Soviet Principal Visits a School in Mass. To Become Student of Democratic Process

March 28, 1990 7 min read

By Robert Rothman

Brookline, Mass--As his country’s legislature this month took the historic step of electing the Soviet Union’s first Western-style president, Alexander M. Bannov was half a world away, observing a somewhat less august--though no less committed--deliberative body.

In what appears to be the first exchange of its kind, Mr. Bannov, the principal of School No. 130 in Novosibirsk, Siberia, has spent the past month here at Brookline High School, which operates under an unusual system allowing teachers and students broad authority to decide school policies.

Last week, for example, the school’s legislature--a 34-member panel composed of equal numbers of students and teachers--debated a number of controversial measures, including whether to fly a flag honoring those missing in action in Vietnam and whether to make condoms available in school.

For Mr. Bannov, who three years ago instituted a similar system in his school, the visit provided an opportunity for him to compare notes with his American counterparts. Such information can be useful, he said, as democracy spreads in the Soviet Union, and more and more schools there adopt forms of democratic decisionmaking.

“Now, in our country, we are trying to change a lot,” he said. “We should rely on the experience of American schools.”

“I’m not saying I would like to copy the system of school governance here,” he added. “That would be impossible, and our own system is not bad. But some ideas are useful.”

At the same time, noted Mary A. Jennings, Brookline High’s headmaster, Mr. Bannov’s visit helped strengthen what are likely to be continuing educational ties between the two countries.

But above all, she said, the exchange underscored the common ground between the superpowers.

“If two schools we thought were so dissimilar have so much in common,” she said, “there is hope for peace in the world.”

Exchanges Flourishing

Under Soviet President Mikhail S. Gorbachev’s policy of glasnost, or openness, educational exchanges between the United States and the Soviet Union, involving students, teachers, and scholars, have flourished in the past five years.

This month, for example, Mary V. Bicouvaris, the U.S. Teacher of the Year, spent two weeks in Moscow, Leningrad, and Novosibirsk.

But Mr. Bannov’s trip, sponsored by Educators for Social Responsibility, a Cambridge, Mass.-based group that prepares materials and trains teachers for instruction about issues relating to the nuclear age, is thought to be the first school-to-school exchange between the two countries to involve a school principal.

A prominent education reformer in the Soviet Union, Mr. Bannov has also served as co-director of teacher-leadership institutes jointly sponsored by the Cambridge group and the Soviet government. (See Education Week, Oct. 12, 1988.)

Brookline High was chosen as Mr. Bannov’s host, ESR officials said, in part because of the large number of Soviet emigres enrolled here.

Some 125 of the school’s 1,800 students are from the USSR, according to Ms. Jennings. Mr. Bannov has spent part of his time here explaining the Soviet curriculum to local school administrators to help them devise policies for placing such students.

Mr. Bannov was also expected to visit public schools in Santa Fe, N.M., but a teachers’ strike there thwarted his plans. He did, however, spend time in an American Indian school during a stay in New Mexico.

Democratic Constitution

The main purpose of Mr. Bannov’s U.S. trip, however, was to observe Brookline High’s democratic decisionmaking structure.

Under the school’s eight-year-old constitution, a faculty council, consisting of 17 staff members, has jurisdiction over course curricula, homework policy, and grading policy. A student council resolves questions on the role of faculty advisers, student assemblies, and the use of the student-activities budget.

All other issues are within the purview of the legislature, which includes faculty council members and representatives elected by the student council. According to the constitution, these matters include, “but [are] not limited to, all questions of discipline and school rules, attendance policy, scheduling questions (including general policies for test days), and open/closed campus.”

In addition, the constitution created a 15-member judicial council, composed of students and teachers, to arbitrate school rules.

Brookline High also has an alternative program, known as the “school within a school,” that affords a more direct form of democratic control to students and teachers. On a one-person, one-vote basis, teachers and the 100 students selected to participate in the program decide course curricula and evaluate teachers, among other decisions. One representative from the program also serves in the legislature.

Ralph Mosher, a professor of education at Boston University and an adviser to Brookline, said the system offers students valuable lessons in civic education.

“They are learning how to chair a meeting, how to speak in public, how to use parliamentary procedure,” he said. “They are also learning how a large, impersonal institution actually operates. I believe those are powerful learnings for all students.”

Such lessons are vitally important in the Soviet Union, where young people are just beginning to learn about democracy, Mr. Bannov said.

‘Understand School Better’

“Nobody teaches democracy in the [real] world,” he said. “They say you have rights, that’s all.”

“You can develop [democratic skills] only when you participate in something,” the principal said.

Ms. Jennings, the Brookline headmaster, added that her school’s system has also encouraged students to take more control over their learning, a development that has helped improve their critical-thinking skills.

“Teachers coming here with traditional authority patterns, who don’t allow questions or discussion, do not succeed quickly,” she said.

In addition, Ms. Jennings said, the structure has given students a greater appreciation of school rules, and has helped strengthen their enforcement.

For example, she noted, students who had proposed lengthening the homeroom period to allow more time for student government quickly ran into opposition from other students, who objected to cutting back other classes.

“All of a sudden they understood the complexity of scheduling,” she said. “I think they understand the school and the administration much better through this process.”

Mr. Bannov’s visit also underscored the common problems experienced by the democratic systems at his school and Brookline High, the two administrators agreed.

Chief among them, Mr. Bannov said, is the lack of involvement by many students. Ms. Jennings and others here echoed that view.

In many cases, Mr. Bannov said, his school’s council “is a body working by itself, sometimes for itself.”

“Kids come when the issue concerns them,” he said, noting that debates over smoking and uniforms drew large crowds. “But often those are not, in my point of view, of vital importance.”

‘Teachers Know Better’

Mr. Bannov also said that his stay in politically active Brookline, where parents take a strong interest in schools, convinced him that too much parental involvement can be “dangerous.”

At Novosibirsk School No. 130, he noted, parents, teachers, and students are represented on the school council, which has authority to hire and fire the principal, change the curriculum, and discuss issues of student-teacher relations.

“We must consider the parents’ point of view,” Mr. Bannov said. “Still, at the same time, teachers are professionals. They know better.’'

“If we trust kids to schools, we must trust the professional skills of teachers,” he added.

Mr. Bannov said that Soviet schools are likely to move increasingly toward adopting similar democratic structures. A recent policy issued by the Soviet education ministry urged schools to create such a council “if the faculty and administration are ready for it,” he noted.

Although many of his country’s principals “would give their lives so that the rule is never adopted,” he said, pressures from faculty members are likely to force its enactment at many schools.

In Chicago, the public schools have begun implementing a system of parent-majority school councils with broad powers, such as the right to hire and fire principals, that parallel some of those enjoyed by the council at Mr. Bannov’s school.

But such policies are likely to remain rare in the United States, Ms. Jennings predicted. U.S. principals, like their Soviet counterparts described by Mr. Bannov, tend to resist such power-sharing, she suggested.

“Principals have to overcome the vision that the principal is always right, that leadership comes from the number of decisions you make,” she said.

A version of this article appeared in the March 28, 1990 edition of Education Week as Soviet Principal Visits a School in Mass. To Become Student of Democratic Process