Education Opinion

Command-Style Schooling in Russia

By Deborah Meier — October 18, 2007 3 min read
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Dear Diane,

I needed 36 hours of sleep when I got back from Russia! But it’s time to begin to sort out my thoughts. Aside from all the fun, including the pleasure of traveling with my sons, it has reinforced some old theories, and raised some new questions.

The most obvious is that “command"-style schooling is still alive and well in Russia. After a brief “pestroika” for schools, the heavy hand of the state has come down again. The rhetoric is very familiar. Some of which you’d like (a single state curriculum) perhaps? But most of which would chill you as it does me. But there are also more and more private schools in Russia, and some of these do interesting things (I’m told). Many teachers I met thought positively about this since it might free them from tight state supervision.

The one school I visited—The School of Self-Determination—was a largely neighborhood K-12 public school founded by Alexander Tubelesky in the 1990s along lines that are familiar to me: influenced by both Summerhill and progressive education. It’s that rarity: consciously concerned with Democracy. They appear to be more innovative in out-of-classroom life than classroom life. The 3-5-year-old wing delighted me; a lovely setting designed around inter-age play. Kids are allowed to do a lot of unsupervised activities both indoors and out that we wouldn’t dare do. (Less fear of lawsuits?) There’s a comfortable mix of ages everywhere one looks. At recess, the kids of all ages danced and sang old Russian songs for us! And their voices were of a quality and power that one rarely hears in young American singers. This latter puzzles me. When my mother visited in 1936, she was aghast with what she saw, but delighted with the singing!

Data. In the old Soviet days there were, we were told, NO dropouts. A little like there being no gays in Iran? But maybe it was true. Kids were required to stay in school until they were ready for the army. Period. Under the new regime there are drop-outs, but no one agrees on how many. Sound familiar? Kids who pass the university exams are exempt from the military—those who fail the exams are in the army for 2-3 years. How’s that for an incentive system? (Still most fail.)

Alas, we didn’t see “regular” schools, but heard that they are mostly very “traditional"—including being influenced again by the Russian Orthodox church.

The Russians assume their system’s task is to fill the Universities with the required number of future middle managers and specialists, in the interests of a strong economy. Democracy doesn’t, as usual, make it onto their official agenda—not in China, Russia or here at home. (The conference I attended, organized precisely to think about how democracy and schooling connected, would not be mainstream here or there.)

A recent article in Phi Delta Kappan notes that the Chinese are trying to become more like America—which they see as a font of creativity—while America is trying to imitate China! I’m not sure where Russia fits in this cycle—but it seems more like the USA. But the issue is critical: what we do with 3-6-year-olds may not show up for 30 years in terms of its impact on the economy, innovation, et al—much less democracy. That same issue of PDK has a number of articles that probe the significance of this long-term issue.

The disappearance of half a century of Communism in such rapid order is startling—a striking reminder to would-be reformers. I grew up at a time when all the experts considered it irreversible except by force. Many Russians I spoke to were, however, deeply afraid about the future, even as they enjoyed the money now available to rebuild the nation—including its schools. Inequality was far from absent under Communism, but there probably were not many super-rich. And the safety net for the less-well-off has disappeared. We were told that there was no national health insurance system.

The habits of rude bureaucrat’ism are still strong! I’ve never heard so much scolding of the public as I heard in their museums. A little like schools! It was the first shock I had when I got involved with public education in the early 60s. That tone—with its undertone of fear. It’s a combination that doesn’t invite strong adults to make a career of teaching. I think a lot lately about the extent to which those in charge in the US are systematically re-building a seamless
system built on replaceable temps—and fear.

Diane, have you seen the Paris-based Organization for Economic Development’s study? Of 29 OECD countries, it finds that the US teachers are “among the lowest paid,” work longer hours, and that the United States ranks 10th in its efforts to control class size. Contrary to popular belief.


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