Russia:
The State of Education at the Turn of the Century

 

Jana Sackman Eaton

 

The author was among ten American educators selected for a “US-NIS (Newly Independent States) Excellence in Teaching Award” program administered by the American Councils for International Education (ACIE) and funded by the U.S. Department of State under the Fulbright-Hayes Act. The program was part of a presidential initiative to assist NIS countries in the transition to democracy and a free market economy. It involved an exchange of educators and other specialists between the United States and five Newly Independent States—Russia, Ukraine, Kyrgyzstan, Uzbekistan, and Kazakhstan. The author traveled to Russia in fall 1999.

 

Neatly-attired, studious youngsters; dedicated and energetic, yet impoverished, teachers; shoddily constructed schools; scantily provisioned classrooms; and low-budget texts. These are some of my most vivid images of schools in a region deep in the heart of Russia when I traveled there in fall 1999. I was to work with English language teachers on developing an American studies curriculum and effective methods for teaching it. My experience with educators in the Volga River area, located approximately 900 miles southeast of Moscow, was deeply moving, immensely informative, yet also disturbing, as the contrasting images above suggest.

Earlier that year, seventy-six award-winnning teachers from five Newly Independent States had come to the United States for seven weeks of professional development. They met with their U.S. counterparts at a five-day conference on Excellence in Teaching Across Cultures held at the University of Delaware in July. On returning home, the NIS teachers asked their school districts to host an American teacher during the fall. I was paired with two women with whom I had become friends—Irina Dolzhenko of Dimitrovgrad and Tatiana Ponomarenko of Togliatti—their towns being within easy distance of each other on the Volga. Because they agreed to “share” me, I had the special opportunity to get to know two schools and communities on my visit to Russia.

I had previously done research on Russian education in Moscow and St. Petersburg (then Leningrad) during the period of glasnost in 1988. Still, I was unprepared for the magnitude of the crisis confronting Russian education today. Since the early 1990s, the Russian educational system has been swept into the chaotic maelstrom wrought by the dismantling of the Soviet Union and the decentralization and privatization of the economy. The new educational goals of increasing local and regional control of schools, as well as correcting the distortions of the old ideology-driven curriculum, pose major challenges for the nation.

 

The School System in Russia

The educational system in the Soviet Union served both domestic and Cold War interests. The emphasis was on science and mathematics, with specialization beginning in the early grades for the most promising students. Girls received the same educational opportunities as boys, and achievements in math and science were notable. Yet, the system was plagued by problems, including inefficiencies and lack of incentives to vary teaching methods and incorporate critical thinking.

Administration and curriculum development were concentrated in the Ministry of Education in Moscow, which was responsible for determining the curriculum, funding, teaching materials, and equipment provided to schools. There was little opportunity either to transfer resources to meet local priorities or to adjust the uniform, mandated curriculum to meet local or individual needs.

This is changing. Although an umbrella group, the Ministry of General and Professional Education (MGPE), maintains control over the national curriculum, much of the responsibility for schools has passed to regional and district authorities at the regional (oblast), county, city, and district levels. However, this is resulting in tremendous discrepancies in per pupil spending, due to the unequal distribution of capital resources from region to region.1

The School Structure

Russian education consists of nine years of compulsory education (from age seven to fifteen). Primary (“beginning”) school includes grades one through four, and middle school includes grades five through nine. At the secondary level, senior (“oldest”) school consists of grades ten and eleven, with many schools planning to add a twelfth grade (a priority of the Ministry). Students who pursue an academic education beyond grade nine may attend a “college,” comparable to the standard academic secondary school, or a more select “profile” or “specialty” secondary school.2 Vocational secondary schools designed to prepare skilled workers and tradesmen are the main alternative to the academic track. There are also schools that offer remedial (“correction” or “supporting”) education for students with learning disabilities or low academic performance.

