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Command-Style Schooling in Russia


Dear Diane,

I needed 36 hours of sleep when I got back from Russia! But it's time to begin to sort out my thoughts. Aside from all the fun, including the pleasure of traveling with my sons, it has reinforced some old theories, and raised some new questions.

The most obvious is that "command"-style schooling is still alive and well in Russia. After a brief "pestroika" for schools, the heavy hand of the state has come down again. The rhetoric is very familiar. Some of which you'd like (a single state curriculum) perhaps? But most of which would chill you as it does me. But there are also more and more private schools in Russia, and some of these do interesting things (I'm told). Many teachers I met thought positively about this since it might free them from tight state supervision.

The one school I visited—The School of Self-Determination—was a largely neighborhood K-12 public school founded by Alexander Tubelesky in the 1990s along lines that are familiar to me: influenced by both Summerhill and progressive education. It's that rarity: consciously concerned with Democracy. They appear to be more innovative in out-of-classroom life than classroom life. The 3-5-year-old wing delighted me; a lovely setting designed around inter-age play. Kids are allowed to do a lot of unsupervised activities both indoors and out that we wouldn't dare do. (Less fear of lawsuits?) There's a comfortable mix of ages everywhere one looks. At recess, the kids of all ages danced and sang old Russian songs for us! And their voices were of a quality and power that one rarely hears in young American singers. This latter puzzles me. When my mother visited in 1936, she was aghast with what she saw, but delighted with the singing!

Data. In the old Soviet days there were, we were told, NO dropouts. A little like there being no gays in Iran? But maybe it was true. Kids were required to stay in school until they were ready for the army. Period. Under the new regime there are drop-outs, but no one agrees on how many. Sound familiar? Kids who pass the university exams are exempt from the military—those who fail the exams are in the army for 2-3 years. How's that for an incentive system? (Still most fail.)

Alas, we didn't see "regular" schools, but heard that they are mostly very "traditional"—including being influenced again by the Russian Orthodox church.

The Russians assume their system's task is to fill the Universities with the required number of future middle managers and specialists, in the interests of a strong economy. Democracy doesn't, as usual, make it onto their official agenda—not in China, Russia or here at home. (The conference I attended, organized precisely to think about how democracy and schooling connected, would not be mainstream here or there.)

A recent article in Phi Delta Kappan notes that the Chinese are trying to become more like America—which they see as a font of creativity—while America is trying to imitate China! I'm not sure where Russia fits in this cycle—but it seems more like the USA. But the issue is critical: what we do with 3-6-year-olds may not show up for 30 years in terms of its impact on the economy, innovation, et al—much less democracy. That same issue of PDK has a number of articles that probe the significance of this long-term issue.

The disappearance of half a century of Communism in such rapid order is startling—a striking reminder to would-be reformers. I grew up at a time when all the experts considered it irreversible except by force. Many Russians I spoke to were, however, deeply afraid about the future, even as they enjoyed the money now available to rebuild the nation—including its schools. Inequality was far from absent under Communism, but there probably were not many super-rich. And the safety net for the less-well-off has disappeared. We were told that there was no national health insurance system.

The habits of rude bureaucrat'ism are still strong! I've never heard so much scolding of the public as I heard in their museums. A little like schools! It was the first shock I had when I got involved with public education in the early 60s. That tone—with its undertone of fear. It's a combination that doesn't invite strong adults to make a career of teaching. I think a lot lately about the extent to which those in charge in the US are systematically re-building a seamless
system built on replaceable temps—and fear.

Diane, have you seen the Paris-based Organization for Economic Development's study? Of 29 OECD countries, it finds that the US teachers are "among the lowest paid," work longer hours, and that the United States ranks 10th in its efforts to control class size. Contrary to popular belief.



I really hate this blog - I posted without my name and have lost my post.

Briefly, implementation (authoritarian) and curriculum are 2 different things. The author is mixing them up - there is a word for this (strawman?) but I don't remember it.

