TLG improvements and Educational Reforms

On Friday, TLG held a meeting in Tbilisi for local TLG volunteers where we were given information by the TLG staff and then given the opportunity to ask the Minister of Education, Dimitri Shashkin, some questions.

The ministry officials took the opportunity to address some concerns and criticisms of TLG that have surfaced over the last few months. Media outlets like the New York Times and Eurasianet reported on TLG’s progress through the first semester, and the reports they gave were mixed. One volunteer even questioned the rationale behind TLG itself, and was quoted as saying about TLG that “It’s like buying an espresso machine before you’ve built a kitchen.”

I personally disagree with this criticism. Material resources are, of course, important to education, but not as important as human resources. Think about the question logically. Which problem poses more of an impediment to a good education – substandard textbooks or teachers who lack expertise in the subjects that they are teaching? A teacher who has native-level fluency in English can at least potentially teach English to students regardless of the classroom materials available. We TLG volunteers can design our own lessons and materials, can access lesson plans from a vast global ESL community on the internet, and can draw on our own fluency to converse with and field questions from students. On the other hand, teachers who lack an adequate grasp of English would have trouble teaching good English to their students regardless of textbook quality or classroom environment.

But at a more basic level, if I didn’t believe in the validity of the TLG program I wouldn’t be here. I wouldn’t be here if I didn’t think TLG could potentially meet its goals of educating Georgians in English and Western culture. So this “espresso machine” comparison just doesn’t hold water for me.

Shashkin took a different approach to answering this criticism. He pointed out that Georgian schools have come very far in the years since the Rose Revolution. He pointed out that English has already overtaken Russian as the language of choice on Georgian foreign language certification exams. He pointed out that TLG doesn’t exist in a vacuum, and that it is far from the only program that the Ministry of Education is pursuing to improve the quality of education in Georgia.

The overall strategy of education reform in Georgia is to teach English language and computer skills to all Georgian students so that they can compete in a global marketplace driven by information technology. In other words, if Georgians can use the internet, in English, they’ll have access to the collected cultural and scientific knowledge of the entire Western world, and to the opportunities that come with that access. Hence TLG, and hence the new program to give away 400,000 netbooks by 2015 – the goal is for every Georgian student to have one from the first grade onwards.

Shashkin also addressed teacher salaries, teacher training, and school infrastructure improvements. As an example, all public schools in Tbilisi will have their restrooms renovated this summer, addressing a common complaint among TLG volunteers that students and teachers have no functional restrooms for many hours of the day. As regards teacher certification, all Georgian schoolteachers will have to pass certification exams by 2014 in both their field of education and in the methodology of teaching. Those who pass will be given a pay raise to a salary of 1000 lari per month – a salary that a family can easily live on in Georgia. Those who cannot pass the exams will be dismissed. Finally, regarding textbook quality, Shashkin announced that he had signed a deal with Macmillan Publishers to get textbooks for about 10 lari per book, along with free teachers’ books and other resources for teachers. 10 lari is dirt cheap, about $6 US.

When the floor opened for questions, I was shocked to hear that many of the TLG volunteers asked argumentative political questions such as “isn’t signing a deal with Macmillan anti-competitive” and “how do you decide which projects get priority when allocating your budget” and “where does the money come from for these improvements?” Shashkin handled these questions by giving direct, honest, intelligent answers that showed a nuanced grasp of economic issues and an ability to express that understanding extemporaneously in a foreign language. The only word I can use to describe it would be “impressive.” I wish US public officials could express and defend their ideas with half as much clarity and frankness.

When my turn came for a question, I asked the following: “A lot of times my students, and other people that I meet, ask me very frank and direct questions about issues such as race, sex, and sexuality. I often find myself, especially in a classroom, talking around these topics, avoiding certain questions, or just changing the subject entirely. So my question is, to what extent are we supposed to be cultural ambassadors and to what extent are we supposed to avoid subjects that are controversial in Georgia?”

The Minister responded, immediately, that we are cultural ambassadors. He said that Georgia is a very racially tolerant society (an issue that deserves some exploration, in a future post) but that many Georgians are curious about people of other races because the phenomenon of having foreigners here is relatively new to Georgia. In other words, we shouldn’t be afraid to discuss racial issues with Georgians. Regarding sex and other topics, the Minister said that free discussion is a value that Georgians hold to be very important and that while in class, we should obviously use discretion in what we say, but on the whole there will be no problems with Westerners expressing their opinions or answering questions. This is consistent with TLG’s policy of not firing me over certain posts that may have stirred up some sensation among Georgians.

