing Director of American School of Ulaanbaatar

It is well-timed to deliberate the reform of the education sector and amend the Law on Education and relevant policy documents in order to provide quality education for every child, create equal opportunities, and ensure education as guarantee of personal development, happy family life and the country’s development.

Over the past 15 years working in the education sector, I have learned from many local and international specialists and gained significant experience. To realistically contribute to the ongoing discussion for the education reform, I’m proposing the following 15 policy recommendations to the authorities.

What it means to provide general education to children:

In addition to imparting a broad scientific knowledge to children who are the future of Mongolia, the education sector aims to nurture right-minded individuals, help them socialize and become ethical, teach them to follow the rules and teachers’ instructions, as well as ensure they’re able to communicate openly and confidently, respect other’s opinions, carry themselves properly among peers. In the field of education, the process of developing a child as an individual is implemented in three stages by instilling the skills of good behavior, self-development, management and leadership, handling responsibility, making the right choices, and lifelong learning skills.

The most important stage is elementary education dedicated for children between the ages of 6 and 10. Then, elementary education for children aged 11 to 13, followed by secondary education for children aged 14 to 18. The better the foundation for a child’s development is set in elementary school, the better their foundation for personal development becomes in secondary school. A well-rounded child will be more likely to develop into a responsible and independent individual in high school. The process of helping a child transform into an individual through a school curriculum is called general education.

About American School of Ulaanbaatar:

The American School of Ulaanbaatar (ASU) is an internationally accredited private school with a curriculum adapted from the USA. Its vision is defined as “To be a community that encourages academic, physical, and creative development, fosters a passion for learning, and inspires intellectual curiosity”, while its mission is “to empower our students to acquire and embrace knowledge, be intellectually reflective, be caring and ethical citizens, and lead a lifetime of meaningful work. ASU prepares students through rigorous, student-driven academic and co-curricular programs to succeed in English speaking colleges and universities and to contribute to a rapidly changing global society”.

To realize our vision and mission, our 12-year general education curriculum and extracurricular activities organized at the school are aimed to help students become:

  1. 1. Keen learners;
  2. 2. Creative thinkers;
  3. 3. Socially active and involved individuals;
  4. 4. Excellent communicators;
  5. 5. Individuals who are self-motivated throughout their life;

Since our establishment, we have graduated over 250 students with these skills and prepared them for enrolment into international universities and colleges. Some of them have returned to their home country and are working in various fields to contribute to the national development, while others are now working at reputable international organizations and corporations.

15 recommendations for inclusion in the long-term strategy for 

Mongolia’s education sector

Recommendation 1: Establish a norm to use textbooks for 8-10 years.

It is necessary to set a standard on using textbooks for 8 to 10 years depending on the subject particularly for subjects with fixed theory such as algebra, geometry, chemistry, physics, mathematics, Mongolian grammar, ancient history of Mongolia, geography, world history and geography, social studies, foreign language grammar, health, human anatomy, computer, and business studies. This can significantly cut down the cost on changing and republishing textbooks each year. It is crucial to have durable, high-quality textbooks with hardcover and good paper that can be passed from one student to another for the duration of the norm.

If textbooks are distributed to students only through the school library, the school administration can become responsible for the regular maintenance and long-term use of the textbooks in addition to creating an economic mechanism for children to use textbooks sparingly. Under the core curriculum, children's exercise books for science lessons can be printed at low cost and by the number of children and be distributed through the school library. If a student is behind his/ her classes or ill for a long time, he/ she will be able to study and catch up by themselves during the summer vacation.

Recommendation 2: Limit the number of subjects taught each year under the core and supplementary curricula to 8 and conduct them in hands-on and project-based format. 

Most public schools operate in two shifts and students spend only 4 hours a day at school (including recess). Student are required to learn 14 to 16 different subjects a year under the core and supplementary curricula, which is too many. Multiple subjects can be taught theoretically in a short period of time, but due to the lack of time to practice, it is likely that students will not fully understand the course. Pushing them to study many subjects in a short period of time will likely make them resort to memorizing, copying and cheating during tests, degrading the quality of education provided. As teachers have to teach a large group of students at a time, they can’t work efficiently one-on-one and some students will start to be left behind in classes, which is detrimental in the long run. Therefore, by international practice, students of any age are recommended to have 4 academic classess and 4 supplementary classes per year and learn them at a more advanced level over the years. Supplementary classes can be planned each year consistent to children’s age. Making time to explain when, where and how each lesson can be used in practice will greatly improve the quality of teaching.

Recommendation 3: Reducing the number of children per classroom at elementary schools.