Anyways, my mother, who came from Russian run schools in Hungary did pretty well for herself. She got her GED and bookkeeping degree at age 45. She didn't start learning English until her 20s. Her eighth grade education did her well as they taught to mastery - something the schools here pretty much no longer do because of fuzzy math and whole language, and every other warm and fuzzy technique. It seems our system no longer does well designed research and certainly ignores and marginalizes well done research in the past (Project Follow Through, anyone?).


I was completing a post to Diane when I found your excellent update. In Soviet times they joked, “We pretend to work and they pretend to pay us.” Under NCLB, we pretend to raise student performance, and they pretend to believe it.


I am sorry for your loss. While not comparable, the thing that did the most for my teaching was the loss of my father. Nearly every time I visited the hospital, I saw a student’s family being treated out of the Emergency Room. Very few of my students have had a father in their life and I kept being astounded by their kindness.

The most effective hospitals are “brutally honest in assessing their failures.” However, we in Education tend to take a “Smiley Face” approach, just accept “No Excuses,” “Raise Expectations,” and do “Whatever It Takes.” I attribute much this “Field of Dreams” approach to Education think-tanks who copied political campaigns i.e. “Its Morning in America.” Rather than brainwash young teachers into the “Failure Is Not An Option,” mentality, we need to help them develop an ability to mourn - not unlike the Emergency Room doctor who loses patients. (My approach is to walk my dog and drink some beer as I reflect on all of the hundreds of students’ expressions that I could not process during the day. And when I’m not honest enough when I screw-up, that night’s dreams force me to confront it. As opposed to many of my most dedicated colleagues, by learning how to deal with the emotional side, I find that my blood pressure decreases when I walk into class.)

Similarly, “no fault” reporting of errors in the aviation field has produced a dramatic increase in safety. For instance, when pilots voluntarily report that they missed a stop on the runway, the airport identifies dangerous intersections and makes systemic changes.

During WWII, the Air Corps studied the damage patterns on all returning bombers. When they found more damage in one area, they added armor. Right? So in Education when lower-poverty schools, with after-school remediation using more of the same worksheets, have better numbers then we conclude that high-poverty schools should add more drill and skill after school.

WRONG! If the planes survived damage in certain areas, those were not the places crucial to survival. The Air Corps placed more armor on the other parts of the plane! They studied the places where damage caused the plane to fail! But to my knowledge, the people at John Hopkins are about the only ones looking for the kids of generational who fail to make it through high school.

Education research usually studies “Best Practices” in optimal circumstances and then retrofits its approach for high challenge schools. We need more investments (armor) for our kids who suffer from emotional trauma and are not making it.

To be rigorously honest about our highest-poverty schools requires us to address some of our society’s worst failures, including the failure of parenting. In politics, that is a non-starter because you’ll be labeled as a nag like Jimmy Carter. But come to think of us, we in the field of education could be in worse company.

One thing you didn't mention was the growing influence of Russian Orthodoxy and the penetration of the church into the public school bureaucracy and curriculum. When I visited schools there in 1990, just as the Soviet Union was crumbling, I became aware of this revival. I'm sure it is much more pervasive now. Did you notice? Perhaps another trend that would make our current leaders envious.

# 1 My suggestion, Dickey, is that you stop reading this blog if you "hate it"! But, just in case you were referring to the problems you run into re posting comments, I'm truly not sure what you are referring to that seems a “strawman” Top down command-style schooling is just that, even if it was useful in teaching your aunt to be a bookkeeper. But I we don't need 12-20 years of schooling to teach bookkeeping--which is a very honorable trade. Both democratic and authoritarian societies need good bookkeepers; but they don't all need ornery, inquisitive, skeptical and caring citizens. And surely the Russians weren’t looking for that from Hungarian citizens. Maybe good bookkeepers need to have some of that ornery skepticism too??

# 2 Comparisons between medical and education research are fascinating; and you have made some useful comments--thanks--about a the critical importance of being able to say, "oops, I was wrong," and "that didn't work" etc, etc. It's what is important to teach kids about too--by living in situations in which powerful people acknowledge it when they change their mind--and explain it--versus being "caught". Note our political campaigns. Note the impact of a president who has a fixation on always being right. Being tenacious about one's views is also, however, equally critical. Otherwise we just swing from one view to another without serious re-examination.

