Soviet Legacy Looms Large In Russian Schools
ROBERT SIEGEL, host:
From NPR News, it's ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Robert Siegel. The Soviet Union once boasted its education system was the best in the world. That was until the collapse of Communism left schools to fend for themselves and now the government is finally paying attention. Educators worry, though, that corruption and pressure to toe the official line are threatening Russia's school system. NPR's Moscow correspondent Gregory Feifer reports.
(Soundbite of school)
GREGORY FEIFER: Students rush between classes in central Moscow's school number 57. Ten years ago, the green Soviet-era paint here was peeling and the wood floors creaking and unvarnished. Now bright colors and new lighting makes it seem a different place. School 57 isn't just any state school, it's one of the country's best. But Deputy Director Baris Davidovich(ph) says until recently even this place was struggling to survive.
Mr. BARIS DAVIDOVICH (Deputy Director, School 57, Moscow): (Through Translator) The government has been allocating a certain amount of money for each student. That's transformed our situation. Teachers are now paid a $1,000 a month instead of five or ten.
FEIFER: When the government lifted Soviet era controls in the 1990s, it also effectively stopped enforcing standards. Yevgeny Bunimovich, a former teacher, who's now a member of the Moscow legislature, says the Soviet legacy kept the school system alive during those difficult years, but he disputes the claim Soviet schools were the world's best.
Mr. YEVGENY BUNIMOVICH (Moscow Legislature Member): (Through Translator) That's a myth. In mathematics and chemistry, yes, the education was good, but not history, which was subject to propaganda. Today the negative influence of Soviet control over students is still very large.
(Soundbite of music class)
Unidentified People: (Singing in foreign language)
FEIFER: A music class in school 1331, a more typical Moscow school. Even in the relatively wealthy capital, this school looks rundown. Across Russia's much poorer regions, schools are still struggling just to survive and the level of education is falling. As competition for access to good public schools increases, parents complain about having to pay for their children to get into the best ones and then bribe teachers to give good grades.
Ms. TATIANA BALUCHITITNA(ph): (Foreign language spoken)
FEIFER: Tatiana Baluchititna whose daughter is in public school says a friend of hers had to pay up to $500 to get good grades for her son. Baris Davidovich, the deputy head of school 57, says that kind of bribery is seriously damaging.
Mr. DAVIDOVICH: (Through translator) Corruption is lowering the level of education. It's one of our biggest problems, but the state of our schools reflects society in general and it hurts all of us.
(Soundbite of children playing)
FEIFER: As children play soccer outside, 10-year-old Sofia Pavlova(ph) says she likes studying.
Ms. SOFIA PAVLOVA: (Foreign language spoken)
FEIFER: Sofia says her favorite classes are English language and math. The government may be spending more on schools like hers, but with the new funding has come pressure to teach officially approved lessons. Suggested new textbooks have muted criticism of Soviet crimes and praise dictator Joseph Stalin as an effective manager. Legislator Yevgeny Bunimovich says the education system is hostage to a dichotomy in Russian life, between what the government says and what it does.
He says President Dmitry Medvedev makes admirable speeches about the urgent need to improve education, but heads a political system in which criticism isn't tolerated.
Mr. BUNIMOVICH: (Through Translator) Medvedev says our future depends on bringing up a new generation of critical thinkers, but how can you raise them in a society in which newspapers are censored? You simply can't have both.
FEIFER: Compared to schoolchildren around the world, Bunimovich says the average Russian student now ranks close to the average American student, but he says that's not something either country should be proud of.
Gregory Feifer, NPR News, Moscow.
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