Kindercare in Kazakhstan: How Early Childhood Education Will Achieve Strategy 2050 Goals
Brynn Koeppen is a second-year M.A. candidate concentrating in Strategic Studies and International Economics at Johns Hopkins University School of Advanced International Studies. She has five years of experience in entrepreneurship and digital media. Brynn earned her undergraduate degree from The College of William and Mary and speaks Mandarin Chinese and French. She recently spent 11 weeks in Pretoria interning at the South African Reserve Bank.
The Kazakhstani government’s 2014 “Strategy 2050” includes a grand political, social and economic approach to elevate Kazakhstan to the “Top Thirty Advanced Countries” by 2050. The first goal of the 2050 initiative is defined as, “create a strong human resource base: value well-educated, healthy citizens who have meaningful jobs and are protected by the sound social safety net; build a modern education system from early childhood to post-doctoral research; and promote preventive medicine with patient responsibility,” and serves as the focus of this essay.
Kazakhstan must reinstate a robust, federally-funded early childhood education program (ECE). Today, Kazakhstan’s primary education system starts at age 7 and ends at age 18. However, it is in the country’s economic interest to restart 5-day a week, 7-hour schooling from ages 3 to 6. ECE should focus on trilingual literacy, including Kazakh, Russian and English, as well as technology literacy.
Students will have a higher chance of attending university and landing a high-skilled job upon graduation due to an effective ECE curriculum. Students from a minority group or rural population will particularly benefit from publicly-funded ECE. Civic society will benefit because upfront investment in ECE is cheaper and more effective than tertiary and secondary education reforms. ECE will also allow mothers to return to the workforce quicker and foster better parent-teacher-student engagement.
Kazakhstan’s GDP averaged 8 percent between 2000 and 2013, due in part to a surge in the services sector (a high-skilled labor industry category). The Kazakhstani government cannot be complacent and merely maintain current growth in order to join the elite club of developed nations by 2050. Mandatory ECE, beginning at age 3, should be funded by the Kazakhstani government as well as small endowments from domestic and international businesses within regional Kazakhstani communities.
Kazakhstan’s Education Legacy
Kazakhstan consistently outperforms its neighbors in annual GDP growth rates in part because 40 percent of its population has tertiary education. Therefore, the most important Soviet Union legacy in aiding Kazakhstan’s rapid economic growth is not natural resources or capital-endowment industries, but in fact is the inheritance of rich human capital conditions that have created a relative high-income level per household.
However, the Soviet-led education system left Kazakhstan with an institutional legacy of supporting ‘specialized’ and ‘high-achiever’ schools. Few resources were invested into underperforming children in the southern and rural regions of Kazakhstan, further supporting inequality among Kazakh and Russian children, as well as rural and urban children. As the Kazakhstani government worked to develop market-based institutions in the 1990s, public school early childhood development was deprioritized. Naturally, small schools in rural areas continue to perform poorly overall, and especially when compared to large schools in urban areas.
Recommendations: Trilingual Curriculum and Technology-Enriched Curriculum
Research conducted by Harvard University shows that age 3 is the ideal language to learn a second, third or fourth language. The two most effective and cheapest ECE curriculum changes that must occur are trilingual and technology education. The need for a trilingual citizenry was noted by President Nursultan Nazarbayev, designating Kazakh as the nation’s official language, Russian as the language of interethnic communication, and English as the language of successful integration into the global economy. As Kazakhstan integrates with the global economy, it must invest in public policies that support a distinct national identity; nation-building starts at the preschool level with learning Kazak. English is a necessary part of the ECE curriculum to prepare the next generation for to compete in higher education and the global marketplace.
Russian-speaking Kazakhstanis are more likely to graduate from university or vocational school, whereas Kazakh speakers are more likely to be farmers and to be poor. With 24 percent of the Kazakhstani population ethnically Russian, as well as strong inter-industry trade with neighboring Russia, it is imperative that all Kazakhstanis, ethnic and non-ethic, learn Russian to prepare for local high-skilled jobs and/or service jobs within urban areas. Russian-speaking Kazakhs typically work as technicians and engineers- prestigious and high-wage industry sectors. Addressing the basic literacy barriers between ethnic Kazakhs and ethnic Russians will take generations, however, it starts with equal access to education, which begins with ECE and the opportunity to learn Russian, the language of today’s high-skilled labor and English, the language of high-skilled labor of tomorrow.
