Russia's schools struggle to find a fresh slate

Too few teachers, outdated courses face students on opening day.

There will be the usual laughter, speeches, and parents snapping pictures when School No. 119 opens for the new year today in Moscow. And in accordance with Russian tradition, students will form into ranks and troop through the bare, dimly lit corridors to their new classrooms, each one bearing a bunch of flowers for the teacher.

It is a very Russian irony that the pile of bouquets may well be worth the teacher's annual salary. "We don't think about money, that's how we get by," says principal Svetlana Churakova.

While struggling with meager state funding, Russian educators also are wrestling with how to stem a drop in once-enviable standards and debating their fundamental goals. "The Soviet military-industrial complex needed a lot of engineers and scientists, and the school system was geared up to produce them," says Yuri Gromyko, president of the Moscow Academy for Culture and Education. "Now we need people who are free thinkers and responsible citizens first of all, but our existing schools have no idea how to teach these qualities."

Experts say the teachers who keep the system going are mostly well-trained and dedicated, but they are increasingly unable to cope. "Tests show that educational standards are falling dangerously," says Sergei Bebchuk, director of the School League, a professional association of teachers. "Students today cannot pass science, math, and literature tests that were routine for Soviet-era children, though the curriculum in these subjects hasn't changed. Problems of drugs, alcohol, and street violence are creeping into our schools, and there are no provisions for handling any of this."

Changing social conditions have yet to be matched by deep educational reform, and this may be the most essential problem.

The US school system has been putting more emphasis on teaching math and science in recent years, while Russian schools have been moving erratically toward greater stress on liberal arts. "We do not have a clear approach, students are just presented with a variety of viewpoints and told to decide for themselves," says Tatiana Makarevich, a history teacher at School 119. "No one wants to take responsibility. This may be better than teaching Communist dogma, but without at least some guidelines, it does not seem a very useful way to teach."

Bureaucratic resistance and misplaced national pride conspire to block reforms, says Mr. Bebchuk, himself a public-school principal. "Everything is still dictated from above, by officials who are pursuing their own departmental interests and have their own conception of what education should be," he says. "We need innovations based on what future citizens need in a changing world, yet we work with a curriculum that's 20 years old."

While the Education Ministry keeps no formal records, anecdotal evidence suggests that for those who can afford it, private schools are becoming an increasingly popular option.

But the current system has its defenders. "Even now, in extremely unfavorable circumstances, Russian schools are much better than American ones in such subjects as physics, chemistry, and math," says Gennady Yagodin, the Soviet Union's education minister from 1985 to '91, and currently rector of the International University in Moscow. "Much of what the Russian system could do before, it can still do surprisingly well."

School 119, a crumbling eight-story prefab concrete box surrounded by the high-rise housing estates of southwest Moscow, is typical of the schools that some 20 million Russian pupils will be returning to today. Its worn interior has been painted and scrubbed by volunteer groups of parents, the teachers' committee has been preparing the curriculum for weeks, and all seems ready. But the accumulated underfunding of at least a decade shows in the overgrown grounds, sputtering light fixtures, groaning plumbing, and Ms. Churakova's grim smile when she talks about the school's problems.

The average teacher here earns less than $50 a month; even Churakova, the highest-paid, makes the equivalent of just $70 a month. "It's very hard to survive on such wages, and a lot of people have left the profession," she says. "But most of us stay because someone has to do this work. Someone has to think about the children."

"The watchword is to make do," Churakova says. Teachers are reminded that pencils can be used right down to their stubs, a piece of paper has two sides, and lessons written on a blackboard can be left for the next class to save chalk. Better-off parents are asked for donations.

"Sometimes I just take them and show them our conditions, or mention something we need," says Churakova. "Usually the parents find a way to fix the problem for us. If we had to rely on the local Board of Education, our situation would be hopeless." Most parents, unable to contribute financially, give their labor as occasional cleaners, repairmen, or groundskeepers.

Still, there is no avoiding the impression that School 119 is gradually being dragged under by the strains. "In these days, everyone is riveted on Russia's technological catastrophes [last month's sinking of the Kursk submarine and a fire that devastated the Ostankino television tower Aug. 28, knocking out service to the Russian capital], but a human one is unfolding slowly but surely in our education system," says Mr. Gromyko. "The best-qualified teachers have been streaming out of the public system, there is almost no investment in new schools and equipment, and, worst of all, we do not have an educational doctrine suitable for modern times."

Russia's Ministry of Education says there is a shortfall of 50,000 teachers in the country this year. Even relatively prosperous Moscow has 1,000 openings, mostly in subjects like literature, math, and English.

One solution may be to revive the Soviet-era practice of compelling teacher trainees to work for a certain period after graduation. "I've heard there are serious plans to bring this system back, and it may be a useful stopgap solution," says Beb-chuk.

But without better funding, little can be expected to change. "Education is fundamental," he says. "Our society will die unless we begin to seriously invest in our schools."

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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