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What U.S. schools can learn from Russia

It is not surprising that a recent survey conducted by the Russians found their students do acquire knowledge, but they want the opportunity to do more independent work and be creative. Interestingly enough, those of us who have traveled to countries like China, Japan, and many European nations come away with the same conclusion: Their students are more disciplined and better behaved and full of rote knowledge and information that comes in handy when being tested—but they lack the independent thinking and creativity that we try to foster in our students and is a hallmark of our system of education.

Perhaps unintentionally, we are destroying that critical element in our schools. Much of the problem we face in America today is an overemphasis on testing that is the byproduct of our love affair with accountability. The standardized tests that we have become so enamored with do not measure independent thinking or creativity. They measure cognitive skills at the lowest levels—recall and knowledge. Our accountability obsession has fostered a “teach to the test” mentality that has led to a loss of emphasis on the subject areas that are not tested, has inspired cheating scandals in our schools, and—most recently—has led to a misguided attempt to evaluate teachers using those same tests in what appears to be a mission to fire our way to good teaching.

Russian educators are equally concerned with teacher quality, but they prefer to approach it from the teacher development side. Teacher salaries are low in Russia. They are paid on an hourly basis and thus must work long hours in order to make enough money to make ends meet. Their pensions are also pitiful, paying only 15 percent of salary at retirement age. Consequently, Russian teachers stay on the job longer, and the average teacher’s age is 51.

We were very impressed with the fact that preschool is offered to all children in Moscow on a voluntary basis. It is not totally free; parents pay about 20 percent of the cost, which comes to about $25 per month. More than 60 percent of the parents enroll their children in preschool, so that in Moscow, half of the student population in the city schools is preschoolers.

For more school leadership advice from Dan Domenech, see:

How to achieve true educational transformation

Until we get rid of funding inequities, real education reform can’t happen

It’s time to blow up the current grade-level structure

This is presenting a huge challenge for the system, as they must find space and staff to accommodate all the children. However, the practice is paying off in terms of student achievement. Since the preschool expansion was implemented, scores have increased significantly for fourth graders, the first grade level where students in Russia are tested.

We know that here in America, preschool programs yield the best return on the education dollars spent. We should borrow a page from the Russian playbook and offer all three and four year olds the opportunity to attend a preschool program. It would cut back significantly on the dollars we will have to spend later in remediation and support programs.

Russia also offers a free college education, but admission is competitive, and only 10 percent of applicants get to fill the seats at the country’s universities and colleges. We have been reading recently about the high cost of a college education in America and the mounting debt that students are incurring in loans. A country that wants every student to get a college education will never be able to subsidize the entire system, but we should certainly be working toward making the costs more manageable.

Similar to our country, Russia is experiencing that a younger generation of parents has a different expectation for the nation’s schools. We need to break with traditions and move toward a system of education that utilizes technology to individualize instruction for our children, allows children to progress at their own pace, and groups students by ability rather than age. We are further ahead than most countries in that regard, and we have the chance to become a true leader in world education reform.

Dan Domenech is executive director of the American Association of School Administrators.

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  1. kenw

    January 3, 2013 at 5:17 pm

    It’s fascinating to read about Dan’s responses after a visit to see Russian schools. International professional development helps to keep teachers sane especially if they feel weighed down with testing and league tables which is equally the case for many of our teachers in the UK as it is for colleagues in the USA. But there are great things happening and classrooms are changing to reflect the real world and the advances in technology. I attended a conference in London recently where a guest from Finland spoke confidently but modestly about the great successes of their schools, in a country where children do not start formal school until the age of six and where teachers are highly respected, highly qualified, rewarded well and encouraged to develop professionally throughout their careers. Let’s keep learning from each other!

    Ken Walsh (Associate Consultant, Cambridge Education)


    January 3, 2013 at 10:03 pm

    My first emotion when I read this article, was recalling the feeling of excitement that a visitor gets in some classrooms as active learners reach over tables and discuss their project with their peers. If Mr. Domenich did not feel this kinetic energy in some of the world’s highly rated school systems, then I do believe that this valuable spark is missing and should be added to all classrooms… This article again confirms that when you have a wider lens on a subject of concern, as this article provides, you can have a real exchange of thoughts and ideas, that bring us much closer to providing quality education to all….Finally, educators the world over, should become astute readers of economic news, and at the first downturn in the economy have ready an arsenal of data on their students success and it’s value to society.

  3. lbriggs864

    January 4, 2013 at 9:03 pm

    One of the key things I noted was that the children were well-behaved. That cannot be said in my American school, and administration puts that problem squarely on the teacher. I shudder to think what our test scores will look like this year with the students running around out of control.

  4. irishmafia116

    January 8, 2013 at 5:28 pm

    Interesting until you mentioned “subsidizing”, once again the answer is always “more money”.When in fact we are at an all time high on money spent per pupil -yet results are worse. Prime example -in Georgia lottery funds pre school -read FREE day care–and any threat to cut funding rolls out the usual “experts” with a financial interest in keeping the dollars flowing, yet after billions of dollars and 20 years of FREE pre school, graduation rates have barely moved, droputs the same, college remediation a travesty, test scores still among the worst in the USA . But the answer is always -more more more. IMOHO, the only and I mean only soultion to improving education -is when PARENTS make education important at home ! Failing that, most everything else is hit and miss