Soviet schools: not yet in computer age

Near Stalin's former dacha on a residential edge of Moscow sits one of the Soviet Union's top math-and-science schools, the kind that has some experts in the United States lamenting a potentially perilous Kremlin ''lead'' in secondary education.

Of a six-student Soviet team that, a few years back, dazzled Westerners by its strong showing in an international math olympiad, three members came from this school - special Math-and-Science Boarding School No. 18.

It has one small teaching computer. No micro-computers.

The teaching computer is open to students two days a week. (Some students bus across town to use more elaborate facilities at Moscow State University.) The school computer room is kept locked the rest of the time.

A quarter century after Moscow's Sputnik launch sowed enduring panic in Washington over a presumed US lag in producing able young techno-whizzes, officials here are addressing shortcomings - not just savoring very real achievements - in state-paid Soviet education.

A major concern is Soviet sluggishness in propelling the nation's vaunted math-and-science curriculum into the computer age - a problem the Academy of Sciences, the Academy of Pedagogical Sciences, and the Education Ministry have recently begun moving to remedy.

Other apparent concerns include a lack of initiative among Soviet schoolchildren; a shortage of teachers (the national student-to-teacher ratio is about 35 to 1); some Western-style ''grade inflation''; and, generally, the failure of even a centrally planned educational system like the Soviets' always to mesh with the personnel needs of the national economy.

There has also been criticism of Russian-language instruction for non-Russians, roughly half the total population. Nearly 40 percent of this group lacks a good command of Russian, official figures show.

Concerns such as lack of initiative and grade inflation will sound familiar to US educators.

Yet the little Red schoolboy peril still retains credibility for some American teachers, parents, and officials. The most jittery seem to picture millions of Soviet socialist schoolkids, in their identical uniforms, turning their superior training in physics, geometry, and calculus to development of unapproachable industrial innovations, or, worse, development of superweapons targeted at major population centers in the West.

The picture is not entirely fanciful. Soviet kids do wear identical uniforms. (The blue-clad boys look a little like Scouts; the brown-skirted girls, often with accompanying apron, more like apprentice waitresses.)

The children do study a good deal more math and science, a good deal earlier in their lives, than does the average child in the US. Soviet high school students are expected to do about two hours of homework a night, more than their typical American counterparts. The typical Soviet youngster, too, gets a firmer early grounding in areas such as grammar and penmanship.

As an eerie postscript, one might add that Soviet schools give their older charges a dose of basic military instruction. Nor can a Western visitor to Moscow schools fail to note the generally martial air of discipline pervading the classroom.

Rarely will you catch a Soviet teacher venturing into freewheeling discussion , much less debate, with students. Teacher asks. Student, silently, raises hand (until which time, arms are neatly folded on desk), is called on, and delivers a crisp, unelaborated reply to the crisp, unelaborated query.

''Is Alexander Pushkin a Soviet writer or a Russian writer?'' asks the teacher in an ''English workshop'' at Moscow High School No. 199.

The session is held in the school library. The teacher, a woman whose fluent English is marred only by a stilted Moscow-radio accent, stands next to a display of Lenin's writings.

The kids are silent. Hands go up. One boy is called on: ''Alexander Pushkin is a Russian writer.''

The process is then repeated, with other names.

Even hereabouts, of course, kids will be kids. Once out of the classroom, especially should students deduce that no teacher, principal, or intruding Western reporter is around, the students take to running, shouting, and, in one case during this reporter's school visits, cuffing an alleged teacher's pet squarely on the back of the head.

There can be little doubt the very cream of the resultant math-and-science crop is made available, directly or indirectly, to the Soviet military-industrial establishment.

By the same token, the best of Soviet foreign-language students - a discipline that gets a lot more attention here than in the US - will end up in Moscow's diplomatic or foreign-trade establishments.

And the whole business is centrally directed. Just as a Moscow economic planner can theoretically dictate how and when a factory thousands of miles distant churns out trucks, education is directed from the center.

