Neatly-attired, studious youngsters; dedicated and energetic, yet impoverished, teachers; shoddily constructed schools; scantily provisioned classrooms; and low-budget texts. These are some of my most vivid images of schools in a region deep in the heart of Russia when I traveled there in fall 1999. I was to work with English language teachers on developing an American studies curriculum and effective methods for teaching it. My experience with educators in the Volga River area, located approximately 900 miles southeast of Moscow, was deeply moving, immensely informative, yet also disturbing, as the contrasting images above suggest.
Earlier that year, seventy-six award-winnning teachers from five Newly Independent States had come to the United States for seven weeks of professional development. They met with their U.S. counterparts at a five-day conference on Excellence in Teaching Across Cultures held at the University of Delaware in July. On returning home, the NIS teachers asked their school districts to host an American teacher during the fall. I was paired with two women with whom I had become friends--Irina Dolzhenko of Dimitrovgrad and Tatiana Ponomarenko of Togliatti--their towns being within easy distance of each other on the Volga. Because they agreed to "share" me, I had the special opportunity to get to know two schools and communities on my visit to Russia.
I had previously done research on Russian education in Moscow and St. Petersburg (then Leningrad) during the period of glasnost in 1988. Still, I was unprepared for the magnitude of the crisis confronting Russian education today. Since the early 1990s, the Russian educational system has been swept into the chaotic maelstrom wrought by the dismantling of the Soviet Union and the decentralization and privatization of the economy. The new educational goals of increasing local and regional control of schools, as well as correcting the distortions of the old ideology-driven curriculum, pose major challenges for the nation.
The School System in Russia
The educational system in the Soviet Union served both domestic and Cold War interests. The emphasis was on science and mathematics, with specialization beginning in the early grades for the most promising students. Girls received the same educational opportunities as boys, and achievements in math and science were notable. Yet, the system was plagued by problems, including inefficiencies and lack of incentives to vary teaching methods and incorporate critical thinking.
Administration and curriculum development were concentrated in the Ministry of Education in Moscow, which was responsible for determining the curriculum, funding, teaching materials, and equipment provided to schools. There was little opportunity either to transfer resources to meet local priorities or to adjust the uniform, mandated curriculum to meet local or individual needs.
This is changing. Although an umbrella group, the Ministry of General and Professional Education (MGPE), maintains control over the national curriculum, much of the responsibility for schools has passed to regional and district authorities at the regional (oblast), county, city, and district levels. However, this is resulting in tremendous discrepancies in per pupil spending, due to the unequal distribution of capital resources from region to region.(1)
The School Structure
Russian education consists of nine years of compulsory education (from age seven to fifteen). Primary ("beginning") school includes grades one through four, and middle school includes grades five through nine. At the secondary, level, senior ("oldest") school consists of grades ten and eleven, with many schools planning to add a twelfth grade (a priority of the Ministry). Students who pursue an academic education beyond grade nine may attend a "college," comparable to the standard academic secondary school, or a more select "profile" or "specialty" secondary school. …