School enrollment in Russia has traditionally been 100% for compulsory age school children, with over 50% of students continuing in secondary schools, 30% percent in vocational schools, and 5% in post-secondary (“higher”) education. However, since the dissolution of the USSR, enrollment in all except compulsory education has declined—by 9% in secondary schools, 7% percent in vocational schools, and 5% in “higher” (i.e., university) education.3

The two schools at which I spent the most time—the Town Gymnasium in Dimitrovgrad and Lyceum #19 in Togliatti—are not in any sense average. They are among the highly selective profile schools that admit students on the basis of exam scores, interviews, and observations, and prepare their graduates to matriculate at universities, academies or institutes. They offer more specialized preparatory tracks than do standard schools where everyone has the same curriculum. At Town Gymnasium, students at the ninth-grade level elect from among the following four “profiles”: (1) humanities, (2) mathematics, (3) science, and (4) economics. Because these students have “packed” schedules, there are no electives from which to choose after the profile is selected.

Even more selective than profile schools are the “specialty” schools attended by students demonstrating precociousness in the arts, languages, math, or science at an early age. Talented students usually enter in the first grade and pursue their specialization through grade eleven. For example, students in the English language specialty schools I visited in 1988 began studying English in the first or second grade, adding a third language later in the primary grades.

A new option in the post-Soviet era is private education, with most of the new private schools being patronized by the nouveau riche, or “new” Russians. Most are well-provisioned compared with even the best of the public schools. But the public school educators with whom I spoke all contended that private education is inferior to what the best public schools offer. While prohibitively expensive for all but the well-heeled, private schools are not particularly selective otherwise. Nor do they have better teachers than the competitive public schools.4 Dolzhenko’s school boasts six “honorable” teachers who are winners of national contests. One thing that distinguishes some private schools from the public system is their provision of religious instruction.

 

The Character of Russian Education

Russian schools have some markedly different characteristics from schools in the United States. Typically, they are smaller, “often with thirty to fifty students enrolled in each grade.”5 They are also characterized by a low teacher/student ratio, varying from 1:8 to 1:16 at the primary and secondary levels, respectively6—although class size averaged from 27 to 30 students in the secondary schools I visited, except for the considerably smaller foreign language classes. Each school houses all grades from first through eleventh, and the school week usually consists of six days.

Russian students often have as much as five hours of homework per night. The curriculum at all levels still contains hefty doses of math and science—five years of physics, biology, and chemistry, for example—usually introduced earlier than in the United States. I was astounded to witness second graders gleefully attacking algebra problems as they demonstrated their understanding of the multiplication tables. In comparing curricula with Russian teachers, I found that Russian schools often offer a subject only once but in great depth, whereas American schools often revisit topics in greater depth at more advanced grade levels.

Russian schools continue to emphasize respect for authority. Most pre-university institutions still require school uniforms. Students stand when a teacher walks into the room, and do not sit until told to do so. Guests, particularly foreign visitors, are accorded preferential treatment. Other than some whispering among students, I observed no incidents of disruptive or rude behavior. Nor is there graffiti on the walls or litter strewn in classrooms or hallways.

Teachers report that parents, too, are generally cooperative and respectful, often sending flowers to teachers on the first day of school and gifts at various times during the school year. However, the erosion of teacher salaries and its corollary of decreasing interest in the profession among the young “has caused a decline in the teachers’ authority,” according to ACEI president Dan E. Davidson.7

Teaching is a demanding profession in Russia, in part because exams and assessments have traditionally been administered orally. Classroom methods emphasize lectures and notetaking, while student presentations, debates, and collaborative group work seem, at best, rare occurrences. Teachers rely heavily on rote memorization and emphasize content over process. One instructor at Polytechnical College in Togliatti chided me for not requiring my students to memorize at least fifty dates in Russia’s history in my tenth-grade cultural studies class at home. My explanation that U.S. educators emphasize teaching students how to access, process, and analyze the plethora of information now available was curtly dismissed.

