As kids go back to school in Russia, much debate over what to teach

Russian schools have radically changed since the Soviet era, often for the better. But the shape of Russian education policy is still largely undecided.

Fred Weir
Senior students at Moscow School 1582 line up to process into the school building after opening ceremonies on Sept. 1 in Moscow.

It may not be a day that many American kids see as particularly festive, but in Russia the first day of school is traditionally a really huge deal.

Every school across the country holds its own unique celebration before classes begin, often including concerts, clowns, acrobatics and dance displays, and even theatrical performances that have often been rehearsed by pupils in preceding weeks.

At School 1582, in a leafy district of southern Moscow, the show started at 8 a.m. sharp Thursday, with pupils drawn up in their class groups around the grassy schoolyard, and hundreds of parents clustering behind them, taking pictures and applauding. A long skit unfolded in which first grade pupils dressed as sailors hunted around the grounds for the school's brass bell, which had apparently been stolen by pirates.

Finally discovered, the bell was rung to symbolize the beginning of the school year. Balloons and clouds of multi-colored confetti were released into the air as the children, most bearing flowers for teacher, trooped into the two-storied concrete building to begin their studies.

It's been this way since Soviet times, although in those days it was heavier on speeches and lighter on balloons. School 1582's young principal, Yevgenia Rybakova – herself a product of post-Soviet education – says it's a very upbeat way to start the year.

"Our goal here is to create all the conditions for children to grow and learn as individuals. We want them to like it, to feel part of it, and that begins from the first hour," she says.

Education has always been taken very seriously in Russia, where pupils are encouraged to start focusing on their future career path even in elementary grades.

Much has already changed for the 15 million Russian kids marching into schools today, compared to the education their parents received. However, judging by intense public controversies, the shape of Russian education policy is still largely undecided. Experts say there is a tough debate under way over issues like how to teach Russia's tortured history and how to implement the Kremlin's demands that "patriotic education" be stepped up.

'Looking backward rather than forward'

A poll released last week found that almost half of Russian parents consider the present education system inferior to the Soviet one.  Experts say that speaks to a rising tide of conservatism in society, with many parents aghast at what they see as loose discipline and a lack of patriotic education. Indeed, where Soviet education combined academic studies with vospitaniya – which loosely means "character building," and included universal military drills – modern Russian schools have de-emphasized the latter, although there is growing pressure to bring it back.

Some worry that the appointment of Olga Vasilyeva, a former Kremlin aide and Orthodox Church historian, to the position of education minister could reverse the gradual modernization that Russian schools have seen in the past several years, and even make religious, political, and military training part of the curriculum.

"A real challenge for schools is the lack of acceptance on the part of parents that their children are going to live in a completely different civilization" than the one they emerged from, says Isak Frumin, scientific director of the Institute of Education at Moscow's Higher School of Economics. "They force schools to look backward rather than forward."

Andrei Davidov, a teacher and director of School 1582's little history museum, says the level of politicization in the Soviet past – when he went to school – does not exist anymore.

"We now use many different history textbooks, and encourage students to consider alternative interpretations of events. Students are frequently divided into teams to debate controversial issues, rather than being told what to think. This is new," he says.

Students here, most of whom are lugging smartphones or iPads, say they know about geopolitical tensions between Russia and the West mainly through TV and the internet.

"I'm not very political, and we don't talk about this stuff in class much," says Artyem Chinkov, an 11th grade student here who's aiming for a career in the oil and gas industry. Asked whether he'd like to see more patriotic education, he says "I think values mainly come from the family, from the community. I come to school to study."

Familiar problems for teachers

A teacher's life has improved in some ways, with dramatic increases in salaries and social status since Soviet times. A typical teacher's salary at this school is about $1,200 per month, says Ms. Rybakova, which is double the average Russian income of about $600. However, since these teachers have to live in ultra-expensive Moscow, that doesn't go as far as it sounds. The number of schools in the country has been drastically cut, from around 70,000 in 1991 to just 44,000 today, but most have been renovated and equipped with computers and other modern amenities.

But many complain that rising salaries have brought greater bureaucratic control from local governments who control school budgets, and with it a flood of paperwork. Like teachers everywhere, they unanimously insist that they are overworked.

"We're trying very hard to make the quality of education better," says Natalya Yeroshina, a senior math teacher at School 1582. "But the paperwork seems endless. I have three classes [at an average size of 30 students] that I have to prepare for every day. That means I have to take home 90 notebooks every night to check. It takes a lot of time, not counting class activities. And we are encouraged to work more with parents as well. There aren't enough hours in the day."

But Valentina Serkina, grandmother of three students currently studying at this school, says she is amazed by the contrast between her grandchildren's situation and her education in Moscow schools of the 1950s.

"Children today are better. They're more free, more clever, more adaptable," she says. "Our youth was so different. It's painful for me even to think about it. I studied well, but I had a very hard life. My grandkids have such better conditions. Unlike me, they are all learning foreign languages. All three are studying English – when we travel together, they translate for me – and it feels so good to see that. Unlike us, they have an open window on the world."

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