Commercialization of Public Education in Russia Hits School Curriculum and Family Budget

Federal Law N-83 FZ activated the process of commercialization of public education that brought so far only uncertainty and frustration for Russian society. Certainly, there are more questions surrounding the reform than answers. Yet, it is becoming clear that the reform will have a major impact on school curriculum and family budget.

The law guarantees to provide basic education for free. However, people express fears that fee-free curriculum will be cut down to a bare minimum. One concerned parent explained that experimentation with the new law in her child’s school has resulted in narrowing down of the fee-free educational program to the following subjects: two hours of math, two hours of Russian language, three hours of physical training, and three hours of religious studies weekly. The “free program” is so basic that students have no choice but to attend fee-based courses in order to gain the necessary knowledge.  Some reports suggest that teachers force their students to attend fee-based courses and give low grades to those students who do not obey.

However, not all families can afford to pay for the courses. A price list posted on one of the Internet discussion forums states that parents have to pay a monthly fee of 500 rubles (15$) for general subjects (e.g., chemistry, biology, literature) and 1000 rubles (30$) for foreign language lessons. Parents are in panic since they believe the reform will hit their family budgets dramatically. Given the fact that average monthly salary in Russia is about 500-800$ (and many earn considerably less), allocating extra 200$ for a “proper” education is a significant burden on families (these 200$ do not include additional expenses, such as school uniforms, textbook materials, school repairs, and so forth). Clearly, the low-income families will be the ones to suffer the most.

Surprisingly, the government has not yet attempted to clarify this chaos of opinions. Although the official website of the Ministry of Education has devoted a separate page to the new reform, it only includes the text of the law and some additional normative documents.  Only three news and press releases are devoted to the reform and they all date back to 2012 or earlier. It seems that government is not ready to take an affirmative stand on the issue and is only observing the evolving situation from a distance.

Meanwhile, some activists are beginning to unite their efforts in opposing the reform. For example, there is a public initiative of concerned individuals called “Civil Initiative for Free Education” that boycotts the new law and regularly organizes demonstrations. There are also those who collect signatures and write petitions to stop the reform, as well as many others who are creating their smaller Internet communities. Their main concern is that the new law will lead to raising “a generation of dummies” and “grey masses that can only read and write, but not think.” Therefore, the negative impact of the reform is predicted to go far beyond the curriculum and family finances. It is believed that in a longer term the law will have a severe affect on the overall education level in the country.

Government official against Federal Law N-83 FZ (in Russian language):

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Children are More than Test Scores!

Last week I was at my son’s elementary school for a meeting with his teacher.  She began to talk about how important it was for him to be ready for the PSSAs (Pennsylvania System of School Assessment tests). I told her that not only did I find this type of assessment irrelevant to his education, but also inaccurate.  I even suggested I’d rather he didn’t participate in taking them. A look of confusion came across her face, like she hadn’t even thought about having a choice in this matter.

Standardized testing has been a crucial aspect of the No Child Left Behind act that has been introduced by the George W. Bush administration in 2002. Each state is required to create assessment tests and yearly progress reports in order to receive federal funding. This has been a top down policy that was decided in Washington with little to no involvement of students, teachers, and parents that have been affected by it.  Supposedly, such standardized tests were expected to not only provide accurate assessments of student achievement but also measure the effectiveness of teachers as well.  But a decade after the policy’s implementation, there has been no proof of its effectiveness.  Rather, standardized testing has reduced education to acquiring skills that merely prep for the test.

Comparing U.S. students to those from such high-achieving countries as Finland, Korea, UK, and Singapore, Linda Darling-Hammond argues that American students are “the most tested” in the world. She finds that not only are students in these countries minimally tested but they also rarely take multiple-choice exams.  She further claims that spending so much time on improving test taking skills takes away time from effective teaching and critical thinking skills that cannot be measured by such tests.

Yet, public protests against standardized testing are rare. Many teachers find themselves in a difficult position if they seriously contest the system that promotes “teaching to the test.” Should they refuse to participate in the standardized tests imposed by the state, they risk poor evaluations, charges of insubordination, possible suspension, and even loss of their jobs. To a certain extent, then, many teachers—perhaps even a majority—are forced to implement standardized tests and teaching practices that they not only despise but know are against common sense and the real educational needs of their students.

While many teachers may be discouraged from actively protesting the standardized testing movement, the teachers of Garfield High School in Seattle are just doing that…by not participating in the mandated standardized tests called MAPS (Measures of Academic Progress) and they are not the only ones. Over 130 professors and researchers from various universities, including Harvard, Tuft, and Brandeis, have spoken out publicly against standardized testing. From New York City to Texas and Florida, parents, teachers, and elementary and middle school students are beginning to express their frustration with slogans like “KIDS ARE NOT A TEST SCORE.” Garfield High’s defiance of this policy clearly shows the rest of us that we do have a voice in education policy as stakeholders especially in a nation that we call a democracy.

The Reform of the Century in Russian Secondary Education: Monetization of Public Education

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On May 8, 2010 Dmitriy Medvedev signed Federal Law N-83 FZ, which aims to introduce a major reform in the secondary education system in Russia.

Unofficially this law is known as “a reform of monetization of public education.” The law includes provisions for granting autonomy to schools to raise their own funds. As the official version of the law states, schools have the right to introduce new subjects to school curriculum on the commercial basis and provide private tutoring for students wishing to improve their knowledge in a particular subject.  The law, according to the government officials, aims to improve the quality of education and encourage schools to become more competitive and innovative. The law has been in power since January 2012, and it is now in its implementation period.

While commercialization and privatization of public education are common in the so called “Western world,” these policies are becoming increasingly widespread globally (Rizvi & Lingard, 2010; Ball, 2012). Russia is no longer an exception. With the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, privatization has become one of the central features of post-Soviet transformation in Russia and the N-83 FZ Law has extended privatization reforms to the public education sector.

Given the fact that schools were entirely state-funded throughout the Soviet history, the new reform is quite unprecedented. In fact, it has evoked huge resonance in the Russian society. First, the majority of the public does not completely understand what the law implies. Some critics call the reform “the end of free education,” while others blame the law as a “means to justify the decrease in public spending on education.” Parents are also hesitant since they believe they will have to pay for the reform out of their own pockets. In response, government is trying to convince people that education will continue to be free. However, the key message here is that only the standard (basic) curriculum will be available for free. And the critics question whether or not this standard will be enough for students to pass the national examinations in order to be admitted to the university. Also, it is likely that only children from wealthy families would benefit from the commercial services in schools, which in turn would further contribute to growing social inequality.

By and large, there is a great deal of controversy surrounding the reform.  The text of the law itself is overly complicated and difficult to comprehend, which further contributes to fears among the broader public. Thus, it seems unclear what this reform will bring for the Russian society. Are schools prepared for self-governance? Will the reform in the end raise the quality of education? Or will it lead to shutting down of rural schools, which without doubt will be struggling to raise funds? What will this push for privatization of public education finally bring?

Cornel West on “Shameful Silence” about American Obsession with Privatization of Public Education

“Public education is predicated on the notion you are focused on other kids — you have to be concerned about all children….not any longer — all this privatizing profit obsession, this preoccupation with this short-term gain as opposed to long-term integrity, is being pushed to the side.” Watch him talk on C-SPAN:

http://www.c-spanvideo.org/clip/4322638&updatedclip

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