Comments as part of Roundtable at AAASS

Boston, November 17, 1996

Stephen T. Kerr
University of Washington

The situation in Russian education over the past year has been marked by continuing differentiation in groups active in the field and the publications they produce. But political activism and the empowerment of educators remains generally minimal. Lack of resources and the low place of education in the budgetary priorities of most cities and regions has made it difficult for teachers to focus on much more than survival. The appearance of and strong enthusiasm for the new "Association for Developmental Instruction" (Assosiatsiia razvivaiushchego obucheniia) suggests that Russian educators are searching for a widely acceptable centrist position that is at the same time native to their own traditions and values.


The groups that began a few years ago to provide Russian education with alternatives are generally still active, though their configuration and ways of working have changed somewhat in recent years. The Eureka organization, still headed by Alexander Adamsky, appears to have switched its focus from working primarily with teachers to working more with administrators and school directors. The "Evrikantsy" also appear to be conducting more seminars internationally. Adamsky now edits Upravlenie shkoloi (School Administration), one of the new supplements to Pervoe sentiabria. The Association of Directors of Innovative Schools and Centers continues to unite the more adventuresome of the new schools, although they have had trouble in trying to have their group identified by the Ministry as the official "certifier" of "innovative status" (a tactic that in fact not all of the members of the group agree upon among themselves). New publications have also appeared from "Creative Pedagogy," headed by Vladimir Girshovich; in particular, Mir obrazovaniia (World of Education) seems to be oriented toward younger, more practically minded teachers. Its contents would not look out of place on the pages of such American teacher-oriented magazines as Phi Delta Kappan. The Psychological Institute of the Russian Academy of Education has started publishing its own applied journal. The new Association for Developmental Instruction has also started its own Vestnik (Courier) which will have to compete with these other offerings.

It will be interesting to track the fate of the various forces striving to increase the differentiation of Russian schools over the coming year, for the forced combination of the Ministry of Education and the State Committee on Science, Higher Education, and Technology Policy in the summer of 1996 was not seen by many general school teachers as a happy event. Kinelev, the new Minister of Education, is a technocrat with roots in the higher education community, and the influence that was still wielded by hold-over members of Eduard Dneprov's team in the old Ministry (Viktor Bolotov, Alexander Asmolov) will doubtless now decrease, especially as the person named as principally responsible for general education, Vladimir Shadrikov, is seen by many in the reform camp as only a hesitant supporter of real reform, although he is given credit for being an able administrator. Whether the "two cultures" of higher and general education can be effectively combined remains to be seen.

Political Activism and the Resource Problem

The chance for educators to become true shapers of their own destinies is hampered in today's Russia by an extreme lack of resources at the local and regional levels. Strikes and other actions in support of payment of owed back wages have become the principal focus of teachers' attention, and for good reason. But this makes any kind of real interest in such central pedagogical issues as the lack of appropriate textual materials and the virtual halt in creating new and interesting curricula almost impossible to spark. Strikes in a number of regions certainly called public attention to the plight of teachers, but their lot is seen by many as no worse than that of the many other groups similarly affected by the government's inability to collect and distribute tax revenues.

All of this is additionally complicated by the continuing catastrophic material condition of schools (decrepit or collapsing facilities, lack of materials and supplies, lack of heat and electricity, no funds for capital repairs), as well as by the extreme problems of physical health experienced by the majority of students in Russian schools. The continued exodus of young, bright teachers and the consequent aging of the teacher corps (including the necessity of re-employing many retired teachers) merely make these problems that much more urgent for Russian school directors and regional administrators.

Return to Center

The new popularity being enjoyed by the Association for Developmental Instruction, as noted above, may signal a kind of realization on the part of many Russian educators that the grand dreams for a full-scale renewal of the educational system that they willingly entertained just a few years ago are not likely to come true in the immediate future. The notions of Developmental Instruction, derived by Vasily Davydov, Vitaly Rubtsov, Boris Elkonin, and others based on the work of Vygotsky, Luriia, Elkonin, and others, are remarkably similar to the ideas of "constructivism" currently fashionable in the West -- students will learn better, it is argued, if they formulate their knowledge based on encounters with challenging problems rather than on the basis of being force-fed material to be memorized by rote. What makes Developmental Instruction distinctively Russian is its focus on the importance of the group and the cultural "surround" in encouraging development. Another feature that likely makes it seem appealing to many teachers is that it looks, on the surface at least, to be very similar to what exists in most schools today. About 2500 schools are currently affiliated with the new group, and it seems to have garnered much-needed support form the Ministry. The fact that the approach sports a native-grown theoretical base, that that base is well-elaborated, and that the advice and recommendations it offers seem eminently practical likely endears it further to Russian educators.

Conclusions; Implications for Joint Work

Given this reconfiguration of Russian education in support of more differentiation while at the same time seemingly reemphasizing the centrist position of most schools on a pedagogical continuum, what are some of the issues and questions around which joint work might profitably go forward between Russian and Western educators over the coming years? Here are a few suggestions:

    Standards seem to define politically the "educational space" within which teachers and administrators work. The desire of the central government in both the USA and Russia to use standards as a political rallying cry for change in education worries many progressive educators because they see standards, in the practical world of local school politics, as becoming rapidly not the minima that many who propose then assert they should be, but rather maxima which become all that most schools will try to achieve.
  2. UNIONS:
    The role of teachers' unions continues to be critical in encouraging real change within schools, as Albert Shanker's work with the American Federation of Teachers has shown in the USA, as well as the work of many state-level affiliates of the National Education Association. How and whether these patterns can be repeated in Russia, so long lacking in traditions of political self-development and small- group activism, is something that remains to be seen. To date, Russian educational unions have principally functioned to try to guarantee teachers' salary rights, admittedly a centrally important concern, but they have not yet emerged as a force interested in curricular questions or issues of classroom working conditions.
    In both Russian and the West, there are increasing calls for industry to do more to support the schools. In the case of the West, the emphasis is typically on the creation of "partnerships." In Russia, there is increased concern that businesses will need to create and manage their own privately funded schools as a social benefit, a way of attracting and holding workers. How this will play out, and what its effect may be on the status of publicly funded education, will be interesting to monitor.
    In both Russia and the USA, there is strong interest in using "charter" schools as a way to encourage educators o break free of what are viewed as constraining bonds of bureaucracy. In the Russian case, these are typically innovative or private schools that continue to receive government support; in the American case, the are often schools formed by groups of dissatisfied parents or teachers trying to provide a different curriculum or new approach to pedagogy. How they both deal with the problem of "creaming" the best students and the need to educate an increasingly diverse and culturally varied citizenry will be an important issue.
    In both Russia and the West there is a tendency to view technology, particularly computers, as a kind of panacea to educational issues and problems. Why this is so, and whether the admitted attractiveness that computers present to kids has any real educational effect over time, is a topic that should be investigated from both sides.
    There is in both societies a tendency on the parts of public officials to see education only in terms of large issues like standards, curriculum, teacher preparation, links between the school and the workplace, and so on. These are in fact the questions that seem most readily amenable to political solution, they are areas in which one can "do something" that will be visible over the span of a few years. But the real work of schools happens in classrooms, and the ways in which kids' lives are affected there is hard to measure but likely more important than whether or not a particular slice of the curriculum is taught in some new, attractive way. The language we use here is centrally important, for both Russian and Americans have in recent years usually wound up using arguments about education that are based on economic or psychological assumptions, rather than philosophical or ethical ones. Whether we can find the needed common language to do that remains to be seen, and it is likely the central question for both societies today.