Finally, the Minister said that no matter what we do, there will always be – and I quote – “morons” who will try to generate scandal and controversy, as in the Tomas Fletcher case. As I said in that post, TLG backed Fletcher and he was cleared of any wrongdoing, but of course the facts aren’t always as important as the perception.


This meeting helped to clear up a lot of the misperceptions about TLG, but aside from just this meeting, TLG has also become far more communicative and responsive in general. Just this month, they’ve sent around emails about weekly and monthly reports, social events, updated contact info for staff, notable events of interest to TLGers, holidays, and job opportunities for TLG volunteers. They’re also planning excursions for volunteers starting from when the weather starts to warm up again in March. They’re going to implement a TLG web forum. So overall I’d say that TLG took some of the more constructive criticism that we, the volunteers, had to offer from last semester, and has begun to implement improvements to address our concerns. It’s good to work for an organization that actually learns from its experience and responds to the concerns of its members. I can definitely recommend the program much more highly now than ever before, and if they keep at it I think that it has the potential to become not just successful, but a legitimately top-notch program, in the very near future.

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22 Responses to TLG improvements and Educational Reforms

  1. James Norton says:

    As the originator of the “espresso machine” quote, I figure I ought to provide some additional context to explain what I meant. You make valid points, and it’s heartening to hear about all the very necessary initiatives underway to reform the education system. But I’m still concerned that the investment in this program is not yielding the dividends it could because of missing infrastructure and a culture which doesn’t encourage academic achievement. My view is derived from my own experience only, and clearly mileage varies widely across communities in Georgia.

    By infrastructure, I don’t necessarily mean physical school improvements. Get motivated students and well-trained teachers together and you could hold school in a barn and still get some decent results. But in my village, we have neither.

    When I showed up, I found students who had studied English for three years and couldn’t read, write, speak, or understand a word. Yet they still earned passing grades and were working from a textbook far, far too difficult for them. On any given day, 50% of my students show up for school (different ones each day), and of those, only one or two has done the homework.

    So my students need remedial English help and a better attitude towards school, neither of which I have the faintest idea how to provide. I’m trying my best, but I’d argue my students would be far better off learning from a well-trained Georgian teacher than from an untrained American, especially one who will leave after six months.

    Unfortunately, their Georgian teacher is trained in teaching methods many would argue don’t work, which is likely how we got into this mess in the first place. So I’m hoping the new certification process will gradually help here. But there’s still so little accountability for teachers or students. Standards and accountability is where I’d argue the Ministry’s investment is most sorely needed.

    I like TLG, and I’m glad I signed up. I feel like I’m making a difference for the kids who show up, and hopefully inspiring them to learn some English. But I wonder what the opportunity cost of this program is. Could the money spent on full-time staff, plane tickets, bottles of wine, trainings, and our salaries be spent more efficiently to build a sustainable culture for learning English (and other subjects)? I think maybe. Once that’s in place, foreign teachers would be far more effective. As is, I feel like I personally am wasting my native-speaking ability on students who have no motivation or incentive to learn.


    • Anonymous says:

      Could not agree more with all of the above


    • panoptical says:

      I mean, you could argue that Georgian students and teachers are undermotivated precisely because they had no real hope of exposure to the outside world and to English speakers and so learning or teaching English well may not have seemed worth the effort. TLG helps address the motivation issue in a positive way that couldn’t be achieved through simple bureaucratic solutions along the lines of NCLB or other incentive-based educational reforms.


  2. pasumonok says:

    what can i comment? don’t believe everything you hear.
    i am glad u guys are here, but where do i start, certification… i was evaluating teachers this summer.bad situation.
    on then other hand, it is not fair to ask them pass tests in what they haven’t been taught.
    and if we fire these teachers, who will replace them? i have no faith in new generation.
    who said netbooks are good idea? the whole world is trying to get kids away from the comp and back to the book and we’re doing the opposite? so what, we either force kids to become 100% dependent on technology or refuse to teach them how to turn on the computer (like it was in my student days)?
    no balance? no alternative? when having advantage of a different, partly western, partly oriental,party god knows what culture, instead of adapting stuff we grab somebody else’s experience (that is of questionable value in itself) and force it on our kids?
    think of the children! ๐Ÿ™‚
    that said, i like tlg:-)


  3. Russ says:

    Thanks for the update, Neal. As a huge fan of Georgia, I’m happy to hear that Georgian personnel are learning from past mistakes and consequently, improving the program in general. Having worked in a comparable program many years ago in Korea, I can safely say such adaptation doesn’t always happen unfortunately. Anyway, thanks for the interesting posts.


