Reform Needed in English Teaching

With a nice stock photo of a creepily well-behaved class, totally unconcious of the photographer, Zaman published my latest article complaining about the lack of movement on the proposed English language reforms from last year. The piece seems to have an attentive readership, and recieved comments respectfully disagreeing with the idea that natives are the key. I agree with those comments to the extent that a capable, indigenous staff of English teachers would be ideal, but to legislate against native teacher entry tends to hold back alot of potential, if we look at things from a school-by-school basis. Leave it up to the language departments of schools, and give them a wealth of options in assisting the kids and the staff, is my general concern. What do you think?

(Photo: Today's Zaman)

[Expat Voice] Reform still needed for teaching of English

Never mind the latest 4+4+4 reform plan -- Turkey's previous, much more modest educational reform proposal, specifically aimed at improving English-language learning, proposed to allow native English-speaking teachers to work in state schools without having to have Turkish citizenship. Turkey's poor rating in the English Proficiency Index this year makes it all the more clear that such reforms would go a long way toward increasing Turkey's language skills. However, as I discovered myself, reform is not that easy.
A year ago, I wrote a fierce defense of the government's proposals in Today's Zaman. I reasoned that allowing natives into the state was, and still remains, the logical answer to a number of complaints from teachers, students and native speakers like myself, unhappy being restricted to private schools.
By the end of the 2010-2011 school year, I had had enough of the demands of private schools and decided I wanted to go back to teaching average kids in a “normal” school. Although Turkish state education is certainly overdue for a shake-up itself, I looked at my earlier work as a Comenius-sponsored language assistant in an Anatolian high school as a paradise compared to my time dealing with the precocious brats of İstanbul's elite establishments. So then, the government having paved my way with an announcement that 40,000 native teachers would be hired, I arranged a visit to my local education authority in Bakırköy to apply for a job for next year.
If only it were that simple…

Sluggish bureaucracy, slothish reform

Having worked at that point in the private sector for a whole year, one thing I had forgotten about in dealing with state business was the grand civil service tradition of being sent with questions from one office to another, waiting for phone calls to be finished and assistant managers to arrive from lunch, only to later be sent back. After a sociable if mind-blowingly frustrating hour asking if I was eligible to work for the state, I finally got the answer I had been waiting for:
“We haven't heard of any such reforms, but it's best that you visit the head office of the greater municipality in Eminönü to find out for sure.”
That would require a day off school, I thought, so I asked if I could just call them. “You can, but…” With those words, the clerk had said enough. We simply exchanged a look that said “Burası Türkiye” -- “This is Turkey, so prepare for a wild-goose chase or forget it.”
Needless to say, I licked my wounds and returned to private teaching for another year. However, looking back, perhaps I was expecting too much too soon -- but I still felt let down. Then, a few months ago, I saw something that made me wonder if I should try again.

Turkey gets an ‘F'

In December 2011, the Hürriyet daily reported that out of the 44 countries ranked on this year's English Proficiency Index (EPI), Turkey came in at a dismal 43rd place -- just above Kazakhstan.
Such statistics should make the government think twice about its goal of transforming Turkey into a top-10 world economy by 2023. Indeed, without an informed public that can communicate, let alone trade, with the outside world, this is a rather lofty goal.

Private sector cannot fill void

The correlation between money and knowledge is something the EPI report highlighted as a “troubling trend” in many countries, and Turkey is no exception in this regard. Language teaching is verily dominated by the private sector -- private schools reserve the sole right to native teachers and thus monopolize a highly effective asset, for those who can afford the extortionate fees. A more common alternative to these are the “dershanes” -- or course centers, advertising English-language courses. Walking for 20 minutes in any direction around Bakırköy (İstanbul), Kızılay (Ankara) or Alsancak (İzmir) inevitably leads one past many of these highly profitable institutions.
When I asked dershane instructor David St. Jean why he thought Turkey's index rating was so low, he criticized the high cost of dershanes, which in any case teach to an insufficient standard. In an example of how much the dershanes exploit the deficiencies of the Turkish education system for all they can earn, David said: “When I do exams, the students always ask me if they will pass the level. I tell them that if they have the money to pay for the next level, they will pass … there are schools on every corner [and] none of them are doing anything different from the other.” A troubling trend, indeed.
It would be easy, perhaps, to suggest that money is at the root of the problem and that the well-off are unaffected by the lack of reform -- but this would only be true if having a private education or applying to a dershane guaranteed a good knowledge of English.
However, standards are low. According to Duygu Çandarlı, a masters student of English language education at Boğaziçi University, teachers “are not qualified enough to apply communicative language teaching in English classes,” in both private and state institutions. One native private school teacher I spoke to, Benjamin Burger, told me that his Turkish colleagues' “knowledge of grammar outshines their comprehension abilities. They could tell me the past participle to anything, but they don't know ‘what's going on?'”

Looking to solutions

One thing is certain: The state has an important role to play. For now, with little competition from the state, coupled with massive demand for English-language skills, private companies with no concern for education have free rein to nakedly profiteer from the inadequacies of the system. As for those who cannot afford either, English skills can pave the way for university and beyond.
I tend to agree with the Economic Policy Research Foundation of Turkey (TEPAV), in that importing foreigners is only one way to improve things. The introduction of natives must be included in a more general overhaul of the system's approach to language learning -- teaching English from the first-grade level rather than middle school, for example, makes English less of a chore for children later on.

Maybe next year?

Today I logged on to the Ministry of Education's website and called human resources to ask if there were any plans to allow foreigners to teach in the state next year. The first clerk I contacted had no idea where I got her number but told me the plans I had read about last year had been stopped. Luckily, she gave me another number to dial for more information. After being passed from one clerk to another five times, the phone was answered by someone only introduced to me as “the director.”
What department he directed I had no idea, but I like to think I was speaking to the education minister himself, after half an hour of constant redirections. I explained my intentions, my experience in the state and the reports I had read, then went on to ask if the implementation of the plan looked possible within a year.
In any case, the official, elegant, calming voice told me my wild-goose chase was over. I finally got the answer I had been searching for. Needless to say, I am licking my wounds again.

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