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Executive Perspective                                 Page 48

 

A Comparative Look at

Russian Schools    

 

BY DANIEL A. DOMENECH

 Daniel Domenech

Many people in Russia still lament the dissolution of the Soviet Union some 20 years ago. This is particularly the case when it comes to education. They believe the educational system in Russia has gone downhill and promises to worsen.

The current Russian government regards the school system as a “bloated bureaucracy” that has to be brought under control and made more cost effective and efficient. A new law passed in that country in July threatens to cut funding for education to pay just for the basic subjects and requires schools to subsidize their programs by charging parents more fees for services.

This year’s AASA’s International Symposium took us to Moscow and St. Petersburg. In partnership with the People to People Ambassador Program, a group of superintendents and school board members traveled to Russia to meet with education officials and visit schools. Participants always find these trips to be incredibly informative and eye-opening. We affirm practices we do better and look for things that could help us improve.

Differing Obsessions
In comparison to the United States, Russia’s schools are quite traditional. The schools we visited, admittedly among the country’s best, are defined by classrooms where children sit in rows and the teacher lectures from the front of the room. The children are well-disciplined and polite, and you cannot help but notice a palpable absence of ethnic diversity.

In contrast, America’s elementary classrooms feature desks in different configurations to facilitate small-group interaction among diverse students. Our classrooms also feature centers where children can work on computers, read or work independently. Not surprisingly, a recent study in Russia found their students, while gaining knowledge, want opportunities to do more independent and creative work. Interestingly enough, those of us who have traveled to China, Japan and many European nations come away with the same conclusion: Their students are more disciplined and better behaved and full of knowledge and information that comes in handy when being tested, but they lack the independent thinking and creativity that we try to foster in our students.

Much of the problem we face in America today is an overemphasis on testing that is a by-product of our love affair with accountability. The standardized tests we have become so dependent on do not measure independent thinking or creativity. They measure cognitive skills at the lowest levels — recall and knowledge. Our accountability obsession also has fostered a teach-to-the-test mentality leading to a loss of emphasis on subject areas that are not tested, cheating scandals in our schools and, most recently, a misguided attempt to evaluate teachers using those same tests in what appears to be a mission to fire our way to good teaching.

Our Russian friends are equally concerned with teacher quality, but they prefer to approach it from the teacher development side. Teacher salaries are low in Russia. Teachers are paid on an hourly basis and thus must work long hours in order to make enough money to make ends meet. Their pensions are also pitiful, paying only 15 percent of salary at retirement age. Consequently, Russian teachers stay on the job longer and the average teacher’s age is 51.

Preschooling’s Power
As we looked for things to emulate in the Russian system, we were impressed with the fact preschool is offered to all children on a voluntary basis. Parents pay about 20 percent of the cost, around $25 per month. More than 60 percent of parents enroll their children in preschool so that half of the student population in Moscow’s schools is preschoolers.

This presents a huge challenge as school leaders must find space and staff to accommodate all the children. However, the practice is paying off in terms of student achievement. Since the preschool expansion was implemented, scores have increased significantly for 4th graders, the first grade level where students in Russia are tested.

Russia also offers a free college education, but admission is competitive and only 10 percent of applicants get to fill the seats at the country’s universities and colleges. It is interesting to note in our travels how countries conduct their business and adopt different priorities. There always is the urge to see how much better we are, but clearly the most productive approach always is to look for the things they do that we wish we did. Preschool education for all who want it and free college tuition are definitely part of my wish list.

Daniel Domenech is AASA executive director. E-mail: ddomenech@aasa.org

 

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