  4. The Observer says:

    I agree with Neal’s point that good teachers are more important than good textbooks. However, I also agree with James Norton’s explanation of his comment. A teacher can be a lot more effective if the students feel some incentive to learn. Many Georgian students don’t even feel an incentive to attend school on a regular basis, because they know they will all automatically be given a passing grade regardless. Maybe the government can’t change the culture overnight to make parents magically care more about their children’s work ethic. But the government could (for example) require students who fail standard examinations to repeat a class.


  5. Amanda says:

    I imagine the American TLGers asked all thos skeptical questions because we aren’t used to hearing so many good ideas from politicians, and can’t imagine ver actually seeing them in action. Especially when it comes to education. Go Georgia!


  6. Rezo says:


    don’t you really understand the beakground of the political and economical situation in Georgia?
    Georgia is a country in transaction, country that expirienced one of the greatest economical crisis in modern history, GDP fell 75% by years 89-94, country lost 1/3 of it’s population in 90th, experienced two civil wars and two revolutions, 1/10 of its population is displaced..
    you are trying to prove the obvious , dont you were aware about lack of western style teaching methodes and physical infrastructure??
    that’s what we got!

    constuction critisism may be wery helpful as main post actualy proves, but unfortunetly i did not see it your post, i just see selfish guy with arogant attetude, who came to Georgia for adventure, not for teaching and sharing..
    i may be wrong, i hope i am wrong, i do not know you personaly, it just the a impresion from your post/expression


    • ConnieF says:

      Rezo: I must take exception to your comments about James’ post.
      I think your impressions are wrong, because I read his comments entirely differently. James takes the time to write a clear, non defensive and useful response. How you read “arrogant attitude’ into it to me says more about your perception and reaction than it does about James.
      Yes, Georgia has over come amazing challenges and made incredible progress. But I see James (and other TLG posters) as attempting to make a contribution and provide actionable and useful criticism.
      Someone who was going someplace just for “adventure” and fun could chose from a much less challenging country than Georgia and a much less challenging job than teaching English in a village.
      And yes, I think many TLG’ers weren’t aware of the the lack of infrastructure and lack of “Western teaching styles”. But does that make them ‘arrogant” for pointing problems out in a constructive fashion? James not only points out the issues, he offers his ideas to improve things. By no stretch of the imagination can this be considered “arrogant”.
      Simply getting the students motivated in some way to attend school regularily, and do their homework, would go a long way to improving the educational experience both for students AND for teachers.

      I read your reaction as once again to attack the messenger rather than address the problem. But “I may be wrong, I hope I am wrong, I do not know you personaly (sic), it just (sic) the a impresion from your post/expression” ๐Ÿ™‚


  7. Jack Nimble says:

    I think another key point missing here is that not everyone can teach their own native language, or any other subject in which they excel for that matter. To be a good teacher, you need an innate ability, training, and/or years of experience. The entrance bar for applicants looking to join this program was set very low, although the initiative itself is a sound one, both in terms of educational reform and PR. The program’s founders and marketeers opted against setting stronger standards for applicants, I think, simply because they knew they wouldn’t be able to find enough people to take part in the program given a range of factors — most importantly among which was the short timeline that had been set. The program was hastily put together and a bit too forcibly driven from the “great idea” stage to implementation, I believe, without the proper consideration being given to a number of factors. For instance, the issues of providing counselors or Georgian language lessons to TLG members had not even been considered midway through the marketing campaign. This is how many PR and other image-making programs in Georgia are implemented, which is why so many of them fail. Too little time is placed on planning and ensuring the right execution.


  8. anon says:

    I think this is ridiculous. Fantastic, Tbilisi will get that crap, and the villages will be left behind (hint: most Georgians, live in areas like me. No, really, they don’t all live in Tbilisi). Here’s what’s supposed to have happened at my school since I’ve been here: the building was supposed to be renovated, children were supposed to get books, children were supposed to get computers (which I’ve heard are more like glorified typewriters), raises, smaller class sizes, more training for teachers, better security, improved testing practices and standards.

    Here’s what they’ve gotten: me.

