One of the lessons learned since independence is that the Soviet education system's reputation for high-quality learning could not be sustained in modern Armenia and, in fact, some now question whether its reputation was earned, or was propagandized.
And as the world has had better access to Armenian society over the past 18 years, one of the Diaspora's primary concerns has been the general decline in academic performance in the homeland.
Whether deserved or inflated, the general perception has been that students simply got a better education before independence than after.
Times have changed so dramatically and broadly for all aspects of Armenian society as to make quantitative comparisons impossible. But what is known and is finally being reckoned with is the fact of a legacy of bribery that turned Armenia's halls of learning into nests of corruption.
Until very recently (and not completely yet done away with), the system of buying grades was so prevalent that students could quote the prices for various marks, as "last bell" approached each spring and teenagers fought for limited spaces in the better universities.
Many bought their way in, some paying thousands of dollars even in Armenia's poorest times, to secure entry—then paying thousands more for a degree.
Corruption was so pervasive it reached even grade-school level. In some schools, for example, students could pay teachers to exempt them from taking physical education class—a particularly enticing option for adolescent girls who did not wish to exercise in the middle of the day at schools where shower facilities didn't work.
Rectors at some universities were known to force teachers to give passing marks to undeserving students whose parents had made "arrangements" with school authorities.
It was a system widely known by the public but widely denied by officials until this decade, when measures started being taken to curb corruption and to reform the educational structure in general.
After graduating a generation of students who never experienced the Soviet system's "higher level of learning," but knew only the legacy of cheating it left behind, authorities finally stopped denying problems and started looking for solutions.
About five years ago, the government announced a major reduction in the number of teachers across the whole public school system. This, of course, was met with outcry by those who were being made redundant, yet it also served to freshen the teaching pool and separate educators from babysitters.
Teachers were required to attend training that would update their methodology, preparing them for an upcoming major shift in learning—the introduction of 12-year secondary education.
The Soviet system of learning was based on a 10-year program, and was maintained until just three school years ago.
Starting earlier, finishing later
The reformed education process became compulsory countrywide from September 2006 when 53,000 first-formers were admitted not at age 7 but at age 5.5 or 6 and would attend school for 12 years instead of 10. Under the new structure, pupils attend four years of elementary school (grades 1-4), five years of middle school (grades 5-9) and three years of senior school (grades 10-12).
Whether changes in the system will have the desired effects may not be known until 2018, when the first 12-year students graduate. But educators already see the value of bringing Armenia's system into line with those of the West and Europe. It is expected that having a learning experience consistent with more developed countries will make Armenian graduates more competitive in global markets.
Change, though, is not easily embraced in a society as old and traditional as Armenia.
Initially, many parents (themselves products of the Soviet system) simply refused to bring their six-year-olds for enrollment into the 12-year program.
Parents complained that children that age were not emotionally prepared for the structure of learning and were not socially integrated enough to accept the rigors of a school day.
Some still complain.
"If our 10-year system has been extended by two years, then the curriculum for pupils should be easier, but it isn't. In fact, nothing has changed. I am not satisfied with the 12-grade system, since I don't understand its point," says Yerevan parent Lusine Tangian.
Her eight-year-old daughter completed her fourth grade last year—one of thousands who "jumped" a year when the 12-year system was introduced. She began attending school when she was hardly six.
"If they say the system must be brought into conformity with European standards, then this conformity must be in everything. When six-year-old children began to attend elementary school of the 12-grade school, they needed to have a room for rest in their classrooms, but no such thing was done," says Tangian.
And while her complaint may sound naïve to those brought up on 12-year programs, it in fact reflects proposed compromise made by officials who wished to alleviate parents' concerns about starting their children on the new schedule.
When the 12-year program was being debated, part of the reform called for first-grade classes to have resting areas where the youngest children could nap. Parents such as Tangian complain that only a few schools have fulfilled that promise.
Head of the Department of General Education at Armenia's Ministry of Education and Science, Narine Hovhannisian, says it will take several years before parents appreciate the benefits of the new system, just as she herself appreciated it when she looked at it with an impartial eye.
"First of all, the whole world has either a 12- or 13-year education, and we needed to have a 12-grade education in our country as early as possible," she says.
"Even though by the previous system it was required that children start attending school at 7, in reality in many cases they would be admitted at 6 and it was more difficult for them to cope with the curriculum as they had only three months to learn the letters. Now, we have simply created more learning time for children who start to attend school at age 6."
"Now that they have seven months to learn the alphabet, the burden has been relieved. And before, children would not have time to absorb it and their parents would become stressed," explains Hovhannisian.
She says the two-year extension has also created room for adding new subjects. "We have now introduced computer literacy in the fifth grade, as well as such new and important subjects as, for instance, environment, natural science, homeland studies and History of the Armenian Church," says Hovhannisian.