Russian schools place considerably less emphasis on social studies and writing skills than do ours, although new history course materials have replaced the ideology-laden texts of the Soviet era. When I was in Russia in 1988, shortly after the initiation of glasnost, the Ministry of Education suspended the national history exam pending a rewriting of the texts to reflect Russian history—particularly that of the Stalin era—more accurately. Today, many schools at both the secondary and post-secondary levels boast curricular choices that were previously unavailable, such as Western history, economics, political science, and business administration.

Teacher training in Russia is beginning to reflect Western pedagogical concepts of how students learn best, and a number of schools are experimenting with American and British methods. When I observed my host teachers, there was decidedly more classroom discussion taking place than is understood to be the norm. Students had been prepared to contribute to class discussions by receiving questions and writing responses in their copybooks beforehand. In fact, many of the teachers in these two schools were using written, as well as oral, assessments in their English language instruction. While I did not observe any collaborative group work or student projects, other than recitations or performances for my benefit, both of my host teachers said they do use small group work, although student presentations are still uncommon.

While much has changed in Russian education during the past decade, the institution is still forging a new identity and attempting to find direction in an erratically evolving political and economic milieu. As such, Russia’s school system is staggering under severe macro problems, to which the next section is addressed.

 

Challenges to Russian Education

With the end of the Cold War and the onset of economic stagnation, government expenditures for education in Russia have plummeted. In the early 1970s, the USSR devoted 7% of its Gross Domestic Product to education; in the new Russia, this proportion had declined to 3.4% by 1995,8 and “a preliminary estimate put education spending in 1998 at just 3% of the GDP.”9 For comparative purposes, France, the UK, and the U.S. each spent 5.5% of their significantly larger per capita GDPs on education in 1996.10

There have been significant declines in per pupil spending, and they are unevenly distributed both geographically and institutionally. The declines have been most precipitous at the pre-school and compulsory education levels, and less pronounced for specialized secondary and higher education.11 At every level, the spending declines affect the economic well-being of Russia’s teachers.

Russia now has almost six million teachers in a system that, as noted earlier, is characterized by a low student/teacher ratio. In fact, the ratio at the secondary level actually declined, from about 1:16 in 1989 to about 1:14, in 1996—an unrealistic trend given the current economic imperative to reduce expenditures.12

Teachers have seen their salaries decline and many of their job benefits disappear altogether. According to the World Bank, “the average teacher salary was 81% of the average industrial wage in 1980; by 1994, it had fallen to 66%.”13 For comparative purposes, the average teacher salary in the United States in 1995 was $36,874, or 19% higher than the average wage in domestic industries.14 A World Bank report in 1991 noted that “with the exception of Moscow City, teachers’ salaries, when they are paid, are seriously in arrears and average about 650 rubles ($25) a month.”15 Consequently, Russia is losing many of her better teachers to the growing private sector, while those who stay in the profession do so at a tremendous sacrifice.

Teachers in Dimitrovgrad told me that their salaries were three months in arrears and averaged about US$22 per month, a sum which provides for a standard of living that would not be palatable even to those in the lowest socioeconomic class in the United States. I was stunned to witness music teacher Nickoli Privensentseva’s family living in one room in a dormitory and sharing one toilet, shower, and kitchen among twenty-four people. This is not uncommon, as many teachers cannot afford to purchase apartments once heavily subsidized by the government.

Teachers attempt to augment their meager salaries by teaching extra classes, assuming extra duties, and moonlighting at second and third jobs. They are incredibly industrious and dedicated. Teachers commonly arrive at school at 7:30 a.m. and often do not leave the building until after 6 p.m. Most teachers have to provide classroom supplies out of their own scant earnings, although parents and businesses sometimes donate needed materials. Nor can aging teachers afford to retire. The average age of teachers in Russia is around fifty. “There is a very large cohort of faculty who can’t retire. They’ll perish.”16

