What U.S. schools can learn from Russia

“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?)

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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