Which reminds me of how much I wish we could all avoid easy slogans to attack those we disagree with. Like "fuzzy math". Some of the top minds in the country began us down this path a half century ago--it might be useful for us to reexamine what led them to decide that we needed to abandon the "old math". In actual fact they never convinced us, so we've had a bad combination of old and new for the past half century. Too much and too little understood. Catch me when I do the same.

#3 I truly didn't see enough of Russia to respond to questions about what schools are like there or the role of the Orthodox church. I read about that in the NY Times.

Best, Deb


Do you really think that if we raised our teachers’ salaries that our children’s learning would increase?

What is striking about the OECD study is the lack of correlation between teacher salary and student achievement. In the Netherlands, teachers are paid less than the US, teach longer hours and yet their students perform substantially better on international tests.

While we would all like to see our teachers earn a proper wage, our focus should be on student learning. And currently, our children are learning far too little.

Erin Johnson

I don't like the programming that was done to set up this blog. Never should a user lose his or her post if they forgot required information - it is a sort of a web programmers "golden rule."

It was my MOTHER that learned under Russia's strict doctrine. They also required her to learn the Russian language which she did not like.

Her Hungarian/Russian schooling through the eighth grade allowed to her come to AMERICA to get a GED and Bookkeeping degree at a fairly late age (45). BTW, her Hungarian accent is very thick so going to any AMERICAN school was difficult.

It seems you are being a little defensive. Are you saying there might not be a shred of truth to what I wrote? Hmmm, not very open thinking.

I do no say that there is no room for fuzzy math (yes, I will call it that) but what is happening is that teachers no longer teach math facts! Good grief, look at the Everyday Math teacher book - not in there! Without math facts, everything else comes much harder, especially for your disabled kids and even kids in ESL. It is a disservice to ding on the entire Russian system without pointing out they are probably doing some things better than us. Hmmm, in looking at the TIMSS scores in 2003 Hungary and Russia outscored the US.

I hope I haven't used slogans to attack others. This is an area where I miss academic rules where we name schools of thought in a way that isn't pejorative. Its just shorthand. I don't know any of the individuals who advocate the approach I oppose, and I'm just feeling my way towards an appropriate prose for blogs.

John--I wasn't responding to anything you said!

You’re right on another point! The comparative data is fascinating and readily available for free just by clicking. Remember: be careful to take any particular piece of data too seriously. For example, somewhere in the mass of data the Russian’s claim that their average class size is under 20. I was told over and over again that’s it way way higher than that. Who to believe?

I’d also love to know more—and maybe it’s buried in there somewhere—whether European and US schools both include/exclude lunch & lunchservice, busing, family services that are part of the broader public welfare systems in Europe vs. the U.S.

I didn’t find the data about the Netherlands that you noted. Our teachers and theirs are paid, according to my reading, about the same. (I didn't write down the [age reference. I can look it up?)

On the other hand teachers in the US work far more hours a year. Compared to Japan their instructional time is more than double! For high school teachers it’s 1080 for the US and 429 for Japan. Finland came in especially low too. Another high scoring nation. Amazing.

Even when it comes to examination systems, I was startled to discover that only Korea and the US have exams that include sanctions or rewards for schools. And many have no national examination systems—about half. Those include Austria, Czechoslovakia, Japan and Spain—high scorers and low scorers. More than half have systems of annual inspection.

Given our possible disagreements, I was intrigued to discover that many nations—again high and lower scorers—spent fewer hours on “basics” (reading and writing), or academics in general than the US. Of course, most spent more time on learning a second language than we do—by far.

Thanks for sending me back to the data I touted. It confirms my main point which was that we all live by too many myths about what’s wrong with our schools.


John - it was directed at me for "fuzzy math." I don't know what else to call it when the program doesn't teach math facts - at all. Fortunately I was able to get it away from my son (by saying I would hire a lawyer). I now fight for the school and district to stay away from it. Unfortunately, it is a common curriculum used in my state.

I like short phrases. I call myself a communist pinko all the time. I'm definitely a liberal. I also call myself a left wing wack job. What can I say, at least I embrace my own labels.