The decline in educational spending has also resulted in deteriorating schoolhouses and insufficient funds for textbooks, supplies, and equipment. With the exception of one private school I visited, school grounds were not being maintained and the buildings presented serious safety and health issues. For example, I noted concrete stairs that were chipped and uneven, tiles missing from the floors of a five-year-old building, a swimming pool filled with murky water, and only one toilet for the entire faculty in several of the buildings I visited. According to the ACEI’s Dr. Davidson, “Many of the Russian schools don’t even have plumbing and others are in a severe state of deterioration and crumbling.”17

Classroom provisions and equipment are also scant. In laboratory classes, teachers usually demonstrate while students observe and take notes; I did not visit any science classrooms equipped with student lab stations. The lack of up-to-date textbooks is equally problematic. One survey of schools resulted in the estimate that “over the next one to two years, textbooks will have to be replaced on a mass scale throughout the Russian Federation rather than at the normal rate of 25% per annum.”18 Another difficulty is the “absence of competition and of information” in developing new textbooks that will match curricular reforms; more than 80% of the texts are still produced by the State monopoly publisher, meaning that choice is limited and quality is compromised.19

I examined a number of textbooks used in various classes in Togliatti and Dimitrovgrad. The secondary-level texts resemble our “Permabound” paperbacks. The paper quality is low and there are no colorful photos or illustrations. Additionally, there was a marked paucity of library resources and auxiliary or enrichment classroom materials, even in the top academic institutions I visited.

While ideology is slowly being eliminated from most of the texts that are replacing the Soviet-era versions, most teachers in the system today are still products of the Soviet-era political culture. As Davidson views it:

The Marxist-Leninist philosophy was very much part of the education most teachers had. Marxism always provided a right answer for everything. You were right or you were out of line. It’s being discredited, but pluralism hasn’t replaced “monolithism” in the transition. Faculties still have a terror of being wrong . . . . Teachers worry that a higher authority will put them on the carpet. This monopolistic thinking manifests itself in handling debates in class, where discussions to ascertain the “right” way are heated and uncompromising.20

The current economic crisis is contributing to enrollment declines and inequities in the schools. Needy, but intellectually capable, students are increasingly unable to continue their schooling. Students are being sidelined by a system that emphasizes early specialization and tracking of students, with needy students and late bloomers being particularly affected. In theory, bright low-income students can attend university programs that are publicly financed. However, there are few student loans available.21 Furthermore, Olga Bookova from the Russian-American Cultural Center in Togliatti divulged,

Everyone in Togliatti knows that students pay big bribes to the deans or examiners to pass the entrance exams, so these ‘cheaper’ institutions aren’t as inexpensive relative to the private schools as it would appear. There is free cheese only in a mouse trap.22

The college entrance examination system presents other equity issues. Each of about nine university departments at 535 institutions administers its own exam. Most of the tests are given orally, so students must show up in person; moreover, the fact that exams are all scheduled at about the same time prevents students from applying to more than one or two universities. Furthermore, there are no uniform standards for the content level or grading of the exams. Currently, students are examined on material that can be both arcane and irrelevant to new fields of study.23

While there is a national curriculum mandating what subjects should be taught at each grade level, Russia lacks national standards and assessments, as well as data banks relating to the size and needs of the school population. With decentralization of the educational system underway, it is likely that growing disparities in educational opportunities for students in different regions of the country will be exacerbated. The human development sector of the World Bank is recommending that Russia develop a national system of standards and assessments to address this problem.24

Ideas for reforming the educational system in Russia reflect differing perspectives and encompass many aspects of the schools—from the content of the curriculum, to the training of teachers, to where responsibility for administrative control and funding should be placed. Dr. Andrey Volkov, director of the International Academy of Business & Banking, estimates that “in 10 to 15 percent of the Russian schools, there is a very high level of education offered. In about 60 percent, the level is medium, and in 30 percent of the schools, the level of education is very low.”25 He continues:

Now, a lot of our Academy funding comes from parents and business and foreign collaboratives, but we have no say in standards which would best prepare students for our local job market
. . . . The national standards [i.e., curricula] still place very heavy emphasis on science and math
. . . . Schools have to follow the government standards to be accredited, but the standards are too conservative for the times.26