Secondary school principal in the village of Hayanist in Armenia's Ararat province Hovhannes Ispirian says: "This form of general education is quite promising, since it forms a modern education system. Everything is gradually changing for the better."
New school curricula for the elementary and middle schools of the 12-grade system as well as educational standards have been finalized. Senior schools are still at the stage of experimenting.
Ten senior schools were tested in Yerevan and regionally in the 2008-2009 academic year. Another 38 schools have been added to the current academic year (2009-2010).
Senior school provides for separate studies at separate educational institutions where pupils for the first time begin to attend from the 10th grade, after completing nine years of studies at elementary and middle schools. Studies at senior school will be organized according to specialties, or groups, such as humanities, natural science, etc.
"Last year, 1,200 pupils had studies according to directions at those 10 schools. This year, pupils who come from different schools to 48 senior schools will have separately worked-out education plans—with criteria envisaged for three years. Seven textbooks have already been prepared for the 10th-grade pupils—with separate directions of humanities and natural sciences," says Hovhannisian.
A total of 220 teachers in 2008 and 960 teachers this year went for eight-week retraining courses to get required qualification to teach in senior schools.
Simultaneously, at the initial stage the senior school pursues the goal of eliminating the tradition of hiring so-called "coach" teachers for children before their application to universities. Such tutoring in how to pass entrance tests cost $500 to $1,000 a year, according to some estimates.
"We have not managed to fix lots of things in the first year. But there is at least one indication of progress—the level of absenteeism among 10th-grade pupils at senior schools is incomparably lower than that in the rest of the schools where 9th-10th-grade pupils are customarily absent from classes as they prefer taking lessons from ‘coach' teachers," says Hovhannisian.
She says that an important factor in the establishment of senior school is that entrance here is universal; all pupils are admitted without any additional examinations.
"We bring children to school. And we teach them not only the three subjects that a coach would help them study (typically math, Armenian language and Russian language), but also other subjects, at the same time giving more thorough knowledge on these three subjects. The other subjects will not be lost in the process. Meanwhile, for years subjects that have not been required at entrance to most universities have been practically forgotten," adds Hovhannisian.
Ispirian has an answer for skeptics who continue to advocate the old Soviet-era education scheme: "I myself studied in a Soviet school. However, I don't think that it was better. It is those who feel awkward in the matter of teaching with the use of new methods who complain."
Complaints, too, may arise more from nostalgia than from an objective view. It is endemic to being a parent to think that "our way was a better way." The sentiment is especially easily expressed in post-Soviet countries where a general decline in standard of living has been affected by major numbers of the populations.
One characteristic that has regrettably disappeared in independent Armenia is that (perhaps due to the above-mentioned bribery) teachers no longer enjoy the esteem previously afforded their profession.
Those who once looked upon pedagogues as architects of future Soviet-society greatness now see their former teachers doing menial jobs unrelated to their past professions to survive in a society that has been let down by its shift to "independence."
In its over-reaction to the joys of freedom, Armenian society now appears more caught up in consumerism than in appreciation for intellectualism. Not so long ago this was a culture in which communism generally equalized status, and rising to a higher level took individual initiative—often developed during the education process. Now, though, "status" is easily obtained if you buy the right car or wear the right fashion. Little is seen to do with having the right intellect. In that sense, it is understandable that the old system may enjoy hindsight through a rosy prism.
One of the main arguments of critics of the 12-grade system is that it replaces the old "good traditions." Meanwhile, advocates of the new system say for all its quality, the old Soviet school has become obsolete and is no longer consonant with the time.
Among the 10 schools where senior school programs were experimented in 2008 was Yerevan School No. 112. Sargis Karamian, principal of the school, describes the new 12-year system as positive and promising, based on the experience of the past academic year.
"It should have been introduced even earlier. The Soviet school was quite good; however the Soviet system has long gone and we had to get rid of everything that used to exist under the failed Soviet system in order to be able to move forward," says the school principal.
Anahit Bakhshian, a deputy of the National Assembly and member of the legislature's standing commission on educational affairs, also positively evaluates the 12-grade education system. She considers parents' complaints to be "inertia."
"I think it is early for children to finish school at 16 (as under the previous system), since a child at that age is still maturing. It is better if a child grows up at school, in the direction he or she chooses, gets education in senior schools according to specially worked-out programs. It is important that children grow to become mature young people while still at school," says Bakhshian.
Bakhshian, who for years was a school principal, also praises the new 10-point evaluation system, which was experimentally introduced in the republic's schools in 2008-2009.
MP Bakhshian says that only four marks (2, 3, 4, and 5) were used for grading in the past, which was a very "rigid" evaluation system.
Under the 10-point evaluation system, 1 is considered very bad, 2 is bad, 3 is unsatisfactory, 4 is satisfactory, 5 is average, 6 is above average, 7 is good, 8 is very good, 9 is excellent and 10 is exceptional.
