Pedagogical 'Perestroika': Education Reform, Soviet Style

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Moscow--School No. 6 here has seen two different versions of Soviet school reform in two years.

Last year, the English-language specialty school was renamed--becoming School No. 1201--as part of a reform that reflected the Moscow party chief Boris Yeltsin's desire to "democratize" education.

The school's single-digit number had always denoted that it was "special"--and hence, in the Yeltsin view, undemocratic.

Now, with Mr. Yeltsin out of political favor and gone from both the Politburo and the Moscow party apparatus, special schools have become special again. And that leaves Principal Marina M. Voitsekhovskaya free to consider a number of "experiments" that are likely to make this academic year unlike any other in the school's 40-year history.

At School No. 6--an unadorned three-story cement-block structure enrolling 900 students in a residential section of the city--these educational departures will involve not only accelerated learning, but also parent education, contracting for services, and even school fundraising initiatives by students.

Ms. Voitsekhovskaya's plans have been made possible by "perestroika," or restructuring, Soviet leader Mikhail S. Gorbachev's drive to modernize the country's stagnant economy.

But while school reform is a key component of perestroika, Ms. Voitsekhovskaya and other Soviet educators remain uncertain of its ultimate direction.

"Years ago," she says, "there was a period when everyone considered himself a doctor and practiced medicine. Now, we are in the phase when everyone considers himself an educator."

Her comment hints at the worry of many here that the current round of experimentation may also prove a fragile development in light of the system's decades of uniformity and entrenched bureaucracy.

Ms. Voitsekhovskaya, for example, has yet to receive new stationery and an official stamp that would mark her school's name change last year. And the whole school community seems to be hedging its bets by continuing to call it School No. 6.

In the days now referred to as "the period of stagnation," Soviet educators generally aspired to having all students turn to the same page of the same book on the same day.

Now the country's leaders are saying that the excessive standardization has made teachers complacent and the curriculum stale. And in their attempt to revive the school system, reformers are looking West at what they call "the American model."

Toward an 'American Model'

"There are many things the Americans do that interest us," explains Valentina G. Mitina, a senior researcher at the Academy of Pedagogical Sciences here. "Teachers are more free in choosing curriculum and texts, students can choose their courses. We want students to think for themselves."

Gennady Yagodin, chairman of the newly formed State Committee for Public Education, is said to want the Soviet system to take on more of these American characteristics. And the proposals scheduled to be acted on by a teachers' congress here in December bear this out. They include:

Allowing schools more leeway in determining their curricula, daily schedules, and even vacations.

Giving teachers the right to choose teaching methods and administrators more control over school budgets.

Letting 9th and 10th graders select some of their courses cafeteria-style.

Revamping one subject area--history--entirely, to eliminate what are officially called "the black spots," or blatant lies about the country's past.

Creating local councils in every school consisting of teachers, administrators, students, and community members to manage school affairs.

Establishing locally elected school boards to make the system more responsive to public needs and standards.

The proposals also include variations on the American concepts of magnet schools and merit pay. And reformers say that the local control being advocated may also involve the replacement of central appropriations by local financing.

'We Have Other Problems'

"The Soviets have bureaucratic layer after layer of education ministries between the Kremlin and the local school," Harley D. Balzer, head of Russian studies at Georgetown University, explained in a Washington interview. "Some people there say they need a hands-off cabinet-level ministry like our Education Department, with the real direction set at the local level."

Some schools may need much more than that. According to official estimates, 40 percent of the country's students attend schools that do not have indoor toilets.

Many schools are now operating on double shifts because of overcrowding, and officials say that the current rate of school construction will have to be doubled to replace old buildings, reduce the student-teacher ratio, and end double shifts. The effort, they estimate, would have to produce enough new schools to accommodate 28 million pupils between 1990 and 2000.

In addition, while educational expenditures have risen, education's share of the country's budget has been declining--from 11 percent of national spending in 1970 to 8 percent in 1986.

"I don't think there will be any major changes very soon," said Valentina V. Bolshakova, assistant principal and head of the English department at School No. 169 in Leningrad. "We have so many other problems, such as the medical system, food production, everything."

Still, the experimentation continues.

