Soviet school reform: Herculean task

The Soviet Union has just enacted one of the most far-reaching school reforms in its history. Its specific aim is to help the nation's youth prepare for major technological changes during the rest of this century and into the next.

The reforms, drafted by the Communist Party, and formally endorsed by this country's nomimal parliament, the Supreme Soviet, carry a price tag of $14 billion.

Millions of youngsters will begin school at the age of six, a year earlier than at present. Later on, they will go into the work place as part of their regular curriculum. Billions will be added to teachers' salaries. Some 800 new vocational schools will be built. Plans even call for Sept. 1, the traditional first day of school, to be a public holiday called ''Knowledge Day.''

The Soviet Union, like many other nations, has concluded that tomorrow's economic well-being is best ensured in the classroom today. So the party undertook a major examination of the state-controlled school system from top to bottom, and came up with plans for a major overhaul.

Announcement of the reforms earlier this year sparked a rare display of public controversy, marked by an outpouring of letters to newspapers and a major campaign by the party to sell the package to the public.

In some respects, the reforms might find ready acceptance in other societies - even, for example, in the American heartland. One stated goal, for example, puts the school system on record as working to instill ''honesty, truthfulness, kindness, devotion to principle, steadfastness, and courage of character.''

Another is to help pupils ''develop a sense of the beautiful . . . to properly understand and appreciate works of art and the beauty and richness of nature. . .''

But, this is, after all, the Soviet Union. Consequently, the plans don't stop there. It also includes cultivating ''in pupils staunch materialist ideas, atheistic views,'' and showing them ''the inevitable victory of the ideas of communism.''

Ironically, it is the shortcomings of the economic system here that have underscored the need for educational reform.

While the Soviet Union has made impressive strides in increasing literacy and providing free education to virtually all its citizens, its economy is stagnant. It is being outpaced in virtually every consumer sector by the United States, Western Europe, and Japan. In the crucial area of high-technology, the Soviet Union lags years behind the West.

Recognizing this, the party has stressed the need to bring ''all branches of the national economy to the very forefront of science and technology, automating production on a wide scale, and ensuring a cardinal increase in labor productivity and production of goods on a par with the best world standards.'' And it envisions the schools as a seedbed for this effort.

Even under the best of circumstances, with a highly motivated public, that would be a Herculean task. In the Soviet Union of 1984, even a Hercules might weary of the effort.

Clearly, some of this country's schoolchildren already have. Already, they go to school six days a week, carry substantial course loads, and struggle with a demanding curriculum. Many parents doubt the wisdom of starting the grind a year earlier.

''My concern is that it would be physically difficult for kids to switch to the new system,'' wrote A. Strelnikov, a driver, in the newspaper Soviet Russia.

''My Vadik at first got very tired, (and) couldn't always (do) his homework, '' he added.

N. Borodulina, a resident of Kuzbass, was quoted in the same newspaper as observing, ''I have worked in school 32 years. I think this innovation is absolutely useless.

''The six-year-olds need more motion, many of then cannot speak or pronounce words correctly and they will make mistakes in writing, and they they will have to be re-taught.''

Be that as it may, children who turn six in 1986 will begin school in a phased program that will coincide with the construction of new classrooms across the country.

The reforms envisage that they will be taught by more qualified teachers, who themselves will be required to have an extra year of schooling - five years, instead of four - to be certified. Teacher salaries will also be increased, by an average of 30 to 35 percent. That is expected to cost the state about $4.6 billion yearly.

The plan also calls for the improvement of existing textbooks and the writing of new ones by ''the best teachers, experienced methodologists, and prominent scholars.'' The overall aim, according to plans, is to ''prepare the younger generation for labor.''

To that end, the curriculum, according to party planners, should familiarize pupils ''with the fundamentals of modern industrial and agricultural production.''

One phase of that will involve a mandatory day per week at a ''production work place'' - a factory or other enterprise - during the 10th or 11th grade. Efforts to develop good work habits would be started even earlier, in elementary school.

Also, the party envisages using various youth groups - such as the Young Pioneers and the Communist youth league - to reinforce the message.

Indeed, stress on shaping students' attitudes in accordance with Marxist-Leninst ideology underlies the entire reform package. It even calls for ''constant attention'' and regulation of the repertoires of young performing arts groups, so that ''indifference to ideology'' will not crop up.

Soviet leader Konstantin Chernenko, in endorsing the reforms, said, ''all the teaching process today should become, in a much greater measure than before, a vehicle of ideological content.''

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