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Russia: Class Struggles -- Education Improving Despite Obstacles (Part 1)

Lack of funding has made electricity shutoffs routine in Russian schools, as are a lack of textbooks, freezing classrooms in winter, and waves of strikes by teachers whose meager wages are often withheld for months by cash-strapped regions. Despite such seemingly insurmountable material problems, however, Russia's teachers are said to be doing the impossible by quietly raising standards in education -- and not only in the relatively rich capital. They are helped by a government that appears to have made a priority of rescuing the country's school system. This is the first of a four-part series on education issues in our broadcast area.

Moscow, 30 August 2002 (RFE/RL) -- As Russian children get ready to return to school on Monday, teachers and administrators are wrapping up their beginning-of-year preparations -- an annual struggle to make the state's miserly education funds stretch as far as they can.

The director of one Moscow school voices the usual complaints: "There's little rebuilding, no money. In education, there hasn't been any for a long time and will not likely be in the foreseeable future. However, the most important tasks have been accomplished. We have heat and light and that means we can work. We've bought chalk -- a school can't function without chalk. If you've got chalk, half the battle is won."

Sergei Mendeleev's School 57, with its Soviet-era light fixtures and creaky parquet floors, looks like it has changed little in the past 20 years. Nonetheless, the institution is unusual. Located on an old prerevolutionary side street in Moscow's center, it teaches gifted students, many of whom specialize in mathematics.

School 57, which is funded by the city, can attract extra money from organizations such as the Soros Foundation because its students win academic competitions and are often accepted in top universities abroad.

The relatively wealthy capital, as a whole, is an exception to the rule in Russia. City authorities make sure their schools have heat and light, textbooks, and fresh coats of paint. Moscow's teachers, who earn a monthly average of 4,000 rubles ($125), do not go on strike to demand back pay or higher wages.

That is a far cry from what is going on in the rest of the country, where teachers routinely stage protests. In the latest round, more than 10,000 teachers went on strike in the Siberian region of Altai last May to demand education reform and higher wages.

Adding to the problem is the fact that as many as 50 percent of pedagogical university students, anticipating a bleak future, decide not to pursue a teaching career after graduation, thus contributing to an existing shortage of instructors.

Corruption is also rife in Russia's education system, with frequent complaints of teachers and other school officials taking bribes in exchange for high marks and acceptance to competitive universities, as well as to secondary and even elementary schools.

There are many other problems, including the drive to replace Soviet-era textbooks infused with Marxist-Leninist ideology and the controversy over the new substitutes.

But some say the government is finally listening to the complaints. In August of last year, President Vladimir Putin told members of the State Council -- an advisory body of cabinet members and regional governors -- that the education system would be reformed over the next four to seven years. The government allocated 56 billion rubles ($1.9 billion) to fund the effort through the year 2005.

Among proposed reforms drawn up by Education Ministry officials, academic directors, and regional leaders is a controversial plan to introduce standardized nationwide testing to unify and replace secondary-school finals and college entrance exams.

Pilot standardized tests, which would in part make it easier for students in far-flung areas of Russia to apply to top institutes, are now being administered in a number of regions. But there have been many complaints about the quality of the tests, and officials have acknowledged the program still needs major development.

Also being debated is a plan to extend compulsory schooling from 11 to 12 years. That would bring the system into line with international norms while allowing final-year students to concentrate on the fields they plan to study in college.

The State Duma has voted to put the plans on hold indefinitely, but observers say that only means work will concentrate on improving the existing system's quality first.

Viktoria Molotsova writes for "Uchitelskaya gazeta" ("Teachers' Newspaper") and often travels to the provinces to observe schools there. She said Putin's inclusion of education in the State Council meeting last year means he has put the issue near the top of the country's agenda.

Molotsova praised the government's drive to provide schools with computers as a way of interconnecting the institutions and thereby helping raise their standards. Last year, the Education Ministry spent 2 billion rubles ($63 million) providing more than 30,000 rural schools with some 57,000 computers. Another 2.5 billion rubles ($80 million) have been allocated this year.

But Molotsova reserves most of her praise for the country's determined, hard-working teachers. "I have noticed that before, I could talk about the fact that there were very bad schools -- very bad. Not by material standards. Material standards remain the same as they were. But schools are now making qualitative jumps. New programs are appearing. Depth in teaching is arising. Teachers are doing the impossible," Molotsova said.

Molotsova said the regions are starting to catch up to the standard-bearing capital. "Naturally, not all [rural schools] are equipped as one would desire, on an international, European level. Yes, sometimes there are no lights in these schools. Yes, the toilets there are outside. But rural schoolteachers, even before the Revolution and during the revolution, were always such achievers that they imparted high standards independent of everything else," Molotsova said.

Lyubov Kezina chairs Moscow's Education Committee. She praised Education Minister Vladimir Filippov for implementing the government's reform plans while seriously criticizing the sloppy work of the ministry's mass of deputies. However, she qualified her opinion, saying that evaluating the ministry's work is difficult because of the yawning gap between the capital and the regions. She spoke at a Moscow news conference on Wednesday. "What Moscow feels to be not enough, for example, or, say, a bad aspect of the life of the [Education] Ministry, the regions accept differently. That's why there is a large gulf between the opinions of Moscow and Moscow society and me as chair, and the opinion of the regions," Kezina said.

Sergei Mendeleev, director of Moscow's School 57, praised Kezina's committee for seeking ways to help the capital's schools, but he said government policy on the whole does not benefit elite institutions like his.

He said federal authorities, who are seeking ways to increase their own administrative control, are not helping the school to develop, although they are not yet hindering it, either. "There was a period at the end of the 1990s when the freedom given schools -- or chiseled out by them -- was enough to allow them not to care so much about the politics of education. We did our thing. Now we're pretty much doing the same thing. But sometimes it's, if not in direct conflict, then in opposition to some of the authorities' wishes," Mendeleev said.

The government's proposals, targeted at the vast bulk of schools, are actually harmful to advanced establishments such as Mendeleev's, the director said, because they would erode the traditions that have helped build its elite standards.

Mendeleev said the argument for standardized tests, for example, runs counter to those of traditional one-on-one examinations in which students' thought processes, as opposed simply to results, are probed. Such practices have contributed to Russia's consistently high ranking in science and mathematics.

Meanwhile, Natalya German, who teaches art at School 57, said the government is still not sufficiently concerned about education issues. "I would like the government to conduct social policies with a wider scope and directed more toward average people. [And I would like it to be] more attentive, because I don't think it's easy to get an education now," German said.

At least, supporters say, the government is trying. The Finance Ministry announced on 29 August that it will pick up the slack in the regions by paying teachers 3 billion rubles ($95 million) in vacation wages.