Today 13.23 million Kazakhstanis use the internet; over 72.9 percent of its population. However, Kazakhstan remains 45th in terms of broadband access. As Kazakhstan works to meet “Strategy 2050” standards, it should expedite its broadband access in tandem with the use of technology-enabled learning, such as puzzle games and literacy applications. Furthermore, e-learning can help combat distance education methods in order to achieve the ultimate goal of high-quality learning opportunities for students in rural regions. Investment in initial technology literacy within early-learning classrooms will reduce the reliance on teacher instruction, a hard feat with teachers who (at least initially) might not be trilingual. Technology will not replace proper teacher training, but it is a substantial enricher of the ECE curriculum.
Implications for Students: Bridging the Urban-Rural Divide and High-Skilled Employment
The education gap in Kazakhstan begins as early as age 7, when students are placed in separate classrooms based on the language spoken at home –usually Russian or Kazakh. This fundamental language barrier carries over into the Russian-spoken science and technology curriculum later in the school pipeline, along with many English-taught classes at the university level. In fact, the education system in Kazakhstan is heavily biased to favor children within urban areas who speak Russian and/or English.
Despite high overall literacy rates and low gender achievement gap, Kazakhstan has an incredibly large urban-rural achievement divide that will greatly affect its ability to meet “Strategy 2050” goals. The government’s third point in “Strategy 2050” specifically addresses social policies pertaining to the “social imbalances” and “children’s rights” in the region. Therefore, the key to bridging this socio-economic divide is not to just invest resources into the university system, but to start the public education pipeline early, through ECE. Early childhood education will greatly help to solve education discrepancy at the root of the problem because it will allow children to have access to learning the nation’s three critical languages for employment and academia success in a market-based economy.
Supporting ECE is the most effective way for Kazakhstan to confront its taxing urban-rural divide by balancing the educational benefits that urban students receive later down the school pipeline in high school and later at university. At the Kazakhstan primary school level in 2012, urban schools continue to perform much better than rural schools at almost 20 points higher on the PISA test (the nation’s education standard exam). Schools that listed Russian as the main language of instruction also received much higher PISA scores when compared to Kazakh- language schools, the majority are in underdeveloped areas in the Southern region of the country.
As knowledge replaces physical capital as Kazakhstan’s largest resource, it is important that the public school system reflects values of lifelong learning. “Soft skills” begin to develop as early as age 3, leading to a disproportionally low chance of students who lack cognitive ECE atmospheres to succeed at the tertiary level. The famous U.S. Perry preschool experiment found that children who participate in preschool from age 3 to 6 have a 20 percent higher likelihood of graduating from secondary school. This study was further built upon by a 2012 trial of children from poor households, suggesting that teaching these critical life-long skills ought to begin when children first have interactions outside their family unit. Joining the 21st century economy requires the nation of Kazakhstan to not only gain technology for the growing service industry, but also its knowledge-based skilled workforce that transcend ethic and racial divides, such as problem-solving, teamwork and cooperation.
Implications for Civic Society: Parental Engagement and Women in the Workforce
Investment in Kazakhstan’s early childhood education system remains relatively cheap because school building infrastructure remains intact from the Soviet era, and investment per child requires less technology and materials to support fundamental learning when compared to adolescents and older. ECE curriculum will need to be modified to fit the literature of a poly-ethnic state, but the overhaul will be simpler than beginning a publicly funded pre-school program from scratch. The Soviet Union did leave basic learning materials that can be revamped for use in the new system. Also, once school systems ask for input and have the ‘buy-in’ of parents, children are more likely to stay in school. In three prominent U.S. studies within the past 15 years, studies found that if low-income students attend well-run ECE programs, then those students are 30 to 44 percent more likely to graduate from high school.
Besides having an efficient trilingual early education program that contributes to the elevation of all students of Kazakhstan regardless of socio-economic background, there are domestic economic benefits to beginning the public education school system at age 3. These reasons include mothers returning to the workforce sooner and parental engagement. First, mothers will be able to return to work four years earlier than they do today. This is particularly important for an economy as unique as Kazakhstan, as women in the society are oftentimes equally if not more educated than their male counterparts (figure 1). Women patriciate in the labor force at a rate of 68 percent, which is relatively consistent with the OECD average. Furthermore, the gender pay gap for Kazakhstan is less than 10 percent and women enroll in university at 16 percentage points higher than men, unique for developing country. Additionally, over 50 percent of farmers are women and the agricultural sector represents over 26 percent of employment in Kazakhstan. Therefore, it is important for the private sector and policy-makers of Kazakhstan to have a large portion of its educated, already-trained workforce contributing to the country’s domestic economy as soon as it is ready to do so, whether as farmers, teachers or customer service representatives.