Russia is receiving some educational assistance from the World Bank. In 1994, a consortium of Russian and Western educators established the National Training Foundation to develop a national system of business education in Russia. The project is being funded by a US$40 million loan. In 1997, the World Bank approved six more loans totaling about US$885 million; of this, US$71 million was allocated for an Education Innovation Project to improve secondary and higher education through improved social science curricula and textbooks.27 Another program that appears far-reaching is the Soros Foundation’s Teachers’ Seminars, in which U.S. teachers are sharing pedagogical ideas and the findings of recent research with their Russian counterparts.28

There is no “quick fix” for Russia’s schools, and progress depends on what transpires in the volatile economy and on the unstable political front. Yet, there is reason for optimism: education is still highly valued by the Russian people and benefits from the energy, talent, and dedication of the nation’s teachers. As my host teacher and Russian “sister” Tatiana Ponomarenko so aptly put it, “We teachers cannot give up. Our schools are Russia’s future.”

 

Notes

1. World Bank, Russia Education Restructuring Support Project (Washington, DC: World Bank, 1999), 1. Retrieved from the Web on 9/21/99 [www.worldbank.org/pics/pid/ru50474.txt]. Hereafter, World Bank, Restructuring Project.

2. Dr. Andrey E. Volkov (Director, International Academy of Business & Banking), Interview , Oct. 31, 1999.

3. World Bank, Russian Federation Education Innovation Project Staff Appraisal Report (Washington, DC: World Bank, 1997), 2. Retrieved from the Web on 9/21/99 [www.worldbank.org/pics/pid/ru5047.txt]. Hereafter, World Bank, Innovation Project

4. Tamara Devyatkina (Director of Town Gymnasium, Dimitrovgrad), Interview, October 25, 1999.

5. American Councils for International Education (ACEI), Cultural Handbook for the Newly Independent States (Washington, DC: U.S. Information Agency, 1995), 6.

6. World Bank, Innovation Project, 4.

7. Dan E. Davidson (President, American Councils for International Education: ACTR/ACCELS), Lecture, October 18, 1999.

8. World Bank, Innovation Project, 3.

9. World Bank, Restructuring Project, 1.

10. Ibid.

11. World Bank, Innovation Project, 3.

12. World Bank, Restructuring Project, 1.

13. World Bank, Innovation Project, 2.

14. Pennsylvania State Education Association’s Research Division spokesman, telephone interview, February 1, 2001.

15. World Bank, Restructuring Project, 2.

16. Davidson.

17. Ibid.

18. World Bank, Innovation Project, 5.

19. Ibid.

20. Davidson.

21. World Bank, Innovation Project, 7.

22. Olga Bookova (Togliatti Russian-American Cultural Center), Conversation, October 30, 1999.

23. World Bank, Innovation Project, 5,

24. World Bank, Restructuring Project, 2.

25. Volkov.

26. Ibid.

27. World Bank, “World Bank Announces Russia Strategy for the Next Two Years” (June 6, 1997). News release retrieved from the Web on 9/21/99 [www.worldbank.org/html/extdr/extme/1379.htm].

28. Information on the Soros Foundation may be found at www.soros.org

 

Jana Sackman Eaton teaches Cultural Studies and AP Comparative Government and Politics at Unionville High School in Kennett Square, PA. She was named Pennsylvania’s “Social Studies Teacher of the Year” in 1998, and recently won a National Peace Corps 2000 Global Educator Award.

 

Research for this article was supported in part by a grant from the American Councils for International Education: ACTR/ACCELS, with funds provided by the U.S. Department of State. Neither is responsible for the views expressed.

 

Readers may obtain information about the US-NIS Award for Excellence in Teaching program from the American Councils for International Education (ACEI), 1776 Massachusetts Avenue, NW, Suite 700, Washington, D.C. 20036.