I view that it’s possible for Mongolia to change and improve the standard of general education at a low cost. For instance, based on a population survey conducted in Ulaanbaatar's districts and khoroos, the learning environment for children aged 2 to 5 and elementary school children aged 6 to 10 can be changed by using first floors of apartments to enable children to study close to home. The Ministry of Education, in consultation with the city administration, can rent the first floor of an apartment building to a kindergarten or elementary school (depending on the size of the building, the elementary school will have 1 to 5 classes) or allocate land and building permits on the condition that the first floor of a new construction site in a new residential district is designated for a kindergarten and elementary school. These works can be more effective if planned for a long time and implemented based on research.

By enabling young children to go to school near home and spend 7 to 8 hours at school, it will be possible to allow children to go outside twice a day, reduce the number of children in each class and provide effective general education under the supervision of a teacher. The structure of kindergartens and elementary schools is relatively simple (standard gymnasiums, science laboratories, etc. are not required like for middle and high schools), so it is possible to build spacious classrooms at secure apartments with playgrounds. Parents can prepare lunch boxes for their children (1 meal and 2 snacks).

Recommendation 4: Reducing the number of children per classroom at middle and high schools.

If elementary school children are allowed to study near their home in the aforementioned manner, the existing schools with capacity to hold 1,092 children can be fully utilized as middle and high schools. As a result, students can study at their school for 8 hours, instead of 4 hours, a day under the supervision of their teacher. Teachers will also be able to manage children’s development, increase their interest in learning and help them study independently and in a group through the curriculum. Gradually increasing the duration of class for high school students (grades 9 to 12) to 80 to 90 minutes will better prepare them to sit in courses at universities and become good practice for staying focused for a long period of time.

Students can prepare their own lunch boxes (2 meals and 2 snacks) like in foreign schools. Increasing the opportunity for students to wear uniform and commute by school buses will ensure their safety and mitigate city traffic.

Recommendation 5: Teachers must be skilled enough to teach at least 2 core courses and 2 supplementary courses to undergraduates.

It’s important to make sure teachers can teach multiple subjects. For example, a PE teacher can teach health, a mathematics teacher can teach geometry, a chemistry teacher can teach physics, a literacy teacher can teach Mongolian language and script writing, a social studies teacher can teach history/ geography/ law, a music teacher can teach dance/drama, arts teacher can teach design and technology, and computer teacher can teach business studies. This type of training can be provided by a special program in cooperation with universities and colleges. This way, we will produce teachers who are flexible, enjoy their work, and don’t fear getting laid off.

When granting a teaching license to a person with a bachelor’s degree, it’s necessary to require that they have teaching practice. For example, a student mathematics teacher should have assisted teachers and taught at a general education school for a whole year and received good evaluation from the school’s director and staff before getting licensed to teach. The same criteria should be set for teaching supplementary class, in this case geometry.

Recommendation 6: Foreign language proficiency

In the new age, Mongolia’s development will be led by a new generation with world-class education who are highly skilled and knowledgeable and internationally competitive. Hence, general education schools must teach a foreign language (with the option to choose from English, Russian and Chinese) from grade 3. Learning a foreign language at a young age is not only highly effective but also become a basis for learning their mother tongue well. In this age of globalization, the process of teaching a foreign language itself helps expand knowledge and break down the process of teaching. By learning a foreign language, children can learn about the country’s history, civilization, politics, economy, people, and bilateral relations. In the 1990s, the Ministry of Education provided 2-year intensive program to Russian language teachers to train English language teachers.

Recommendation 7: Differential allocation of variable costs from the state budget.

Variable costs can be allocated only to public schools and if necessary, given out to private schools depending on their tuition fees. In other words, the variable cost given to private schools with high tuition can be low but higher for those with lower tuition. With the extra budget, the government can build more schools to increase access to education, reduce the number of students per class, and build the capacity of teachers. 

Recommendation 8: Start schools at different times.

We can tackle traffic and use the school building at full capacity if schools with two shifts start the morning shift earlier and push back the start time for the afternoon shift. Furthermore, middle and high schools should pay attention to getting school buses. At the very least, it will ensure child safety and decrease traffic congestion and save parent’s time and petrol costs. Given cut back on household spending, more parents will be willing pay for the transportation cost by a school bus.

Recommendation 9: Increase general education schools’ teaching days in a school year.

General education schools currently have set the school year at 150 days. This should be set at a minimum of 180 to 190 days and the instructional hours should be increased from 4 hours a day to 7 to 8 hours a day. This will provide children the opportunity to develop under the supervision their teacher.

Recommendation 10: Stop setting the start date for private schools on September 1.

When there is a shortage of language or specialized teachers, schools need to hire professional teachers from abroad. In relation to this, we have to go through many procedures, visa applications and get various permits at 4 to 5 ministries and agencies. This burden needs to be alleviated to a right balance. The law needs to be amended so that private schools can start the school year at the end of August, depending on their specific needs. This has many benefits in reducing traffic congestion, workload and bureaucracy.

Recommendation 11: Provide an additional program for high school students on career choice and career development. 