Figure 1: Participation in Higher Education by Gender
(taken from Reviews of National Policies for Education: Higher Education in Kazakhstan 2017, OECD.
Financing Early Childhood Education: Private Enterprise Investment
The ECE program should take advantage of private endowments. First, it is in the best interest local and global businesses to fund programs, such as ECE, that help trained employees return to the workforce faster. Second, funding small ECE endowments are good branding opportunities for local and global businesses to showcase corporate citizenship. The model of encouraging private-public sector cooperation would be a hyper-local initiative, with corporations that employ Kazakhstani citizens having children in the public education system and therefore an incentive to keep their employees content; funding the success of a local school system is a direct channel. With much national animosity towards multi-corporations that exploit national resources, this initiative would serve the branding needs of oil conglomerates PetroKazakhstan and ChevronTexaco’s TengizChevroil well.
Long-Term Economic and Political Implications
The prevention of radicalization through classroom engagement at a young age, coupled with language study that promotes inter-ethnic tolerance prevents the likelihood of civil unrest and war. Kazakhstan remains a diverse and divided nation, it is still possible for domestic instability to turn to violence. As a prime example, the ethnic-civil war in neighboring Tajikistan claimed 50,000 lives and displaced 20 percent of the population. Studies estimate that the 1990s civil war led to the country’s GDP to collapse by 57 percent over a period of 8 years. Encouraging tolerance at young level during critical development years is a precursor to tolerance as an adult, therefore breeding acceptance and stability in the poly-ethnic state of Kazakhstan. In sum, as Kazakhstan opens its country up to foreign influence it will need to define and modernize its cultural representation of the state. This starts with nation-building with the future generation at the preschool level through Kazakh, Russian and English language literacy.
Kazakhstan remains highly dependent on natural resources. Minerals, oil, and natural gas account for 80 percent of exports and 37 percent of GDP in 2014. The 2008-2009 reduction in the world price of oil caused the Kazakhstani government to reduce its currency evaluation, which led to high domestic inflation. Having an economy not reliant on exports, but instead drawing economic growth from domestic consumer demand will allow Kazakhstan to achieve its fundamental goal of decreasing foreign aid endowments, such as through The World Bank. It will also ultimately allow Kazakhstan to become less economically dependent on natural resource buyers Russia and China, a necessary goal as the country works to establish itself as an economic powerhouse by 2050.
If Kazakhstan is able to achieve the fundamental objective of high-quality and effective access to public education for its constituents, than it will be able to fully integrate with the rest of the world without fear of overreliance on a singular market. Establishing a sound education system creates resilient public institutions and business sectors which will be able to mitigate outside world factors pushing on the domestic economy. For example, between 2005 and 2013 employment growth increased by 15 percent in the manufacturing and transportation equipment sectors, and by 10 percent in the financial and insurance sectors – both are high-skilled labor categories.
Ready for Strategy 2050
Achieving each “Strategy 2050” vision requires strategic thinking and a long-term outlook by government officials, policy-makers, academics, economists and education leaders-alike.
Overhauling the public education with mandatory, public ECE schooling at age 3 will contribute to the desired human capital management goal specified in the first section of “Strategy 2050.” An educated and diverse workforce with ECE that focuses on trilingual literacy, e-learning and rural students will contribute to the expansion of a self-sufficient domestic economy, which will also transfer into good governance and strong institutions. Social welfare factors, such as a decrease reliance on foreign direct investment, and increase in high-skilled employed workers will jointly contribute to Kazakhstan becoming a top 30 country by 2050.
Top photograph of Almaty, Kazakhstan taken from Irene2005 (https://www.flickr.com/photos/irene2005/2575543604) under Creative Commons license for reuse (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0/).
In 1997 the government of Kazakhstan laid out seven priorities for the year 2030. The ambitious policy plan performed ahead of schedule and led to the declaration of the “Strategy 2050” in 2014.
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In the long-run, ECE could be make advisory boards regarding the allocation of private-sector funded resources, such as what the Kazakhstani government encourages at the higher education level.
PetroKazakstan is Canadian-owned and ChevronTexaco is U.S.-owned.
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 It is also important to note that as Kazakhstan integrates with the global economy, that it show solidarity with the western world and market, a small gesture such as integrating English into the curriculum at the ECE level can go a long way towards European Union (EU) customs union.
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Kazakhstan was not greatly affected by the 2008 Global Financial Crisis because it was not yet entangled in the global economy. However, as the country diversifies it workforce over next 32 years, it will need to have sound domestic institution in order to aid its infant industries on the world market.
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