Reflections over Thirteen Time Zones
This may come as a surprise, but education administrators, school board members, teachers and parents looking for a commitment to excellence in education would be well served to look at Kazakhstan as a model. Kazakhstan? Yes, Kazakhstan.
Prior to mid-October, a trip to Kazakhstan was nowhere on my radar. That changed, though, when I received an invitation to present last week in Astana, Kazakhstan—at the Nazarbayev Intellectual Schools’ International Conference: Excellence and Leadership in Education. Now that I have recovered from a trip halfway around the world (literally) and the resultant, brutal jet lag (which discombobulated me for days), I am able to share a bit about what I observed during what was, for me, a formative experience.
Nazarbayev is Nursultan Nazarbayev: President of Kazakhstan since the country gained independence from the Soviet Union in December 1991. A dynamic and popular leader, President Nazarbayev has overseen the development of the Kazakh culture and economy into a regional powerhouse in Eurasia. Blessed with plentiful natural resources, Kazakhstan’s economy has grown and prospered for years. Nazarbayev’s vision is to leverage that prosperity into educational opportunities for Kazakh kids that left me…well…envious.
The Nazarbayev Intellectual Schools (NIS) – there are twenty or so campuses throughout Kazakhstan – are tangible investments in the country’s intellectual capital. Serving students ages 12 to 18, the emphasis is on teaching mathematics and the sciences, as well as foreign languages. The schools are trilingual, offering courses in Kazakh, Russian and English. Again, this is consistent with the president’s vision for his country—a completely trilingual Kazakhstan that competes not just regionally, but globally.
While any Kazakh teen may apply to attend an NIS campus, admittance is fiercely competitive (and for good reason): a student who graduates from one of the Nazarbayev Intellectual Schools will have his or her college tuition — to any university in the world – paid for by the Kazakh government. To date, graduates have gone on to attend many of the world’s most preeminent universities, including Oxford, Cambridge, Carnegie Mellon, Duke, University College London, and many more.
The idea is that these bright, highly educated students will return to Kazakhstan and launch careers as business people, doctors, educators, engineers, politicians, and leaders. The country invests in its students, and the students return that investment to their country. The “trickle-down” from their opportunities and achievements permeates all aspects of Kazakh culture, spurring ever-greater innovation and prosperity.
Of course, not everyone can attend a Nazarbayev Intellectual School. And, I heard critics suggest that too much emphasis on “the best and brightest” could have negative ramifications for the millions of non-NIS students – That is, while the country splurges on a few, it minimizes opportunities for the majority. Which side is right? I can’t say.
What I will offer is that after having no idea what to expect of an education conference in Kazakhstan, I came away impressed by a genuine passion and commitment for excellence in education. And, while the educators I met were happy to share Kazakh success stories in education, they also spoke openly and honestly about challenges they face. Several mentioned that for Kazakhstan to emerge on the global stage, leaders must ensure educational opportunities extend beyond the Nazarbayev Intellectual Schools’ students. If they are successful in doing so, I think the president’s vision is truly attainable.