As Mongolia's economy expands and develops, we continue to face a shortage of skilled and professional personnel. Although the number of university graduates in Mongolia is high, it is common for most of them to work in a sector they’re not specialized in. This gap between supply and demand depends on the quality of secondary and tertiary education. High school students are not able to choose the right profession because they’re not prepared and lack information. Organizing a series of extracurricular lectures and trainings for high school students and parents that introduce high-in-demand professions in Mongolia and their specifications will contribute to meeting the supply and demand of the labor market.

Recommendation 12: Creating a professional team and sustainable development at the Ministry of Education.

The education sector must be managed by a professional and have a professional team at the policy level to conduct regular research and analysis, make sectoral development policies accordingly, conduct pilot implementation of policies, listen to opinions of school managements, and assess the results. Effective policies and implementations will help the sector advance to the next level. 

As the Ministry of Education is responsible for arranging this complex work, the minister of education and his/ her professional team need to work for at least 4 years. Most importantly, the ministry should establish a system for training and licensing professional teachers, pursue a policy to build the capacity of teachers, create conditions to allow children to study at school for 7 to 8 hours a day, improve school sufficiency reduce the number of children per class, and pay attention to learning materials.

Recommendation 13: Issuance of licenses and accreditations for educational institutions

Licensing and accreditation should be delegated to a public organization with a professional team. The professional team should be legally empowered to conduct and monitor professional activities independently (without influence from politics, the government, businesses, and individuals). The Ministry of Education must only approve the criteria for assessment. The professional team should consist of experienced and distinguished teachers, school principals, retired teachers, and old and young representatives who earned their graduate and postgraduate education in western countries.

It is an international standard to this public organization grant ranks and accreditation to schools that are licensed or accredited school. This way we can adopt innovative mechanisms, such as recognizing good schools, giving a set time to improve for failing schools, give them an extension if need, and revoke their licenses if they do not improve, or allocating a substantial portion of government subsidies. This will lay the foundation for discussing quality of education and development in the education sector.

Recommendation 14: Quality indicators of educational activities

Accreditation of educational institutions and criteria for awarding ranks are important factors in the development of an institution. An educational institution will become eligible to talk about the quality of education after balancing the interests of students, parents, the school community, investors or the country.

Criteria for quality education:

1. Safety of children's learning environment, number of children in one class, age-appropriate environment: This indicator can be determined by surveying students and parents.

2. Student attendance/ Whether students like their school and class: This can be determined by surveying students and teachers. For example, ask if classes are interesting and whether students want to attend the lesson?

3. Whether the method to teaching the core curriculum is interesting for students: This indicator can be determined by surveying students and parents.

4. Whether instructional hours of the core curriculum are included in the school syllabus: This is approved by the Ministry of Education. For instance, it is important to check whether the geometry class (or math, physics, chemistry, language, literature, etc.) students in grade 10 must learn has been included in the syllabus and if so, whether students’ performance is creditable.

5. Whether the subjects in the supplementary curriculum are included in the school syllabus: This is approved by the Ministry of Education. For example, it is important to check whether the classes (fine arts, music - dance, physical education, health, etc.) a student in grade 8 must learn have fully included in the class syllabus and if so, whether students’ performance is creditable.

6. Adequacy of textbooks and supplementary books, and whether libraries are being restocked: This indicator determines whether libraries have sufficient learning materials to expand their knowledge under the core and supplementary curricula, and study independently. This can be evaluated through a questionnaire from students and teachers.

7. Professional skills of the teaching staff and teacher's lesson plan: Does a teacher have qualification to teach, how many years of experience does he/ she have, which subjects can he/she teach, do they plan their lessons regularly and follow them? This indicator is assessed through interviews with teachers and questionnaires. It is also possible to get feedback from parents.

8. Activities to retrain and build the capacity of teaching staff: An indicator of what the school administration is doing to develop teachers, such as enriching their teaching methods, enabling them to learn from other teachers, and keep improving their teaching skills. 

9. Professionalism of principals in charge of curricula and standards: An indicator of whether a school is run by a professional.

10. Whether the school administration's parent-teacher meetings are effective: An indicator of the effectiveness of the school administration's advice, guidance, and cooperation with students’ parents, and proactiveness and participation of parents in supporting and understanding their children.

Recommendation 15: Private-public school partnerships

For the past 10 years, we have been working together to turn Khan-Uul District's 60th school into our sister school and to localize some of our school management at the lowest cost. Today, the school become a safe and green school with the best learning conditions despite having a large number of students. This is a real example of how good management can be introduced in a public school with a good principal and a good team. We have the opportunity to share the know-hows of good management practices tested at more than 160 private schools in Mongolia at very low cost in public schools.

These 15 recommendations have been submitted to the Ministry of Education and Science, parliamentary taskforce responsible for amending the Law on Education, and Parliamentary Standing Committee on Education, Culture, Science and Sports.

Dulguun Bayarsaikhan

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