24 September 2010

Russian School is Cool

Like any proud parent, I believe in my daughters' cognitive capabilities.  And like dedicated parents everywhere, my wife and I want to ensure that our daughters get the best education possible.

My eldest daughter, now in first grade, got exceptionally good schooling in California.  She attended kindergarten in The Harker School, an expensive private school that is exceptionally good at educating and nurturing their students while developing their characters.  My daughter finished kindergarten loving her school environment while being able to read and do math at the second-grade level.

Except They Use Cyrillic Alphabet In Россия

We (mainly my wife and my mother-in-law) surveyed local schools.  We looked at various options, like an English-only education.  We came to the conclusion that local public schools offered the best education alternative.  We were not satisfied with the education standards of any private school that we visited and found that certain public counterparts were, in fact, superior.

That being said, Moscow public school infrastructure is terribly neglected.  Desks are worn out, floors need to be resurfaced, some walls are in need of paint, so forth and so on.  If schools were to be judged by infrastructure alone, US public schools would be far more superior to their Russian counterparts.

Unfortunately for Americans, this is not the case.  From what I have observed thus far, Russian public schools are superior educational institutions than most American school with a fraction of the budget.  The infrastructure in my daughter's school is not the only thing in need of investment; the official salary of teachers in the same school is $300 a month.  I should remind you that Moscow is one of the world's most expensive cities.  Yet, the learning environment is good despite low budgets.

In the US, we like to throw money at problems.  If schools and students are underperforming, we blame the problem on lack of computers, qualified teachers (because salaries are too low), and so on.  Yet, despite all efforts, we fail to ask two simple questions as a society:
  • Can we create non-financial work incentives to attract the best people for educating the children, hence investing in the country's future?
  • Do we have the right expectations of our children about their behavior and performance in school?
In Russia, people regard teachers with respect and hold them in high esteem.  A teacher, despite her low salary, has a respectable position and enjoys high prestige.  In the US, we reserve our respect for the highest wage earners like Wall Street predators, ball players, and pop culture purveyors.  Through societal chauvinisms and norms, we tend to push the most talented people into high-wage positions because, as the logic goes, we believe in market forces, market forces reward the most productive individuals appropriately, and therefore market place rewards must get our respect.  Well, this logic is broken as the abismal and deteriorating performance of our public schools have demonstrated this over the past generation.  It is time to think about value of teachers and their contribution to society differently; basically, we need a cultural shift in the US.

Part of that cultural shift is our expectation of our children in school.  Being busy parents who are too exhausted to appropriately focus on our children, we outsource our responsibility to schools.  We do not push our children to learn, we do not nurture them nearly enough at home, and we have awfully low expectations of them.  With low expectations, children respond in kind.  In return, we blame the schools to whom we have outsourced our parental responsibilities for our children's shortcomings.  

To this point, it is worth reading Robert Samuelson's 6 September Op Ed piece in Washington Times.  I have quoted some the more salient points from his piece:
"Reforms" have disappointed for two reasons. First, no one has yet discovered transformative changes in curriculum or pedagogy ... The larger cause of failure is almost unmentionable: shrunken student motivation. Students, after all, have to do the work. If they aren't motivated, even capable teachers may fail.
Yes, students have to do the work, and parents have to make sure that students stay motivated to do the work.

Looking back at my daughter's excellent private school education in California, one of the school's strengths was to ensure that parents stay on task and continue to motivate their children.  The same characteristic is true of my daughter's current school in Moscow.

America, part of our national problem is us Americans:  We have low expectations for excellence from ourselves while having high expectations on getting the "American dream" the easy way.  It is time to wake up.


  1. Quite an unexpected view from a person with an open society background (or at least I though it is more open).

    The main thing russian (actually soviet) public school is blamed for is translation and enforcement of the society "slave" traditions as I call them. No account of individuality, psychological pressing instead of education etc. That's why the family schooling movement in Russia grows.

  2. A few points:

    I am not defending Soviet education.

    I am impressed by the quality of my daughter's public school in downtown Moscow precisely because it draws in parents into students' educational life, very similarly to what my daughter's exclusive education did in California.

    I have been a teacher in the US. I taught math in inner city Dallas. When the top priority is securing students from each other and not students' education, the system is completely broken as it is less educational and more correctional.

    Unfortunately, Dallas schools are fairly emblematic of most school districts in the US.

    It is also worth reading Thomas Friedman's posting in New York Times, Titled "We are Number 1(1)." See http://www.nytimes.com/2010/09/12/opinion/12friedman.html?_r=1&partner=rssnyt&emc=rss

  3. Most schools in Moscow are good ones, but not all, and I would be careful in judging the Russian educational system by these. But it's true that the main activity of teachers is sharing knowledge, and the respect towards teachers is fostered by parents. Sadly enough, the things are not the same in the system of higher education.

    Tanya (tatianar@)