But apparently when it comes to education, I am definitely on the other side of the left wing folks. It is weird, I definitely feel like there is no one with me (except for 5 days a year in Eugene, Oregon), and it feels I am the only one that fights this fight (for direct instruction, math facts, traditional stuff, drill and kill, etc).

Dickey. I apologize--re mother vs aunt!

But please--for my sake--point out next time the ways in which you think I'm down-playing your ideas, etc. Especially since part of my argument for dropping the word "fuzzy" is that obviously no one who supports it sees it that way and thus produces unnecessary antagonism. So I want to practice what I preach.

I need to check out what leads you to want me to be more positive about Russian education! Actually I don't recall saying anything derogatory. Mostly I said I didn't know enough and had only visited one quite unusual school.

But, I suspect our differences are about the qualities of schools that best prepare people to be knowledgable and outspoken democrats--or even whether that's what schools should be about..


Your comment about teaching hours in Japan vs. United States highlights some of the distinct differences between our school systems and those seen in successful countries.

The Japanese school system is set up so that teachers only teach about ½ day while they spend the other ½ of the day preparing for their lessons. The benefit of this approach is that the teachers spend an incredible amount of time preparing well thought out lessons and that preparation shows in the test scores of Japanese children (particularly in math). But the trade off that they have is that their classes are twice as big as ours. So if you average the classes their teacher/student ratio is not that much different, but the actual class sizes are huge.

Do you think that Americans would be willing to make that trade off?

Erin Johnson


National exams should never be used to penalize schools and I disagree with that provision (among many) in NCLB. But the fact that NCLB has one of the worst types of accountability does not mean that all accountability is bad. To the contrary, high quality accountability (with the most beneficial being external exams with explicit standards) can actually improve student learning.

Multiple analyses of external exams clearly show that students LEARN more than in systems that do not have external exams. The external exams do not have to be national; they can be regional or even local as long as it was not teacher driven.

The key factors yielding higher student learning was:
1. Teacher is an advocate for the student (not a judge)
2. What needed to be learned was clear to teachers, students and parents.
3. The student is ultimately responsible for learning

In listening to your many criticisms of our school system, what stands out most are the problems that are the direct result our very poor school structure; teachers being controlled, the lack of connection between teachers and students, the excessive time/paperwork demands on our teachers and the penalties associated with no “making” our students learn more.

Our children are not learning as much as those in other school systems. You may doubt but when multiple tests and testing groups point to the same conclusion, perhaps we should consider that our students truly are not learning.

Unlike conventional wisdom and the implict belief promulgated by NCLB, I do not believe that it is the teachers. Our teachers are dedicated and caring. It is not the students. Poverty and social issues are difficulties experienced by many countries around the world that produce higher student learning. Our school structure (teacher as judge, no consensus about what to teach, and hammers for teachers that do not produce miracles) is to blame.

So why do you support our current structure when it so clearly has resulted in disengaged students, a horrible work environment for teachers and poor learning?

Erin! You think I "support our current structure" of schooling? Read either The Power of Their Ideas or anything else I've written (see my website--deborahmeier.com)! What an amazing assumption, that set me back on my heels.

But my rejection of the current and historic system both is not the same as saying that I want to trade it for Japan's or the Netherlands. (p.s. They not only don't get paid less in the Netherlands, and they do not work longer hours. No one works longer hours than US teachers. At least according to the study we were both quoting, I assumed.)

But what I love about our disagreement (and mine with Ravitch) is the reminder that it is simply impossible to imagine a school that both of us will love, and want for our kids. So how can we both have a public system and schools that differ as widely as our favorite schools would? That's my chellenge. For one thing, they couldn't be assessed on the same common measuring rod. Even with my own kids and grandkids, my value system doesn't make it possible to compare their "success" in life, school, parenting, etc.

Viva l'difference. (I don't think I've got that quite right. One reason I'm not for "rote" learning is that I was always a poor rote learner. To my regret.)


It would be nice to point out that Russia got better TIMSS scores and that might have something to do with "drill and kill."