''A single system,'' Deputy Education Minister Marina Zhuravleva calls it. Translation: Moscow ultimately puts together a nationwide curriculum, backed by textbooks that are used nationwide and that all teachers are supposed to complete at about the same pace. The normal 10-year curriculum, to be expanded to a less hectic 11-year model by 1985, includes five years of arithmetic, followed in sequence by algebra, geometry, and two years of calculus; also, four years of chemistry, five of physics, six of biology.

Graduates are churned into what is, in theory, a centrally managed national job pool. Indeed, high school students take ''work'' instruction that, while varying from school to school, includes tasks like machine building, metal work, and architectural drawing.

In some ways, the school system has worked well. As Soviet communism turned a largely backward Russian empire into an industrial superpower, Soviet education has turned the largely illiterate empire into something very near a universally literate nation.

The Kremlin has also spread the educational wealth beyond cities like Moscow and Leningrad, center of the prerevolutionary intelligentsia. The math-and-science boarding school in Moscow is one of six such facilities set up in the early 1960s. They are attached to major urban universities but draw their students from elsewhere.

The Moscow school takes children from outlying towns of the Russian Republic, from Byelorussia and the northern Caucasus; a similar school in the Siberian university town of Novosibirsk, for instance, covers Soviet Asia and the Far East. Students are selected through a series of tests and competitions.

With this and other programs, the Soviets genuinely have moved further than the Americans toward creating a population conversant in the kinds of basic scientific and mathematical principles that are key to coping with the technical age.

Still, the daunting picture that some Western experts draw of a resultant Soviet edge in innovation has not yet materialized.

One possible reason is that the Soviets' centrally directed educational system, like their centrally directed economy and social order, seems to thwart initiative and innovation. Ask a Soviet citizen - shopkeeper or traffic policeman, electrician or waiter - for the most trivial departure from prescribed routine, and almost invariably the answer will be prompt, automatic, and ''no.'' The same seems to apply to many Soviet high school students.

A Westerner who teaches some 60 university-level foreign language students here remarks: ''Technically, they're good students. . . . But of all of them, I'd say two or three demonstrate initiative or special vitality.''

A Westerner who has studied mathematics in a Soviet university says his Soviet classmates are technically well prepared. A few, the brightest of them, ''are simply geniuses. Extremely impressive.'' But most students, he says, seem far better trained at absorbing knowledge than at expanding on it. Few seem to thirst for knowledge.

Exceptions seem the work of remarkable individual teachers. Education anywhere, after all, remains a function of human communication.

Boris Merkulov, a boyish-looking, quiet, almost shy man in his 30s, has mastered the art. A geneticist, he has spearheaded formation of a special biology program in Moscow High School No. 199, an otherwise ordinary white building crouching at the bottom of a staircase a few hundred yards from a main Moscow avenue. He and his wife, also a biologist, have built an elaborate indoor zoo on the school's top floor. In adjacent classrooms, he and occasional visitors from Moscow State University and other institutes instill in students both knowledge and an avid thirst for further inquiry.

To glance through student projects full of painstakingly drawn color illustrations and meticulously footnoted research from domestic and overseas sources is to wonder whether one is, indeed, still in the world of Soviet learning.

In fact, Mr. Merkulov's field is one in which innovation was muscularly, sometimes fatally, curbed under Stalin. Trofim Lysenko, Stalin's personal favorite among geneticists, propounded the offbeat, and since buried, idea that environmental attributes could be passed on genetically - for instance, that perfectly managed Soviet socialist citrus trees might thrive in the chilly north.

Asked whether Lysenko is taught at Moscow High School No. 199, Merkulov smiles and replies gingerly: ''No. We must teach things that are stable, in that children accept these things as law. . . . Let the experts argue out Lysenko.''

In itself, school No. 199 is nothing special. Under the Soviet system, individual high schools develop their own course specialties within the set national curriculum, for students in their final two years. Yet officials' remarks suggest there are too few teachers like Boris Merkulov to staff such programs.

Whether for this or other reasons, despite the 1950s vintage panic in the West over Soviet math-and-science curricula, it is Soviets who still play catch-up to Western technological innovation. Why, after all, aren't CIA operatives ever caught trying to steal Soviet microchips or Soviet computers?

Computers, for Moscow, are an increasingly important focus of educational strategy.