Karen Melkonian, head of subprograms at the Center of Education Programs of the Ministry of Education and Science, says that under the new system, the general evaluation of a pupil is formed on the basis of separate components and through evaluation on different scales.
For instance, a lower coefficient is given for homework than for work in the class in the total mark, on the assumption that homework is not always and not fully a pupil's "work" (as someone might give a hand to the student).
"The new grading system is a more flexible and precise evaluation system," he says. "It is an important characteristic of this evaluation system that teachers can justify the mark they give."
"When knowledge and the mark match, you can get quality in education, and this system gives such an opportunity," says Bakhshian.
Bakhshian considers it another step forward that several school graduation and university entrance examinations this year were taken by students under a unified system.
Unified examinations were first practiced in Armenia in 2007. Three years ago, as part of an educational reform program, the Ministry of Education and Science decided to organize centralized examinations concurrently with the school graduation examinations instead of holding university entrance examinations separately.
The goal was to simplify the procedure for students to enter universities and reduce corruption risks in this process.
One "hell" to survive
Unified examinations in mathematics and the Armenian language were taken by secondary school graduating pupils last year. The number of these examinations reached seven this year, as chemistry, physics, biology, geography and history were added. The examinations were held according to a standardized test, whereas before evaluation they relied more on a teacher's subjective opinion of the student's skill—a practice that was convenient for corruption.<
Examinations began on June 2, and ended on June 23, with about 19,000 entrants taking the unified examinations.
The first experiment proved more difficult than expected for nearly everyone. After review, the main complaint of pupils and their parents was that the tests were too hard or too complex. And, students performed better on foreign language than on Armenian, leading to even more complaints that expectations for performance of the mother tongue were unrealistically high.
But while administrators must take into account the possibility of less-severe testing, it is uniformly agreed that a big improvement was made in the process by establishing a single test that serves the purpose of evaluating grade-school proficiency and also sets a standard for university entrance.
This change alone comes as a relief for thousands of high school graduates aspiring to become university students who previously had to complete two stressful exams—graduation evaluation and university entrance—within a space of just two months.
While many complaining of the complexity of the tests think that the new examination system has made the situation worse, Taguhi Manvelian, who has become a university student this year, is now happy to have passed the examination successfully. She says she had to go through that "hell" only once, thanks to the new system.
"It was very good that I had to take examinations only once. True, I got a lower score than I'd expected in Armenian language, but I didn't have to go through the same pangs twice. When you study for months, every week and every day matters and you want to get through it as soon as possible, and the unified examinations helped me a lot in this sense," says Manvelian, now a student at Yerevan State Institute of Economics.
As of September 1, Manvelian is a student of a university system that has a higher quality than it previously offered. This is the fourth year that Armenia's university system has been in the process of switching to a two-stage (bachelor and master's) credit system. Previously students took five years of study, followed by three years of research, emerging with a degree that was somewhere between a bachelor degree and a doctorate, but not meeting the exact definition of a master's.
Post-graduate students were left, then, with a somewhat nebulous level of academics for which there was no clear equivalent among universities outside the former Soviet Union.
Since 2005, when Armenia entered the Bologna Process (a European Commission project aimed at creating a compatible evaluation system for all European countries), the main challenge of the Ministry of Education and Science and institutions of higher education has been the introduction of a two-stage system, a credits accumulation and transference system as well as the establishment of doctoral programs as a bridge between higher education and research fields.
Ruben Aghgashian, pro-rector of the State Engineering University of Armenia (SEUA), which was the first to switch to the credit system back in 2002-03, says the new system is favorable particularly for students.
"This is a flexible and student-centered system, since it enables students to participate in the formation of their student plans. Of course, the share of a student's work increases, too," says Aghgashian.
The university will see its first graduates with credit diplomas in 2011. (Previously students graduated on a "pass/fail" basis ranging from "satisfactory" to "exceptional"—a system liable to abuse. Some were known to pay considerable sums for the so-called "red diploma," meaning that the student had passed with "exceptional" marks. The "red diploma" was considered a prime asset in a girl's dowry.)
At the end of the 2008 school year, Education and Science Minister Armen Ashotian noted that even though the education system is improving from year to year, "it does not yet mean it is possible to eliminate all negative phenomena."
The minister's terminology politely acknowledges that bribery still exists, as parents buy grades that make it easier for students to enter universities where entrance is limited. (Paying for top grades is especially compelling to boys wishing to continue studies in order to avoid military service.)
"There is not a single sphere where such phenomena are absent. This year we have taken stronger measures and fought against these phenomena in a more consistent manner," said the newly appointed minister, in reference to widespread concerns and allegations of corruption that have dogged the Armenian educational system.
But Ashotian and others can be encouraged in knowing that by the time this generation of youth completes Armenia's educational requirements, they will have exited a system much more in line with international norms, which will become another product of the ongoing higher education reform in Armenia.
(Reporting for this article was contributed by Sara Khojoyan)