U.S. Educators Introduce Democracy to East European Schools

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As democratic stirrings sweep through Eastern Europe, American educators are working to help their counterparts there foster the teaching and practice of democracy in schools.

Over the past year, officials from the American Federation of Teachers have been meeting with teachers'-union representatives in Poland and Hungary to discuss ways of bringing about greater democratic control over school decisionmaking.

And this month, the education historian Diane Ravitch, who has been an influential voice in the debate over social-studies instruction in this country, traveled to Poland to introduce teachers and education officials to ways of teaching about democracy.

Such efforts, said Ms. Ravitch, an adjunct professor of history and education at Columbia University's Teachers College, represent "the beginning of a lengthy conversation" with the fledgling democracies of the once-monolithic Soviet bloc.

"The process of change does not occur easily or spontaneously," she said in an interview. "They have a long tradition of education by authority. I don't think anybody thinks things will happen quickly."

Although contacts between educators in the United States and the Soviet Union have grown rapidly under President Mikhail S. Gorbachev's policy of glasnost, such links with other Eastern European countries have been relatively rare.

The projects that do exist generally reflect the increasingly close ties between the AFT and the emerging unions in those countries. Those ties were highlighted last week when Lech Walesa, the leader of Poland's Solidarity trade union, spoke in Washington at the biennial convention of the AFL-CIO. The AFT is a member of the labor federation.

Such bonds are likely to strengthen as the democratic movements within the Eastern bloc grow stronger, suggested Eric Chenoweth, a staff assistant in the international-affairs department of the teachers' union.

"What we have found is that Poles and Hungarians are very eager to have contact with the U.S.," he said. "They view the U.S. as the birthplace of democracy, and they look at the union movement as a model of democratic structure."

The most extensive relationship between U.S. and Eastern European educators has developed in Poland, which has long been in the forefront of the region's struggle for democracy. Solidarity this year formed that country's first non-Communist government in more than 40 years, gaining control of the Ministry of National Education and several other key departments.

Albert Shanker, president of the AFT, visited Poland last year to talk with leaders of Solidarity's Education Section. In June of this year, Wiktor Kulerski, then the head of Teachers' Solidarity, visited the United States.

The week before his visit, Mr. Kulerski was elected to the Sejm, Poland's parliament; he has since become deputy education minister.

During the trips, the union leaders discussed the development of an "education for democracy" project to introduce the teaching of the subject to Polish schools.

The AFT sponsored Ms. Ravitch's trip to Poland, Mr. Chenoweth said, because of her commitment to instruction about democracy as an author and a member of blue-ribbon commissions on history and related subjects.

"We consider her a very sound thinker about democracy, its meaning, and how it should be taught to students," he said.

For example, Ms. Ravitch was a principal author of California's curricular framework for history and social sciences, which sets as a primary goal the building of democratic understanding and civic values in students.

The historian is also the chairman of the advisory council for the U.S. Education for Democracy project, a joint effort of the AFT, the Educational Excellence Network, and Freedom House, a human-rights organization. Last month, the project released a study of U.S.-history textbooks.

During her eight-day trip to Poland, Ms. Ravitch met with teachers and students in Nowa Huta, a suburb of Krakow, as well as with officials from the education ministry.

Ms. Ravitch, who is Jewish, said her visit to the ministry was particularly poignant, since the building served as the headquarters for the Gestapo, the Nazi secret police, during World War II.

In her talks, Ms. Ravitch said, she emphasized the fundamental principles that undergird democracy, as well as pedagogical strategies for helping students understand such ideals.

Specifically, she said, teachers can imbue democratic values by encouraging students to ask questions.

"In many European countries, especially in Eastern Europe, kids are told everything," she said. "They are taught to listen, not to ask."

But democracy, she added, requires participants to "have a point of view and express it."

"Dissenting is not treason, it's a normal process of forming public opinion," she pointed out.

In addition to encouraging questions, she told the Polish educators, teachers should foster the creation of student councils as models of democratic decisionmaking within classrooms. For example, she suggested, the councils could help students learn that their opinions hold sway by holding votes on whether to play volleyball or soccer during recess.

Moreover, such councils could foster "respect for minority opinions and the democratic ethic--a willingness to compete in an election and win gracefully or lose gracefully," she said.

Her talks received mixed reactions from the two audiences, Ms. Ravitch said.

The education ministers, many of whom are holdovers from the Communist regime, listened to her talk in stony silence.

"I lectured to 75 bureaucrats, and faced 75 rather wooden faces," she said.

By contrast, Ms. Ravitch said, the teachers and students in Nowa Huta, a Solidarity stronghold, appeared deeply interested in what she had to say. Many took notes and engaged her in a "freewheeling discussion'' about democratic rights and privileges.

But she observed that they also expressed apprehension about the future of their democracy.

"They have a long history of struggling for freedom and seeing it crushed," Ms. Ravitch said, noting that Poland had a democratic constitution as early as the 1790's.

As a next step, Ms. Ravitch said, the Education for Democracy project will distribute to Polish teachers some of the seminal documents about democracy. The group already has funds to disseminate the Universal Declaration of Human Rights; if the members can raise additional funds, they may also distribute the U.S. Constitution and the French Declaration of the Rights of Man.

In addition to sponsoring Ms. Ravitch's lectures, the AFT plans to hold seminars in January and February to help train Polish teachers'-union leaders.

In August, the union held a similar seminar with 85 Hungarian teachers, members of the first independent trade union in that country. The AFT plans to hold another seminar in Hungary next spring.

The sessions are aimed at instructing the teachers in the "nuts and bolts of building a democratic trade union," Mr. Chenoweth said.

They are also expected to focus on the American education system and its tradition of local control, he said.

"The Poles are very much interested in local control, as are the Hungarians, as they move away from central control over schools," the union official pointed out.

Mr. Chenoweth added that the Eastern Europeans have also followed the American reform movement and its emphasis on giving greater authority to teachers. In fact, he noted, one of the first directives of the Solidarity-led education ministry was to give teachers power over selecting principals.

"One of their first actions was to broaden the empowerment of teachers to an extent we don't consider here," he said.

Vol. 09, Issue 12

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