Anatoly Alexandrov, head of the Soviet Academy of Sciences, argued in an interview with the Monitor last year that the Soviets do not lag behind noncommunist nations in computer technology. The main problem, he says, is that ''our industry does not have enough qualified (computer-conversant) personnel.'' Interestingly, the academy set up a special computer department earlier this year.

Mrs. Zhuravleva, the deputy Soviet education minister, agrees with the academy. She says plans are being drawn up to train not just computer programmers, but nonspecialists familiar with the workings and uses of computers. There is talk, she says, of importing East-bloc microcomputers for Soviet schools - but she acknowledges that the cost of such a project and the need for changes in the national curriculum rule out instant implementation.

Meanwhile, although she says the US is ''probably ahead of us in this (computer-training) area,'' the deputy minister argues the lag may not be utterly damaging. ''We are watching where you went wrong. It was the same with mathematics,'' she says. ''You (Americans) ran very quickly at one point, then stopped.''

For its part, the Academy of Pedagogical Sciences is working on applications for the Soviets' own first microcomputer - similar (a virtual copy, Western experts charge) to the US Apple II. Academy officials say there are not yet any firm target dates for installing the Soviet machines in schools. The officials also say ministry representatives may visit the US to get a closer look at ''computerization'' of schools there.

Soviet schools seem to encounter many of the same hitches that the Soviet economy does.

For one, the planning often can't keep pace with real life. Thus it may take more time than officials would like to join a school computer rage that dog-eat-dog US capitalism has experienced for some time now. And thus the Soviet school system may - and, the Soviet news media suggest, does - churn out too many engineers for the job pool and not enough high school teachers or computer whizzes.

Moreover, even at university level, studies may imperfectly relate to tasks facing the Soviet economy. A recent Pravda article laments that advanced science dissertations often have little relevance to Soviet economic challenges and make insufficient use of computer-age tools. In recent years, some 2,500 experimental ''educational-production complexes'' for high school students have been established throughout the country, the idea being that educators and managers should pool efforts to improve the professional mix of graduates. Mrs. Zhuravleva says the idea has promise, but that so far only about a third of the program's student participants had pursued related careers afterward.

And the Soviet system has the problem of coping with its own successes.

The fact that millions more Soviet citizens possess a secondary education than several decades ago means that many more crave further, university-level schooling (like secondary education, it is subsidized by the state) over a direct exit to the job pool. This is true, Mrs. Zhuravleva notes, even though less high-brow professions pay more.

Particularly at a time when the Soviet economy faces labor shortages, Soviet planners have had to put strict limits on entry to the most prestigious of the nation's universities and institutes.

The great majority of high school graduates who do not go on to university opt for further night or correspondence studies. Among other things, such studies mean higher pay. In addition, some 5 million high school students fulfill at least part of their secondary degree requirements in such programs, while working part time.

But various Soviets who have gone that route say the academic standards in such programs are woefully low. ''When I took my night-school final exams,'' a Moscow youth says, ''I was sitting with fellow 'students,' most of whom I hadn't seen in a class all year long.''

Finally, there is the problem of gauging just how well Soviet high schools do in practice what they're supposed to do on paper.

Here, officials face various problems - familiar to their US colleagues. For one thing, most of the national student body, by official figures, is not performing very well in high school. But beyond this, a Soviet education journal suggested about a year ago, some of the more impressive grades may be suspect:

The article focused on the Kirghiz Republic, saying that - in math, chemistry , and Russian language - high school graduates with sky-high averages were doing abysmally on university-level entrance tests. Entrance-exam statistics for a polytechnic institute showed that only 12 to 18 percent of high school grads with top grades actually deserved that ranking, the journal said, and that fully ''56 to 60 percent of all applicants'' received a ''poor'' mathematics rating on the admissions exam.''

A teacher at Kirghiz university,'' the article continued, ''said that (post-secondary school) instructors are forced to 'pad' the grades applicants get on entrance exams. If they didn't, the admission plan wouldn't get fulfilled.''

QR Code to Soviet schools: not yet in computer age
Read this article in
QR Code to Subscription page
Start your subscription today