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Stability And Reform In Compulsory And Higher Education

The Russian educational system provides free and compulsory education from the age of six or seven to fifteen years. Two more years of upper secondary schooling are available for those who wish it, thus providing a ten-year education. It is intended that the addition of an eleventh year at age seventeen will soon make the age of school leaving the same as that of most other industrialized nations.

An outstanding feature of the system of compulsory education in Russia, in comparison with most other countries, has been its durability. In the half century between the mid-1930s and mid-1980s, the basic system changed only in minor ways by gradual evolution. (It should be noted that many of the moral and social precepts outlined in Soviet documentation would be shared by contemporary U.S. and U.K. readers.) Nonetheless, pressure for educational democratization mushroomed during the time of Gorbachev's glasnost. At the national level, pressure for decentralization brought republics more independence and control over management and curriculum content. At the local level, democratization and decentralization led to demands for schools to have increased bureaucratic and budgetary freedoms. At the level of the student, individual needs were increasingly recognized and concern was voiced about the rigid system of schooling and heavy workload that, it was argued, served to alienate and overly stress many students. Reforms centered around six key concepts: decentralization (of regions and of schools), de-ideologization (removal of communist ideology from schools), democratization (giving greater freedoms for educational decision-making to teachers, parents and students), diversification (allowing the development of different school types), humanization (placing greater emphasis upon student individuality and needs), and humanitization (increasing the proportion of time allocated to arts and humanities in the curriculum).

The above elements of reform were realized through the 1992 Law on Education and its 1996 amendment. Education was now seen to include both obuchenie (instruction) and vospitanie—though the latter was downgraded from preeminent to subsidiary status in order to avoid any redolence of Soviet indoctrination. This was a reversal of Soviet policy wherein obrazovanie (education) was seen as a component of all-important vospitanie and individual differences were seen as elements to be overcome through the influence of education.

Greater emphasis on competitiveness and individualism have been reflected in the education system by a plethora of structural and pedagogic reforms, many of which have resulted in the development of socially divisive educational hierarchies and inequalities (Konstantinovskii and Khokhlushkina 2000). If the 1980s was the era of many innovatory and experimental teaching approaches, the 1990s was a time of diversification and differentiation in the type and roles of schools (Sutherland 1999). Although the expected increase in private and religious schools largely failed to materialize (Galina Cherednichenko [2000] lists only ninety-eight such schools in Moscow for the 1997–98 school year), there has been a mushrooming of gymnasia, schools that are approved to run specialized programs for more able students, and schools that offer intensive instruction in one or more specialized subjects. In 1991, there were 100 gymnasia in Russia; by 1998, there were 1,013. In 1999, some 15 percent of the school population was attending specialist schools. Not surprisingly, the most able students and the most skilled teachers gravitate to these well-resourced schools. Many specialist schools require entry examinations and admit only top scorers.

The result is polarization: Although attendance at institutes and universities has increased, so have dropout rates among secondary students. Students for whom learning is a struggle and who find themselves in unfashionable schools have become increasingly alienated. Increasing disenchantment with schooling appears to be partially due to student concern that school curricula have changed too little to prepare them for the new economic pressures that will mark their passage into adulthood. Alienation is exacerbated by massive curriculum overload that leaves many students exhausted and allows little time for socialization and leisure (Andriushina 2000; Fillipov 2001).

Vladimir Lisovskii (1999) notes that under socialism, one could feel socially protected, education was free, and employment was guaranteed. Honest poverty and concern for country and one's collective traditionally underpinned much Russian behavior (van der Wolf and Roeser 2000). Opportunities for advancement and remuneration were made available irrespective of the individual's level of education (Kopytov 2000). Many now worry that the highly unstable economic situation, in which entrepreneurial skills can bring about immense wealth, has resulted in a shift from the traditional regard for education as intrinsically valuable to a focus on education as a means for achieving the individualistic goals of success and prosperity (Nikandrov 1995).

This value shift is seen in higher education. For some, further study is a means to avoid conscription in the army, whereas for the majority it is primarily a means to economic security. Because not all academic disciplines are well-rewarded and high levels of education do not necessarily result in material gain (Zubok 1999), the most popular courses are those that promise the greatest financial rewards such as economics, finance, law, and foreign languages (Rutkevich 2000). Those who have graduated in other subjects are increasingly turning their backs on their disciplines in the search for greater income.

In a study of fourteen- and fifteen-year-olds in two cities, Moscow and Ivanovo, Irina Shurygina (2000) identified three categories of adolescent attitudes toward higher education. The traditional Soviet model was one whereby success was primarily related to having a higher education and an "intellectual" profession. Families that are relatively impoverished but that have a history of high educational performance still tend to reflect this model. The second model is that of the entrepreneur, where high earnings are seen to have little or no connection to one's education or the intellectual demands of one's career. Here, one might anticipate finding a high proportion of less educated, but comparatively more affluent, families. A third model, new to Russian society, involves the assimilation of both the above involving a combination of education and money and power.

Russia has long enjoyed a reputation for high educational standards, something echoed both by the World Bank (Canning, Moock, and Heleniak 1999) and the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (1998). Several international comparisons in mathematics and science indicate performance largely superior to that of the United States, particularly for the most able graduates, where Russian students perform close to the top of the international league. Despite their many economic and social difficulties, massive cuts in spending on education throughout the 1990s (falling five-fold between 1991 and 1995), and growing concern within the country about a perceived decline in educational standards (e.g., Dolzhenko 1998), levels of educational performance, classroom behavior, academic engagement, and motivation continue to impress Western educationalists (cf. Hufton and Elliott 2000; Alexander 2000; Bucur and Eklof 1999). Their observations have tended to take place in larger cosmopolitan cities, however, and it is likely that educational standards are declining in more poorly resourced small town and rural areas (Sinagatullin 2001; Tarasov 2000).

Additional topics

Marriage and Family EncyclopediaMarriage: Cultural AspectsRussia - The Demographic Crisis, The Family In Soviet Times, Post-soviet Legal Codes Affecting The Family