One Moscow school is trying a five-day week instead of the Soviet Union's usual six-day week. Another has proposed foreign-language instruction for kindergartners. And another wants to teach two or three subjects a day instead of five or six, as a way to enable students to concentrate better.

In Vladivostok, a school is experimenting with having students stand behind their desks for a portion of the day, instead of just "sitting like robots," according to the principal who designed the experiment.

In Novosibirsk, School No. 130 has created a faculty-student "parliament," which votes on most major school decisions. The school's faculty members also have the power to elect the principal.

"I have less and less rights," quips Alexander M. Bannov, the principal who designed the experiment in democracy, then passed its ultimate test by getting elected. "My life was much easier before democracy."

At a recent conference of Soviet and American teachers held at Hampshire College in Amherst, Mass., Mr. Bannov explained how the parliament, during its first few months, created a "bill of rights" to protect students from arbitrary actions by the administration.

"Students show one common characteristic: the lack of responsibility," he said at the college gathering. "I think we should teach responsibility. But to teach responsibility, we must give students rights."

Disco Lights and Grade Books

Plans for such experiments must be approved by each school's faculty and parents' committees, and by the regional education committee. But Ms. Voitsekhovskaya of Moscow School No. 6 says she has "not yet heard of any school that has been denied [the right] to stage an experiment."

"All experiments I know of are approved," she says. "Maybe that's because they are looking for guidance for the entire system of people's education."

The Moscow principal gives a vivid illustration of that need as she recalls how she discovered, on a recent trip to East Germany, a more rational system of keeping an attendance and grade journal.

Teachers here have customarily rewritten the list of all their students' names about 10 times a year, as each page of the grade book is turned. That is the way it has been done for decades, if not centuries, Ms. Voitsekhovskaya notes.

But the Germans, she found, write the name list only once, on a flap that lines up with the pages of the grade book but can be seen as the pages are turned. "All they do is use narrower pages," the principal explains.

It would seem, to Western eyes, a simple innovation. But to Ms. Voitsekhovskaya the idea is so revolutionary that she is "afraid to even suggest it to my teachers."

She is not, paradoxically, afraid to implement reforms that appear to be far bolder in scope and impact.

One experiment to be tried this year at Moscow School No. 6 will be English classes for the parents of 1st-grade students. Since English is taught from the 2nd grade onward at the school, the parents' classes would enable them to stay a year ahead of the school curriculum.

"That way, parents will be able to help their children," Ms. Voitsekhovskaya points out. She also notes that the parents will pay the school tuition.

Teachers and parents at the school are also considering an arrangement with a group of educators who have formed a cooperative specializing in the teaching of foreign languages during sleep.

When that method of instruction first emerged here, only a chosen few government officials were able to avail themselves of it. Now, through the cooperative, a 49-hour training program on the method may be offered to the students, parents, and teachers at School No. 6.

But the total cost for the course would be 150 rubles, or $237--roughly the equivalent of a month's salary for a starting teacher.

Ms. Voitsekhovskaya says it is not clear how much of a market the school can provide for the cooperative or how much rent it would charge for the use of its classrooms. But she says the proposal has potential.

"Our cooperation could be both spiritual and financial," she says. "It's no secret that the school still needs financial help."

Meanwhile, a medical-research institute has contracted with the school's 9th- and 10th-grade students to translate professional texts from English into Russian. Last year, the students prepared two 90-page translations.

The boys did the translating; the girls did the typing. They were paid 300 rubles, roughly $474, which they spent on a bass guitar and disco lights.

"They want to start an ensemble," the principal discloses, "but they are keeping it all in my office."

Teaching's Horror Stories

This surge of experimentation is taking place, however, against a backdrop of contradictory public perceptions about the profession of teaching.

For at least one day out of the year, Soviet teachers are revered. On Sept. 1, the start of the school year, they are given flowers by their students and praise from public officials.

But during the rest of the year, they face some of the same intractable and demoralizing problems their American counterparts face.

Traditionally, the 5 million Soviet teachers have received low pay and little prestige. With reform under way, the pay has gone up, but so has the amount of criticism.

Newspapers here are filled with unflattering stories: of teachers who take bribes to change grades; of Army recruits from Uzbekistan who are unable to follow simple orders in Russian; of students in teachers' colleges failing exams designed for 8th graders.