    Here’s what they do have: kids that don’t come to school when it snows because they don’t have boots or good jackets or good socks or even socks sometimes, kids who skip entire years because their parents can’t get two kids in two different grades both to school because of time differences, kids who can’t afford to go everyday because they can’t afford the marshutka, kids who can’t afford to eat, an old building where the bathrooms don’t work and the electricity rarely works which means the heater rarely works so you can see your breath inside, kids who are illiterate because they’ve been allowed to cheat the whole time because if the teachers don’t pass them they get punished, a small number of good students who don’t show up anymore because why would they-they don’t learn anything in school, fights in classes and no way to punish them (technically, stopping them by dragging them apart was actually illegal of me to do), teachers who are only teachers because a family member or friend works for the ministry of education, children who only pass for the same reasons, girls who get married at 14 and pop out kids at 15 (they don’t come back to school) and a ministry of education that doesn’t seem to care about any of these problems. They want crappy computers for children, and supposedly English (hint: most kids, still know Russian FAR better than they do English. I know they take the tests in English, but guess what? They cheat. A lot).

    Sorry if I don’t believe Shashkin, but those of us outside of Tbilisi, live in a completely different world. In this one, things don’t happen. And even then, he’s not addressing the problems of actually training the teachers (because they’ve never been given that) or improving the methods of education, or making sure kids can get to school and be safe and warm and not cold and hungry.

    Oh, and I want to make this very clear: I have kids who pass the English lessons and all of their tests with good exam scores. I promise you, they don’t know a single word of English. And about 5% of my students (that I know of) might just be illiterate. In Georgian. They’re going to pass, and this includes the national tests. And these are just the kids that actually come to school. Who knows about the ones who don’t.


    • panoptical says:

      You’re right, Georgia is too poor and we should just give up.

      Sarcasm aside, we are here to address these problems. Georgia’s institutions were corrupt and broken during the post-Soviet years. About six years ago there were riots in Tbilisi because no one could get electricity in the winter. The police were completely corrupt and survived on bribery and nepotism. The educational system was, as you say, in complete disarray.

      However, the fastest way to fix a corrupt institution is to bring in some kind of outside influence. Electricity was restored to Tbilisi by a multinational company that didn’t tolerate the corruption and chaos that the Georgian electric providers had allowed to rule. Law and order were restored to Georgia by firing most of the police officers – twice – and training new police who knew that corruption would not be tolerated. And in a Georgian education system where there is no accountability and no real way of measuring actual results, you need outside observers there to do exactly what TLG members are doing – reporting to TLG and to the public about the problems of cheating, grade inflation, and everything else you’re talking about.

      TLG is not just here to provide English language expertise – we’re here to change the culture of the educational system of Georgia. And as far as the problems of poverty are concerned, the Ministry can’t change Georgia’s economic reality overnight, but educating Georgians effectively will certainly improve Georgia’s economy in the long run. Meanwhile we have to do the best we can with what we have and remember that Georgia’s infrastructural, political, social, and economic improvements during the Saakashvili administration have actually happened much, much faster than anyone could have reasonably expected.


  9. Borscht says:

    The minister said ‘Those who pass will be given a pay raise to a salary of 1000 Lari per month โ€“ a salary that a family can easily live on in Georgia.’
    If this is the plan for 2014, three years away, why did we take a big step backwards this week?
    A public school in Tbilisi had all of its language classes once divided, combined this week. That means more students in a class, and less classes for the language teachers, which means a pay reduction. Instead of 250 Lari a month, now these teachers will receive 200 Lari a month. I do not know for a fact, but was told that all the schools are making this change. Anyone else know of this change at a public school?
    A teacher from this school told me in tears, she will not be able to afford her utilities next month. Her family, a husband, 2 children, and one grandchild, all rely on everyone’s combined salaries for the household. Her pay cut will affect her entire family. ( All of which are college educated and employed.)
    Why do these volunteers, some with no teaching background, make twice the amount the Georgian teachers do? IF this program is funded through the Georgian government, why is so much money being invested in volunteers, and not in training and education and pay increases of Georgian teachers? I understand and support the idea of western influence. Why not just bring over professionals from Educational programs to implement training programs for the Georgian teachers? Spend the next 5 years making improvements within first, then start recruiting volunteers.
    Panoptical above says:
    “And in a Georgian education system where there is no accountability and no real way of measuring actual results, you need outside observers there to do exactly what TLG members are doing โ€“ reporting to TLG and to the public about the problems of cheating, grade inflation, and everything else youโ€™re talking about.TLG is not just here to provide English language expertise โ€“ weโ€™re here to change the culture of the educational system of Georgia.”
    Oh My God, that’s a ridiculously hefty amount of responsibility to expect from volunteers, most who had NO IDEA of the weight the program was asking them to lift. So the volunteers are not just cultural ambassadors who are assisting the Georgian teachers with English language teaching. The volunteers, most who have no teaching experience and are between the ages of 22-26 are being asked to assist with the reform of the country’s entire educational system? DO you see how ridiculous that is?
    “Volunteers are asked to report to TLG and to the public about the problems they are finding in the school system”. So employees of the educational system in Georgia have No TIME to investigate their own problems and are asking volunteers to tell them what is wrong in the schools. Ha, now that’s just funny!


