Walking through the school museum at Samarkand City School Number 21, Director Sayora Melikova points out bags, pens, inkwells, and old textbooks, all in use when she began teaching here 33 years ago. "Uzbekistan's education system is going through the biggest changes I have ever seen," she says.
In the courtyard of the school, one of the oldest in the country and where President Islam Karimov graduated with honors in 1955, she points out new renovations, part of several government initiatives that are transforming the country's education system.
One of the most visible and important for her 1,500 students and their families and teachers has been a project funded by ADB that brought affordable textbooks to the nation's school children: the Basic Education Textbook Development Project (BETDP), implemented between 1998 and 2004.
After the fall of the Soviet Union and the declaration of independence, the country faced many challenges in its transition to a market economy. An economic downturn left the government with an underfunded education system mired in an outdated Soviet curriculum.
The quality of basic education and access to it became major concerns. In 1997, new laws on education and the National Program for Personnel Training were adopted, requiring a comprehensive review of the curriculum and the rewriting and reprinting of all textbooks. It became a priority for education reform to provide better designed, more durable, and more widely available textbooks that would be produced more efficiently.
The government turned to ADB to help fund an ambitious government program to produce millions of new textbooks with modern content. A new curriculum meant everyone, from teachers to book authors, would have to be retrained. A modern publishing and printing industry would have to be created. The four-color textbooks would have to be durable enough to last for 4 years, but still be affordable. The task of providing textbooks for various subjects for almost six million school children, grades one to nine, and in seven different languages-let alone teacher guides and other publications-was staggering.
Of the US$111 million project cost, ADB provided two loans of US$20 million each. Around the time of loan approval, the government introduced market mechanisms in textbook provision, to free up limited budget resources by abolishing free textbooks for all students except first graders.
Parents now had to pay for textbooks. Dilshod Khamzayev, Ministry of Public Education project implementation manager with the Second Textbook Development Project, remembers what it was like to be a student back then. "Buying new textbooks was a financial burden on me and other families and they were difficult to find."
In 2000, the Ministry of Public Education gave BETDP experts the task of proposing an affordable solution. The best way to make the new books affordable, they decided, was through an innovative textbook rental scheme whereby parents paid an annual rental fee for each book.
The government decided to pilot-test the scheme among 250,000 students in about 500 schools, including in poor areas. ADB provided the funding to print the pilot set of textbooks. The textbooks were supplied to schools, which collected rental fees and deposited them in interest-earning special accounts in local banks. The annual fees covered the cost of replacing the books after 4 years and were administered by school textbook committees.
The rental scheme proved so successful the government approved its gradual nationwide introduction in September 2002. The cost is typically 500 Uzbek sum (about US$0.30) a year for each book. The government is providing free textbooks to all students in first grade and an estimated 15% of students in grades two through nine who cannot afford the fee.
Amid the roar of high-speed, computer-controlled presses and automated binding machines inside O'qituvchi, one of the largest publishing and printing houses in Central Asia, Director Rustam Mirzayev snatches a book from a conveyor belt and thumbs to a page of high-quality four-color pictures. "This is the kind of thing we had to learn to do when we took on the new textbooks," he said.
In the past, O'qituvchi alone provided textbooks in Uzbekistan. But the huge number of new books required-nearly 30 million textbooks, as well as teacher's guides and other publications-meant using multiple printing houses.
The Ministry of Public Education produced specifications and set standards for textbook production that could be used by any printing company. Funding from the BETDP helped printing houses and publishers transform from producers of low-quality products to modern publishing and printing operations, capable of creating durable textbooks using high quality paper and cover board and automated bookbinding techniques.
ADB provided loans of US$8.5 million to modernize and upgrade printing and binding equipment, and US$11.0 million to purchase high-quality paper.
"Before the BETDP, only one publishing house produced textbooks for schools," says Guzal Tugeeva, BETDP project manager. "Now we have around 30. We have contracts to print textbooks for surrounding countries like Tajikistan now," said Mirzayev.
By the end of the BETDP, 15 million textbooks were published. About 700,000 new textbooks were produced in Karakalpak, Kazakh, Kyrgyz, Russian, Tajik, and Turkmen languages. Two million teacher's guides were also published, 49,000 visual kits of supplementary materials distributed, and to date 560,000 copies of supplementary books, comprising 28 titles, have reached school library shelves nationwide.
At Samarkand School Number 21, 15-year-old Mekhrangiz proudly shows her 4-year-old English textbook imprinted with a publication date of 2006, which-like the books on her classmates' desks-looks brand new.
"They are well made," says Melikova, but she also credits the students. "The rental scheme has taught them to respect their books."