Parents, too, have stories to tell. One mother here tells of the time her 14-year-old son's physics teacher tried to explain how the solar system works.

"The planets are not above the sun, they are not below the sun, they are to the side of the sun," the teacher said.

A Moscow administrator, who asked for anonymity, suggests that about 60 percent of the teachers in her school are unprofessional, poorly educated, or simply incompetent.

"Thirty percent should just retire," she says. "They've just been working too long, grinding away."

As part of school reform, teacher salaries were raised by between 30 and 40 percent last year, bringing the beginning teacher's pay up from about 120 rubles a month to about 180--or about $284. A teacher with 10 years' experience now earns about 240 rubles. An administrator earns over 300 rubles, or $474, a month.

The average monthly salary for all workers in the u.s.s.r. is 195 rubles.

According to information revealed at the Communist Party's plenary meeting last February, a teacher receives a paid vacation package once every 35 years, while local-level party bureaucrats receive one paid vacation package a year.

Two months after that figure was released, a boarding-school principal suggested at a Vladivostok regional party meeting that party officials give their vacation packages to teachers.

"My suggestion received applause," wrote Nikolai Dubinin in the Aug. 31 issue of the newspaper Sovetskaya Rossiya. "One of the party secretaries even got up to shake my hand. And that was the end of it."

Loss of a Powerful Voice

As these criticisms mount, the national thrice weekly teachers' newspaper, Uchitelskaya Gazeta, published by the Ministry of Education, is planning to cease publication next year, part of a reform move designed to streamline the bureaucracy.

Last spring, the education ministry and two other agencies--the Ministry of Higher and Specialized Secondary Education and the State Committee for Vocational and Technical Education--were merged to form the State Committee on Soviet Education.

The new ministry plans to publish a more theoretical journal, to be called Science and Education, which will cover teaching and educational research.

The significance of the newspaper's closing is not clear, according to educators here. But Uchitelskaya Gazeta, they say, has been a feisty critic of the education establishment and a force for reform.

The paper also served as an energizing force for the creation of the Eureka Clubs, a group of organizations conceived by young teachers and writers as an open forum to discuss education reform. Meetings often were held in the newspaper's offices.

Since the Eureka movement began in 1986--after a law permitting the formation of "social organizations" was passed--some 300 to 400 branches of the club have sprung up around the country.

Vladimir R. Rokitiansky is not a member of Eureka, but he is trying to start an indeel10lpendent journal that will cover these often confusing twists and turns of reform.

"Pedagogics in the Soviet Union is very theoretical and very useless and everyone knows it," says Mr. Rokitiansky, a researcher at the publishing house Enlightenment, which produces textbooks for the entire country.

The problem, he says, is basic. "Besides knowing what to teach, you must know why you are teaching it."

His journal will ask some basic questions about education, he promises, questions such as, "Is the school necessary at all?" That question, in fact, is the topic of the journal's first issue, planned for publication in time for the December teachers' conference.

In addition to articles by Soviet educators, the first issue will contain excerpts from writings by the Austrian-American educational philosopher Ivan Illich, who asked that same question--is school necessary?--in the early 1970's. Mr. Rokitiansky says he hopes the excerpts will fuel debate.

"For us, in our authoritative system, starting a discussion with this question is very useful," he maintains. "We must start from the beginning."

In his own enterprise, Mr. Rokitiansky is starting small, working in the book-lined one-bedroom Moscow apartment he shares with his wife and son. A computer concern has agreed to publish several dozen copies of the magazine. After the teachers' conference, he will seek permission to form a cooperative to continue publication.

And, in another attempt at stirring debate, Mr. Rokitiansky has just completed a proposal for translating into Russian this year's U.S. bestseller, Allan Bloom's The Closing of the American Mind.

Soviet education reformers should read the book, he says, "so we can be more sober" in adopting features of the American system.

When asked about the prospects for his new journal, for education reform, and for perestroika itself, Mr. Rokitiansky is philosophical. "A friend of mine says, 'You can be realistic and pessimistic--or you can be surrealistic and optimistic."'

"There's more probability that things will be worse," he concedes. "But it's more interesting to think and live as if things will be better. So, I am surrealistic."

Vol. 08, Issue 06

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