    • ---> says:

      > Why not just bring over professionals from Educational programs
      > to implement training programs for the Georgian teachers

      Conventional wisdom, common sense and simple economics all say the following: to have this this idea happening one have to pay these professionals _more_, then they receive in their countries. And yes I know how much tenured teacher with 10 years of experience gets in salary and benefits in California, for example (just a hint – check what is going in Wisconsin and WHY it is going).

      And bringing a one, two or dozen won’t be enough – it is required to have such kind of professional in every public school to teach local teachers how to teach and then monitor results. And to consider how local teachers teach here is the latest example: 25 y/o math teacher in one of Tbilisi’s public schools instructing her students to cross over last three digits in 25666 and put crosses on top to avoid Devil.

      So… wanna to have Western professionals implement and monitor reforms? Sure, but then whole Georgian budget alone will be spent on just such kind of program.

      > So employees of the educational system in Georgia have No TIME
      > to investigate their own problems

      Most of them are not AWARE of such problems, because they lived in a box and outside of box thinking can not be developed in a situation when no thoughts going inside the box.


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  11. sandy says:

    I’ve read quickly through this conversation. I am interested b/c my son is now in Georgia, soon to be assigned to a school.

    Several impressions:
    1. None of you honestly knew what you were getting into. (not your fault, it’s the nature of the situation)
    2. The country/educational system of Georgia is far more impoverished and broken than any of you imagined or were led to believe.
    3.Most of you are very young. It is usually the young who have the flexibility, energy and enthusiasm to try to tackle new things such as this.

    I think if you all could step away from your immediate situation and take a longer view, you may be less critical of yourselves and the Georgian government. You guys are at the front lines, seeing things and having to engage in a battle that few in the West can imagine. Because this kind of job attracts a young person, the pay can be less, (less than experienced western educators would demand) the government can afford A LOT of you, spread you out all over the country, and hope that in a few instances, something positive happens.

    I think ALL of you underestimate your influence. Many of you may go home and wonder what that time in Georgia was all about, feel like you failed because your students can’t speak a word of English but passed their English exams, etc, etc. However, your influence may be realized only after you leave. Please go easy on yourselves and know that JUST BY EXISTING SIDE BY SIDE with the Georgians, a change is going to occur, minute in some places, more obvious in others, but you are affecting change. You are too close to the situation to realize it, and not enough time has passed to allow it to happen.

    I commend all of you there, some of you working and living in unthinkable environments. As we told our son, “think Peace Corps, 1964.” Many, many people with that Peace Corps experience in their youth went on to become great leaders in a myriad of fields. This is an experience you will draw on for the rest of your lives. Be strong and don’t lose heart.


    • ---> says:


      Thank you. I’m grad to see that there are people who share my opinion that it will take years to see dividends of of the program.

      Neal (and others other TLG folks): ask your Georgian English teacher counterparts to translate into English following Georgian proverb:

      แƒฎแƒแƒ แƒ˜ แƒฎแƒแƒ แƒ—แƒแƒœ แƒ แƒแƒ› แƒ“แƒแƒแƒ‘แƒ, แƒแƒœ แƒ–แƒœแƒ”แƒก แƒ˜แƒชแƒ•แƒšแƒ˜แƒก, แƒแƒœ แƒคแƒ”แƒ แƒกแƒแƒ


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  15. matzoni says:

    When the budget of the MoE is only about $355 million, the actual value of the TLG program should be closely evaluated, particularly when there are so many disappointments in the Georgian educational system. For example, the financing principle of โ€˜money follows the studentโ€™ has been rolled back. Additionally, teachers from some 200 schools have had their salaries cut in half. In these conditions, a policy of spending government money to have young volunteers who “can at least potentially teach English,” is rather foolish.

    A better use of the highly limited education budget would be to focus on training local teachers, who need it and want it. But forcing teachers to pass an exam without providing the means to for them to acquire training is unfair and short-sighted. I disagree that a Georgian family can “easily live off 1000 lari a month,” unless it is a family of one living rent-free, with no dependents.

    If you want to teach English in a foreign country, pass an accredited TEFL/ESL course and find a job at a private school or approach a local NGO with your qualifications.


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