Focusing on What Children Learn in Turkey

February 10, 2012

In the past decade, Turkey has made great progress in getting its children—both girls and boys—enrolled in primary school. But now the quality of that education is coming under scrutiny.

Research shows that Turkish teenagers are behind their counterparts in other comparable countries.

Gender parity is not enough

Turkey has had great success in raising enrollments, especially of girls, in the last ten years. The country has also succeeded in getting more children into school earlier; a massive public campaign advising parents that "Seven is Too Late" to begin school has boosted the number of kids in the country's Kindergartens.

Now the issue is more complicated.

"Our main challenge today is making sure the education is the right one. Are we teaching kids what they need to know?" asks Ayla Goksel, who runs the Mother and Child Education Foundation in Istanbul. "Are we teaching kids what they need to know to survive in the workforce and also thrive in life? I think that is the next great challenge we face."She says the philosophy behind Turkish education needs to evolve, from rote memorization to critical thinking and reasoning skills.

Focusing on the big picture

With support from the World Bank, Turkey is tackling education policy. One priority is better training and better pay for teachers. Another is a focus on early childhood education. Yet another is curriculum reform. Overcrowding and the gap in the quality of education between richer and poorer areas, city and country, are also issues.

These issues raise larger questions about how Turkey wants to shape its future workforce.

" Me, I dropped out of school in the 10th grade. But I got my diploma last year. I am 31 years old but I don't care, I plan to apply to college. "

Nesrin Coban


Some educators see Turkish students on the world's stage, and want to prepare them to take their place in a global market. They are pushing for curriculum reform; for classes that focus on ideas and on problem solving.

Turkey's Ministry of National Education is one of those pushing for change. "What we need is not students who memorize, but students who can discover knowledge around the world, and use that knowledge," says the Ministry's Unal Akyuz.

Turkish students lag behind

Research shows that the average Turkish 15 year old is one full year behind his or her counterpart in other, similar countries. And the quality of education is uneven across Turkey. City schools tend to be stronger. More affluent children tend to go to better schools and perform better once there.

And the early grades are crucial for everyone. Failure to learn in primary school can dog students for the rest of their lives.

"For the first time in the last eight years I heard a minister describe the problem correctly. He said we can‘t teach our kids. And we have to improve our teachers," says Bathuhan Aydagul, who heads the Education Reform Initiative.

Valuing learning

Surveys show that Turks value education and believe it ought to be the government's highest priority. Of all the countries in the Europe and Central Asia region, only Tajikistan's population ranks education as a higher priority than do Turks.

A self-described housewife who lives outside Ankara, Nesrin Coban supports education for her two girls, who are both in primary school. She also supports it for herself.

"Me, I dropped out of school in the 10th grade. But I got my diploma last year. I am 31 years old but I don't care, I plan to apply to college."