REFORMERS AND PERFORMERS

subjectsIn Ukraine, the Ministry of Education has launched another reform. I say “another” because reforms are being launched in this country practically each time the political structure changes. This style of educational management has a long tradition dating back to the 1920s when communists prohibited reading fairy tales at school and introduced teamwork in the process of learning. The explanation of the “fairy-tale ban” was that the phantasmagoric imagery led students away from “concrete realities” of communist construction and also because many of “ideological enemies”, like kings, czars, etc., were positively presented in this type of folklore. The teamwork, in return, was said to add an element of equality and comradeship to the atmosphere of learning., and the slogans of “equality” and “fraternity” (borrowed from the 18th-century French revolution) were much touted in the Soviet Union. With the teamwork, only one student was “delegated” to the teacher to present the results of work in the group, and the grade was given to the whole group on the basis of the delegate’s answer. When it became clear that the standards went down due to the “team approach”, the Soviet school returned to individual assessment that had existed in Russia before the communist take-over.

To a large extent, individual academic assessment created the cult of learning in the Soviet school. High achievers were esteemed. They were praised at class – and school meetings, at PTA gatherings, their photos were placed on special boards of outstanding students usually titled “Our Best” or “Our A-Grade Students.” Please, notice the word “our”: the school was proud of them. On the other hand, to represent the school in inter-school competitions in different subjects was a great honor for every student sent to the competition. The “Olympiads”, as the competitions were called, were usually held during winter holidays, but if you qualified for the next stage (and then the next, etc.) you could “go Olympiads” well into March or April.

It may be objected that the “high standards” were not that high if we consider the “ideological component” of the teaching-learning process of those times which distorted the objective picture of academic subjects. That may be true regarding courses in History or Social Studies, and, partly, in Literature. But even with Literature, there were timeless masterpieces in which there was nothing of ideology, but only undeniable aesthetic values (take “The Old Man and the Sea” by Ernest Hemingway, one of my favorites). If we take science or mathematics, intellectual challenges were rather serious. Long ago, when I was doing a research in the U.S. education, I read the book by Arthur Trace “What Ivan Knows that Johnny Doesn’t.” The book was written in the wake of the 1959-Sputnik launch when the Americans were alarmed by the then-Russian dominance in space. The author compared Soviet and American high school programs and came to the conclusion that in every school year the Soviet students were two years ahead (regarding the contents of learning) than their counterparts of the same age in the U.S.A. Here’s an extract from a review of the book I came across while preparing this blog entry:

By the time American schoolchildren get Jack and Jill up that hill, Soviet children of the same age will probably be discussing the hill’s altitude, mineral deposits and geo-political role in world affairs. This profoundly disturbing book is a comparison of American and Soviet school curricula and textbooks. It proves that the sciences and mathematics are not the only subjects in which our children lag behind. By the time the American fourth grader has learned to read 1500 words from his typical classroom reader, a Soviet student in fourth grade will be expected to read at least 10,000 words and will be ready to plunge into history, geography and science. Why does Ivan at the age of nine have a reading vocabulary so much larger than Johnny’s? Could it have anything to do with the fact that from his first reader on, Ivan reads Tolstoy and Pushkin and Gogol while Johnny follows the adventures of Jerry and the little rabbit that goes hop, hop, hop? If a Soviet student undertakes to learn English as his foreign language – as 45 per cent of those in the regular school do – he will study it for six consecutive years starting in the fifth grade, and he may well have read more literature in English by the Tenth grade than an American student will have been assigned by the twelfth grade.

I read the booklet with the outline of the present-day Ukrainian educational reform at primary (elementary) school very attentively. In their desire to make school attractive for learners, the reformers are simplifying the programs to make them more “accessible” for pupils. The booklet teems with the words like “take away from…”, “delete…”, exempt…” – meaning the themes covered earlier which should be removed from the programs now. From now on, the teacher will give grades “in secret.” That information will be confidential – not to traumatize pupils who have lower grades. Don’t the reformers think that this approach demotes the status of A-grade pupils too? Before, many of high achievers were kind of locomotives for the class by setting standards of how homework should be prepared and presented in the classroom. Besides, bright students usually helped slow learners in reaching a higher level of knowing and mastering a problem course.

My strong suspicion is that the reform is being introduced not because we want to be “closer to the West”, as the popular mantra goes, but because teachers are less talented now and they cannot perform as before. The Ukrainian teacher is in the lowest-paid category of professionals. This year the greatest number of low-performing high-school students (with the equivalence of C- or D-grades) were enrolled at pedagogical universities, as has been sadly admitted by the Minister of Education. I ask myself: can a teacher who, academically, was below average at high school, inspire a high-school student for “aiming higher”? My answer is: NO. Incidentally, it may be another reason why parents, according to the new reform, have the right to exercise control over teachers’ methodology. I would hate to have any parent rush into my classroom and telling me (who had seven years of studying to get the required degree in teaching) how to teach his/her offspring. Is any “layman” allowed to instruct a surgeon how to operate a patient, or do passengers sit next to pilots to tell them which button to press or which lever to lift?

Meanwhile, I remember the time when I, a ten-year-old, come home after a day at school. I pull open the door, and, still with my winter hat and coat on, report to my Mom and Dad the results of my day’s work: “Reading – a five, Math – a five, Literature – a five…” (“a five” was the top grade). Even now, after so many years, I clearly see their faces – so young and so happy.

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