The only way to have a school that works for differing opinions is to have DIFFERENT SCHOOLS. I don't really like vouchers because it might mean that my tax dollars support religion and picking and choosing students. But I haven't really found a whole lot wrong with charters - although down a ways from me a charter principal was fired for teaching religion.

Anyways, the Arthur Academy charters in Oregon are the only real "traditional" options in this state short of one school in Eugene. I looked over their test scores and was impressed. I know a teacher that used to teach with them. It is possible to setup alternative schools (let us just say that means traditional in my state) - but it requires a lot of hard work in addition to stars and moon lining up.

Wow! What a roller coaster conversation.

Dickey47: Good teachers, I meaning knowledgable math teachers (especially at the elementary level), will teach mathematics (concepts) and arithmetic; (algorithms) addition, subtraction, multiplication, division, etc., in the same class. This double-barrell approach seems to fill in many gaps/holes that would ordinarily be ignored by one system or the other. It usually involves the teacher handling the arithmetic aspect of the program because, as you're aware, there aren't too many arithmetic books floating around these days.

Erin: The Japanese prep time is occupied primarily with teachers spending much of their time on lesson studies (Stiegler & Heibert) - a national data file Japan has of successful lessons performed in Japanese classrooms. This is what makes the teaching of math (and other subjects) in Japan a science as opposed to the same teaching in this country being merely an art. Because of these lesson studies Japan is ahead of the US in TIMSS results.

Deb: I have to believe that you and Diane would be able to find at least some common ground for a classroom. You two can't be that polarized.

Paul: A good teacher and what teachers have time for are 2 different things. I am involved with a Title I school full of teachers that do not begin to teach math facts until 4th and 5th grade - when it is actually too late and not enough. Even then, teaching the math facts is an option.

It is the curriculum - it is bad. Why don't other teachers fight bad curriculum? In this case, I suspect the curriculum, Everyday Math, is the most widely used one in the state of Oregon, possibly across the country. There are whole parent and professional groups that popped up against the curriculum - where are the teachers? Why would teachers be forced to use (and purchase) a supplement for teaching basic math - it makes no sense to me. Why aren't they up in arms?


Teaching hours/year Netherlands: 1000 US: 958
Number of pupils/teacher Netherlands: 22.4 US: 19.0
Starting Teaching Salary (Primary) Netherlands: $28,003 US: $29,513
Experienced Primary Teacher (15 yrs) Netherlands: $40,406 US: $52,104

While you have been very clear that you are unhappy with our schools, most of your comments are more directed at our (very poor) accountability and the lack of community within the school and not the school structure itself.

What I contend is that the school structure has and always will prevent that school community feeling that you have always advocated for. That is the very fact that we insist that our teachers grade and evaluate our children CAUSES the lack of community feeling as the students will always feel judged (and who likes that?). The relationship between teacher and student is so critical to quality learning as you have so rightly argued. But the most critical question is: What can we do to foster that positive relationship between teacher and children? Teachers in school systems that use external exams scream very loudly that that component is critical to their relationship and the success of the students. Shouldn’t we be listening to them as well?

Our children are not learning as much as seen in other countries. As our world is more and more dependent upon an educated society, this is worrisome.

So the question we should be asking ourselves is: What CAN we learn from other countries? What aspects of their education is better (and worse)? How can we incorporate that wisdom into our schooling?

Erin Johnson

Paul Hoss:
It's not a question of our being polarized! Every school, every group of students, the context of the world that surround us each year, and our own passions and inclinations seem to me all critical ingredients in designing "my” classroom. So is the criticism of my colleagues, parents and students! No two years, even teaching the same subject or theme, works the same.

Diane, who is not a K-12 teacher, believes that it would be possible to create a framework covering at least a large part of what goes on in my classroom by outside experts that is then implemented in classes throughout the nation, leaving some time for my "creative" additions, but aimed at a common end-of-course exam, graded by outside experts or on the basis of their rubrics, etc.

I see trade-offs here, but believe the superiority of the best of private schools lies in part on their freedom to do the former, not the latter, and that it is MORE, not LESS, important to do so precisely for those kids who come with the least intellectually well-prepared minds. I see intellectual life as learning how to "play" with important ideas, phenomenon, events in a self-disciplined and open way, accessible to the criticism of a range of others. I see my job as to find the "stuff" that will engage, connect it to other important ideas, provide a deep assortment of experiences and resources, and then question, question, criticize and probe.

