Talking out of class: Russian students grade teachers

Teachers howl, after Russia's Education Ministry launches a hotline and Internet chat room for student complaints.

The idea was simple: Give students a forum to vent their frustrations. But in practice, it seems more like chipping a hole in the dam that held back a swollen river.

In a widely-advertised reform effort, Russia's Ministry of Education opened a telephone hotline and Internet chat room last week so that pupils could complain about teachers and discuss school problems.

The invitation brought a flood of grievances, some petty, some not. Teachers howled, charging that cyberspace is no place to conduct education reform.

But officials say the exercise is useful, and will continue. "We're not trying to interfere with the relationship between pupils and teachers," says Oleg Solovyov, head of the newly created School Complaints Office. "We are trying to provide kids with information they need to defend their rights, and a forum where they can talk directly and freely about their problems."

Others, however, are skeptical. "The idea that such methods can be used to implement educational reform is a typical bureaucratic illusion," says Alexander Kinsbursky, executive director of Vox Populi, a Moscow-based independent social research center. "Mostly it will be about things that are already very well known.... On the other hand, it will be used by parents and students to ... take revenge on teachers they don't like. Anonymity is a very bad thing to offer to people when discussing such matters."

In its first week, the office has received hundreds of communications, mostly from kids in relatively affluent and Internet-wired Moscow. Many are familiar grievances about too many lessons, humorless teachers, and lack of classroom freedom. "Can a teacher be fired if the majority of the class votes against him?" asks one pupil.

Some of the cash-strapped and socially-troubled Russian school system's deeper problems are also on display. A well-written letter, purportedly from a group of "simple pupils" from School No. 44 in the Siberian city of Irkutsk, warns that overcrowding, corruption, and neglect are destroying any chance for a decent education. "Our school has 2,000 pupils but was built for 900," it states. Public education is free in Russia, but the best-paid teachers, in Moscow, receive only about $60 a month - when salaries are paid - and many ask parents to supplement their income. The Irkutsk students complain, "Parents have to make extra payments every month. They say: 'If you don't like it, then leave.' " A few chillier notes have teachers wondering how the complaints may be used. Inna, a fifth-grader at Moscow's School No. 26, asks: "Frankly speaking, this teacher is of obvious Communist leanings and to this day thinks she lives in the Soviet Union. What can be done?"

Teachers are not amused. "Instead of helping us to solve problems in the school, the ministry has just created another bureaucratic office," says Nina Kulikova, principal of Moscow School No. 1276. "It's a public relations project, to pretend they are doing something."

Others bristle at the anonymous remarks. "If I have a problem with a pupil, I would like to work it out face-to-face," says Olga Zorugina, a sixth-grade teacher.

Mr. Solovyov responds that teachers are too sensitive and insufficiently prepared for the changing world. "We are tasked with preparing children to live in an open society, which means everyone should know their rights clearly and be able to defend them," he says. "This is just a tool for exchanging information directly."

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