My students asked: What are the schools like there?
My co-workers asked: How would you rate the Russian Schools in comparison to ours?
If there is one question that I have been asked the most, it is this one - How do American and Russian schools compare? The answer is both simple and complicated at the same time.
The simple answer: The Russian Educational System and the American Systems are remarkably similar with some differences.
Some of the similarities include concerns about adequate funding, lessening respect given to teachers, teacher quality, standardized testing, teacher pay, curriculum, and differentiation. The basic courses that students take are the same once you get down to it: Math, Reading, Writing, Science, and History. Students are concerned with their social lives, who the biggest pop singer is, and following their favorite sports teams, just like in America. Teachers are concerned with delivering the best possible instruction possible, the lives of their students, meeting the Standards, and accomplishing everything in the limited time that they have.
Some of the most obvious differences include the attitude and behavior of the students in the classrooms, how schools are organized, and the cafeteria food!
The complicated answer is that it's complicated!
Observed Difference Number 1:
A video of a second grade English Language classroom at Gymnasium #13 in Yekaterinburg. Students are not only learning their numbers up to 20 in English, but they are performing multiplication and appear to have the math facts thoroughly memorized.
I observed a chemistry lab at the Michurinsk Lyceum. A lab assistant (a school employee, not the teacher) set up all the equipment and measured out all the chemicals in advance of the class. At the appropriate moment, the teacher led the students in the steps of the experiment (which was to view the production of carbon dioxide by reaction of calcium carbonate and hydrochloric acid). The students executed the lab in pairs, all pairs adding the reactants, sealing the test-tube with the stopper, and positioning the outtake tubing in limewater, in perfectly choreographed unison. They did not wear goggles. They did not clean up; the lab assistant would do this. (LINK TO FULL BLOG)
Students in Anzhelika the Amazing's 10th (or 11th?) grade class presenting on what they would include in a time capsule. The English Foreign Language classes were all VERY structured - though when I look back on my Spanish as a Foreign Language courses in high school and college, they too were equally as structured.
A critique that I heard fairly frequently in casual conversation with some other American teachers while in Russia was that the system that we were seeing was "a mile wide but an inch deep" meaning that they covered all the topics, but never got very deep into them.
I can see why this criticism would appear true, especially when looking at the classes where there was so much memorization. However, I could argue that the same criticism could be applied to American schools as well. Our students are exposed to so many different subjects during the course of their educational career that they sometimes are in danger of becoming "jacks of all trades, masters of none."
All of the Russian students that I met and conversed with had an amazing breadth of facts and knowledge that they could pull from during our conversations, but I noticed another difference that seems to apply to this memorization vs. problem solving approach.
Observed Difference Number 2:
At School #1099 in Moscow, we saw a performance of traditional songs and dances by the students. School #1099, while not a Lyceum or Gymnasium, is a school that focuses on "arts and physical health." All their students take dance classes (all their girls learn ballet!).
Gymnasium #13 in Yekaterinburg is one such school. They focus in English Language. On top of the basic courses that all students in Russia must take, their students take additional coursework in English from grade 1 through grade 11. The level of English that the students in grades 9 through 11 had was astonishing! I wish more schools in the United States would require such a foreign language program for the entire career of their students.
Students in Anzhelika the Amazing's classroom who had won some quarterly / semester awards. They wear the blue scarves when receiving awards at the school.
Observed Difference Number 3: Expectations and Behavior
Expectation number 1: Administrators of the school - the Principal and Assistant Principals - still teach at least one course! The Russian principals and other teachers we spoke with were floored when we shared that in American schools, the Principals and Assistant Principals don't teach classes typically. In their mind, that takes the Administration "out of the game" and they forget what it is like being a teacher and "lose touch" with the students.
Expectation number 2: (Related to number 1) Students' behavior will be good all the time. When the Administrators were speaking with us, often times, they were missing the class periods that they were supposed to teach. We had assumed that they would have substitute teachers. But Subs are not normal in Russia.
Once students reach grade 9, they all take a pretty major exam that is required by the Russian government. The results of this test help parents and students to make decisions about their future. Students could choose to go a vocational route. They would attend a vocational school where, on top of taking the 5 core classes required, they would learn a vocation such as mechanics or construction. If they didn't want to go the vocational route, they could continue with the University route.
At the end of the 11th grade, all students take the major exams. There are two that are required: Russian and Mathematics. Students then elect to take additional tests that their preferred University may require, for example, Chemistry, Physics, English Language, etc. The better the scores on the 11th grade exams, the less students may have to pay for University with the top scorers getting University for free.
Our last day in Yekaterinburg, Anzhelika's 11th grade class showed off a project they had made. As we were watching it, the students all joined in with singing when the songs appeared on the presentation! It was incredible.
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The story seemed to be the same for many of the other schools where TGC fellows went in Russia. The teachers would just leave work for the students to do and the kids did it!
When we asked "don't the students misbehave?" the typical response was "Not usually!" If there was misbehavior, it would be taken care of quickly upon the teacher's return. I don't think I ever got a satisfactory response to my question about "What kind of punishments did they get?"
In the United States, we are simply not allowed to leave the students unsupervised - ever! In my own school, I'm not even allowed to leave the classroom even if there is another adult in the room, unless that adult is a certified teacher. Because of this, I think our students never really learn how to be self-directed.
I started this post with the question that Mrs. Pollyea's class asked: What did you think of how the schools are run there? I am not entirely sure that I answered that question.
I can't really make a judgement as to which system of education is better. What I can do is share an opinion I have about the two systems in general: I honestly believe that if we were to combine the strengths of both systems, the future generations would be amazing! If we could take the solid factual base that Russia provides all its students, the options available for students who want to pursue vocational trajectories, and the behavioral expectations that they have, and combine them with the American system's focus on Higher Order Thinking Skills and opportunity for students to further pursue their own interests across many different departments, our children and our future would be incredible.
One school we visited had this proudly displayed on its wall. I think of it as a symbol. Just as scientists and astronauts from both Russia and America are cooperating in the Space Station to further research across the globe, our schools should be working together to further the impact education has on our future.