I think Diane thinks this can go on in courses, like NY State's Regents-designed curriculums, and I think her belief may rest on a different set of experiences. We come, however, to different (not polar opposite) conclusions. We're far closer than many of those who believe "those" kids just need external discipline, better manners and a head full of common facts that can easily be tested and scored.

Erin--as I mention in my next column, it's amazing how even "simple" data comparing Netherlands and the US results in our both finding quite different "facts"--not to mention how we interpret them. I am hoping we can get to the "bottom" of our different facts in this case--just for the fun of it. In a history course I took at the U of Chicago grad school, we were required to find a fairly commonly accepted historical fact that we could demonstrate was wrong! It was an eye-opening experience.

Whoever: Someone asked me some time ago about how one divides time on the "relationship" side v. the cognitive side. Of course it's easier—timewise--when it "just happens". But I never see it as a task of spending time on "the relationship" per se. It's in the "art" of good teaching that the teacher, learner and the "it" join together in ways that build trust, mutual respect around the learning. And then, on occasion, there are reasons one might go above and beyond that, though, even then, it's always in the service of promoting growth and development. Plus sheer pleasure.



You sound like a very passionate individual with strong beliefs about what should/should not be happening in your classroom. That's a good thing. Don't back off. If channeled appropriately your students will be the beneficiaries. Good teachers do what's necessary to make school what they believe it should be for their students. I used Everyday Math over the last three to four years along with teaching arithmetic. There are definite gaps in EM and that's the reason I developed my self-authored arithmetic program. It worked out very well for my students. It's not that I had time to develop the supplementary program I thought my kids would need, it simply had to be done if they were to learn what I wanted them to know by June each year. EM had some strenghts. I evaluated it myself and added what I thought it lacked - arithmetic. If you're so opposed to the curriculum get involed with the NCTM (National Council of Teachers of Mathematics). These are folks who essentially drive what winds up in our math books. They think kids should have access to calculators to solve problems and that the teaching of "facts" is essentially a waste of time. You have to remember these are the kinds of individuals who shoved whole language (and other "fads," et al) down our throats before it was recognized that WL might not be the best approach for every youngster. I disagreed with both of these policies and did what I had to do to get the job done for my students. It's not that I refused to teach out of EM, it's that I suplemented what was missing. My kids wound up more than adequately prepared to handle anything that came their way in the wonderful world of numbers. Dickey, kid, there's more than one way to skin a cat and despite what people might tell you, you can fight city hall.

Re paying teachers by results. I think I identify with JoeTorres--he didn't object to being paid less, but offering him a bonus for winning a particular series felt insulting. As though he wasn't "trying" hard enough. I think Torres' bosses might not have understood the issue of "dignity", or they did and just wanted him to turn it down. I think that Klein (NYC's chancellor) is similarly disposed--and I haven't figured out which he believes: that teachers aren't trying hard enough (thus the offered bonus) and/or that he'd be happy if those with inflated notion of their dignity quit. Hmmm. I might pursue this later.


It is always interesting to see how another country does things. It is definitely interesting that they use passing your exams as a way to avoid military service. I guess that's pretty good incentive, but I know more than a few students here who would not be too happy if we adopted that particular policy.
I had never really considered the economic motivations of a school system before, so I find it really interesting that such a thing would play a role in the actions of a school system. Just how big of a role would this motivation play, I wonder?

Erin, there is a way of grading without using grades. Currently my son gets grades - for instance a 15 out of 20. It means nothing to him. What I don't understand is that he is actually graded on whether he finished the worksheet. He writes slow.

When I use a different curriculum, they have a very distinct correct and wrong answer. It is pretty obvious as I don't use the teacher guide for either reading or for math (4th grade). Maybe it doesn't allow for creativity but it sure helps me get the teaching done in short order. What I count is the number wrong. Funnily enough, he never gets less than a 90% - because the curriculum is designed to mastery and high success. I have problems with the other curriculum where I don't know what success is.

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