ISTANBUL — The answer is 12, the number of years that legislation now steamrolling its way through the Turkish Parliament would require children to spend in school. The law proposes to increase compulsory schooling by four years, up from eight grades.
This may sound like just the thing to help Turkey overcome its education deficit. Forty percent of the countryâ€™s 15-year olds are unable to reach basic competence in mathematic literacy (pdf). Turkey is ranked 32nd in scientific literacy out of the 34 O.E.C.D. countries in the organizationâ€™s Program for International Student Assessment.
But the real purpose of the legislation may be less to keep children in school longer than to let them pursue intensive religious education younger. Once again, education reform here Â is caught in the never-ending tug of war between the old secular establishment and the conservative government of the Justice and Development (AK) Party.
Todayâ€™s muddle goes back to Turkeyâ€™s last great educational reform, which was enacted in 1997, just after the military helped push out of power an Islamist-led coalition. Back then, the incoming secularist government decreed that Turkish children would have to spend at least eight years in school, instead of the previous five.
This reform, along with a campaign to cut truancy and encourage girls to enroll in primary school, would turn out to be the key to getting young Turkish people better jobs. It was a poverty-reduction measure on an epic scale.
But these measures were also politically motivated. By requiring that all eight compulsory years of schooling be spent under the same primary-school roof, they abolished middle schools. This meant that children could not enter vocational schools until the ninth grade (rather than the sixth, as before).
The generals had their sight on delaying admission to one type of vocational school in particular: imam hatip, which were used to train the Islamic clergy. Never mind that imam hatip were less like madrassas than parochial schools in the United States. By the mid-1990s, they were attracting some 11 percent of children in the relevant age group and developing into a parallel system of education. For the staunch secularists in power that was too much.
By the time the AK Party took over from the generals, a decade ago, only about 2 percent of eligible children attended clerical schools. Since then, the AK Party has been determined to undo the effects of the 1997 reform. Thatâ€™s why the current reform proposes to both extend mandatory schooling to 12 years and divide that time into four years of primary school, four years of middle school and four years of high school (hence the â€ś4 + 4 + 4â€ť slogan). The idea is to revitalize middle schools and allow children to take a large number of elective options: in some cases, plumbing; in others, religious studies.
The bill is causing an uproar. It was written without public debate — or even discussion in the education ministryâ€™s own consultative body, the National Education Council — and it did not figure in the governmentâ€™s 2011 election manifesto. Fierce objections to it, mainly from the opposition Republican Peopleâ€™s Party, led to fist fights and chairs being thrown in Parliament earlier this month.
The criticsâ€™ concerns are real. According to education specialists, the new measures would undermine educational standards and deepen social inequalities. The fifth grade, they argue, is just too early for children to be steered away from a basic curriculum and be asked to make vocational choices about how to spend the rest of their life.
Experts also say that the new system would hurt the less privileged. To get into the best schools in Turkey, children often have to take competitive examinations. Under the new law, children from deprived homes or who only know Kurdish when they enter the first grade will be hurt when they compete for middle school: they are unlikely to have overcome their handicap by the end of fourth grade in a system where Turkish is the language of instruction.
Another fear is that some parents will pull their daughters out of formal schooling after primary school to take advantage of options currently being considered that would allow for home schooling as early as the fifth grade.
The education faculties of most of Turkeyâ€™s leading universities — including Sabanci University, Bosphorus University, Middle East Technical University and Koc University — have all issued press statements recently describing the reforms as hastily conceived, retrograde and out of step with current thinking.
They, at least, have realized that the government is playing politics with pedagogy.