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What U.S. schools can learn from Russia

By Daniel A. Domenech
January 3rd, 2013

“Those of us who have traveled to [other] countries come away with the same conclusion,” Domenech writes: “Their students are more disciplined and full of rote knowledge that comes in handy when being tested—but they lack the independent thinking and creativity that is a hallmark of our system of education.”

“Learning Leadership” column, Jan. 2013 edition of eSchool NewsThere is a tendency to beat up on our public schools based on the performance of American students on international tests. The impression that is created is that our schools are not as good as those in the rest of the world.

Let me tell you, that’s a crock.

I’ve had the opportunity to travel extensively throughout the world, and generally our schools are the envy of other countries.

Conclusions based on international test results compare apples and oranges. Finland is a wonderful country with a great school system—but it’s the size of Montana, with a population of five million. Singapore is even smaller than Finland, and last I heard, Shanghai is a region of China, not a country. Those comparisons are just not valid or productive.

There are, however, many things that we can learn from other countries. When I travel and visit schools in other parts of the world, I am not looking to establish our superiority. I am looking for things they do different or better than us—practices we might learn from and, if applicable, adopt here in the U.S.

Recently I traveled to Russia with a delegation of school superintendents and board members sponsored by the American Association of School Administrators and the People to People Ambassador Programs.

Many of the people in Russia still lament the dissolution of the Soviet Union some 20 years ago. This is particularly the case when it comes to education. They believe that the educational system in Russia has gone downhill and promises to worsen. The current government regards the system as a “bloated bureaucracy” that has to be brought under control and made more cost-effective and efficient. That’s a point of view that is shared by many people here in America relative to our system.

A new law passed by Russia in July threatens to cut funding for education and would pay for just the basic subjects, thus requiring schools to subsidize their programs by charging parents more fees for services—a practice already in place for co-curricular activities. The fear is that by reducing support for the schools, many children will simply get a basic education and not the enriched curriculum that is part and parcel of high-quality instruction. We fear the same here when management groups and private firms run charter schools on public dollars that come out of school district budgets.

By comparison to the United States, Russia’s schools are very traditional—and that, by the way, is true of most schools around the world. What do I mean by traditional? The schools we visited, regarded as among the best in that country, are still defined by classrooms where children sit in rows and the teacher stands in the front of the room lecturing. This is the “sage on the stage” view of the teacher’s role. The children are well disciplined and polite and generally are homogeneous relative to income and ethnic diversity.

In contrast, America’s elementary classrooms feature desks in different configurations to facilitate small group discussions and interaction among a diverse group of students. Our classrooms also feature centers where children can work on computers, read, or do independent work. Our teachers are being trained to function as directors of learning who individualize instruction.

(Next page: Are we unintentionally destroying the very thing that makes U.S. schools the envy of the world?)

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