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Scholar Observes 'Fascinating' Changes in Soviet Education

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A Conversation with Stephen T. Kerr

Stephen T. Kerr, associate dean of the college of education at the University of Washington, has been studying and writing extensively on the Soviet Union's educational system for 15 years.

Last fall, at the invitation of the U.S.S.R.'s New Times magazine, the creative union of teachers, and the "Eureka" Center for Socio-Pedagogical Design, Mr. Kerr toured the Soviet Union. He visited schools in Moscow and Leningrad, as well as a "Eureka Club"--an independent professional association of teachers--in Ust-Narva, Estonia.

He discussed Soviet education reforms with Associate Editor Robert Rothman.

Q. Could you tell me a little of your background in studying the Soviet education system?

A. Up until the advent of [President Mikhail S.] Gorbachev in 1985, it was very much a low-key interest. There wasn't much going on. You could look at changes in curriculum, the latest top-down reform proposal, and you could predict in advance it wasn't going anywhere.

In 1985, when Gorbachev came along, ... other efforts, more locally based, started to spring up. ...

The events of the last several years have been fascinating. They show how much interest there is in changing a system run by a strongly centralized regime for a long period of time. On the other hand, they also show that changing that kind of system is extraordinarily difficult.

Q. Some of the problems you describe in your articles--the routinized classrooms, the problems of heterogeneous classes--are similar to those schools in the U.S. are facing. Do they have some answers that might be applicable here?

A. There are real similarities in the problems we face, but real differences in education systems.

Routinized classrooms are huge problems there as well [as here]. Some [Soviet] educational psychologists ... say that concepts and modes of thought arise out of appropriate structured activities students engage in, activities done [in groups.] That's pretty close to some ideas of cooperative learning developed over here. It would be very interesting getting American educators interested in cooperative learning with Soviets. ...

Another area American educators could learn a great deal is in the education of the gifted. ... The Soviets have always had powerful special schools, especially in the areas of math and physics. ... It's amazing what kids do, what teachers do in that setting. .. We could profit from them.

Q. In your discussion of the "Eureka Clubs," you describe a close link between research and practice that is still elusive here. How do they manage to accomplish that?

A. They accomplish it in a few projects. They have the same problem at the official level we do. If you mention the Academy of Pedagogical Sciences to most teachers, they either dismiss it, or say, "What a joke"--the same kinds of comments typically made about American faculty of colleges of education. ...

There are, though, working groups that pull teachers together and get them to talk seriously about professional issues. They have a commitment to try to ground their work in something. ...

It's still, however, on a small scale. It's only a fraction of a fraction [of teachers]. But it's a growing number. I see hope.

Q. You have written that the Soviets have attempted to revamp their education-research arm, the Academy of Pedagogical Sciences. How has that been working?

A. Minimally. The problem is, the aps is a self-perpetuating body. They elect their own members. ... They talk about reform, and put together groups that look good on paper--like an education-research association that looks like the American Educational Research Association--but in fact, it's a very conservative body. ...

The academy is in a terrible state. It's not perceived as recognizing teachers' needs and demands. ... There were proposals for reform, and legitimate hope that some good changes might come out of it, but they haven't been borne out. ...

Q. Do you think the economic and political turmoil that has erupted since you came back from the Soviet Union has set back their education reforms?

A. It is uncertain, of course. ... But part of the reason they can't turn back is, one of the things Gorbachev realized early on--which we are only coming to realize--is that economic growth and development, and the ability to compete in world markets, is ultimately dependent on what goes on in the education system. [Also,] they can't go back to a rigorous, structured education system where they tried to control the results of education from the center. ...

There may be external blips on the graph, but they are going to have to return to the kinds of experiments they are doing right now.

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