The Soros Connection

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Look around the New York City public schools, says Jody Spiro, and you might understand what Russian educators are going through.

Schools in Russia--like those in the largest U.S. school district--typically are overcrowded, rundown, and in need of supplies. Professional-development opportunities for educators are rare, and, to make matters worse, school budgets have been licked dry.

But Russian reformers have an even higher hurdle to leap, says Spiro, the U.S. executive director of the Soros Foundations for the Newly Independent States/Baltic States: They must shed the Communist doctrine that for the better part of a century has had a stranglehold on Russian education, controlling everything from teaching practices to school management to testing.

Until recently, Russian schools resembled factories, where the memorization and regurgitation of facts was the standard for teaching and learning, she adds. Schools now are grappling with how to discard that model, which has also haunted American school reformers for decades.

"How do you teach children who at this point in their lives have only been rewarded for memorization or taught by lecture?'' Spiro asks.

The Soros Foundations have tried to answer the question with their "Transformation of the Humanities and Social Sciences'' project. The project, which philanthropists call one of the most significant private international-relief efforts ever, is the brainchild of Hungarian-born billionaire George Soros.

Since the project was launched two years ago, Soros has poured millions of dollars into the region in an effort to single-handedly overhaul the way the humanities are taught in Russia and other former Communist nations.

Enigmatic Figure

The New York City-based Soros Foundations were started by their namesake in 1979 as the Open Society Fund. Soros' flagship business operation, the Quantum Fund, has amassed some $4 billion since the 1970's through currency speculation and investment in U.S., European, and Asian stocks. In 1992, the financier made headlines when his investment fund reportedly pulled in $1 billion by predicting the decline of the British pound during Europe's currency crisis. London's Fleet Street dubbed Soros the man who "broke the Bank of England.'' (Soros is not infallible, however: In February, he lost $600 million by wrongly guessing the relative value of the yen and the dollar.)

More recently, Soros has built a philanthropic empire in Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union, where he is an outspoken advocate of democracy and free enterprise. His passion for those ideals appears to have driven him to plow more and more money into the region. As Soros himself has said, "The more money I make, the more I can give away.''

Although he has given to a number of causes in his native country since the early 1980's, his largest donations in Eastern Europe were made after the breakup of the former Soviet Union.

In 1990, Soros founded the Central European University, which has campuses in Budapest and Prague. He also bankrolled several regional foundations to finance educational, cultural, and economic initiatives in the area. Over the next two years, for instance, Soros' International Science Foundation, with $100 million in assets, will be awarding grants to scientists in Eastern Europe in an effort to combat a "brain drain.''

Collaborative Process

But perhaps the foundations' most ambitious effort in the region is the humanities-reform project. In Russia alone, the two-year-old program incorporates training for teachers and administrators, projects to develop new curricula, and efforts to devise improved student standards and testing.

The $260 million Russian initiative--a joint effort between the foundation in New York, an affiliate foundation in Russia, and the Russian Ministry of Education--is bringing together "promising, reform-minded educators'' to revise the humanities curriculum, test new teaching methods, and learn modern approaches to school management, Spiro says.

The program enlists Russian educators as "co-faculty'' to help design the training programs and make the effort truly collaborative. Russia's current teacher training structure is expected to eventually absorb the program's work and provide a permanent place for innovation. If it does not, Soros likely will set up regional, nongovernmental organizations to coordinate professional development, Spiro says.

A major part of the effort already under way involves rewriting humanities textbooks in an effort to rid the curriculum of Marxist-Leninist doctrine and move educators to a "more pluralistic, critical-thinking, and student-centered approach,'' Spiro says. A large chunk of the foundations' $260 million investment in Russian education has been set aside for a five-year commitment to train as many as 100,000 teachers--about 10 percent of the teaching force--to use the new materials.

The project is even promoting education reform in the media: Soros is collaborating with the Children's Television Workshop to create the Russian equivalent of the popular "Sesame Street'' program.

Professional Training

The humanities initiative "is the most successful project my foundation in Russia has implemented,'' George Soros said in a foundation newsletter last year.
The foundations' work with Russian school administrators, which focuses on management and leadership training, has become a centerpiece of the humanities project.

"We thought it was important to remember that principals are indispensable to school reform, which is a new idea in Russia,'' Spiro says. In the past, "students got a good grade, teachers transmitted the material, and the learning process was the responsibility of the textbook author,'' she adds. "And the role of the administrator had been exclusively to implement directives from the Ministry of Education.''

Administrators got about 3,000 directives a year via telegrams, faxes, letters, or telephone calls, according to Dale Mann, a professor at Teachers College, Columbia University, and the head of the administrators project in the former Soviet Union. Principals, and the local and regional education officials above them, were simply "chains in the transmission.''

Administrators in Russia--and in Ukraine, Estonia, Belarus, Macedonia, and Romania, which are also part of the project--were expected to teach half the day, follow state mandates, and maintain order in schools of 3,000 to 4,000 students.

The Soros-funded training workshops appear to be changing some of that, and leading to the "professionalization'' of school administration. Mann notes that one-quarter of the school leaders who participated in the first training sessions have been promoted. Other administrators formed an independent association, and some launched The Director, the country's first professional journal for educators.

Now, the initiative is pulling together more than 1,000 school administrators, teachers, superintendents, curriculum specialists, and school inspectors to serve on reform teams in seven regions of Russia. "We're trying to get critical masses of people so the principal won't be the lone voice in the school,'' Spiro says. The goal, Mann notes, is to add to "management reform the whole question of school reform.''

The project's leaders are also bringing in new partners. The Charles Stewart Mott Foundation of Flint, Mich., for instance, recently agreed to match the Soros funding for school teams in Togliatti, a sister city to Flint, and the place where the Russian "Lada'' automobiles are assembled.

Political Fears

For some school leaders, however, the new freedom in management is still tempered by a fear of political ramifications, Mann acknowledges. Of the 100 administrators who formed the professional organization, for example, 40 would not sign the charter because it was "too dangerous.''

"Politically, this is so risky,'' Mann remarks. "There is still a saying in Russia about 'the knock on the door in the night.'''

"Our hope is that, as more reluctant people see their colleagues succeed with this, they'll become interested,'' Spiro adds.

Competition for the training is stiff, and administrators must submit concrete proposals for improving their schools before being accepted. Still, the program is beginning to be viewed as "the fast track'' to success in school leadership, Mann asserts.

Vladimir Briller, a student at Teachers College who has been involved in the leadership project, believes the Soros efforts are paying off. Several participants from the first group of principals have already brought in new teachers, more money, and innovative programs to their schools, he notes.

The administrator at a 3,000-student school in Bryansk, Russia, for example, has raised donations from local businesses and factories for after-school and other programs. Known as one of the city's worst schools, it has made strides in student achievement, Briller, a native of Ukraine, notes.

Principals in other schools have similar success stories, he says. "Even with the scarce resources they have right now, they've managed to do something, and that is very important to them.''

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