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School children in Russia
School children in Russia
Galina Dudina

ST. PETERSBURG — The physics lab is under the school’s cupola, literally in a holy place.

This used to be a small home chapel, and now it’s a specialized classroom. The St. Petersburg physics and math school No. 30 moved back to this building, its historic home in the Vasilyevsky Island section of St. Petersburg, 10 years ago. That’s about when the discussion of the alleged “uselessness” of elite education erupted, followed by a law that put an end to it.

The school, called ‘The Thirty’, weathered the storm. When tempers cooled, it became obvious that Russia has a tough time without its gifted, and the school once again became specialized. And, once again, incoming students trembled as they climbed the worn steps of the wide staircase that leads to the old classrooms with big windows and a stucco ceiling.

The history of one of the oldest schools in the city represents a century of specialized education in Russia. In the 1960s, it rode the wave of specialization to become an elite math school. In the 1990s, it was turned into a college-prep school, and then one focused on specialized subjects.

A new law that came into force a year ago, which prompted much heated discussion, called into question the future of schools with “in-depth education,” especially prep schools and specialized institutions. That’s because there was no formal public policy that allowed their existence in the first place, to say nothing of affording them additional financial resources. Once again, elite education was at risk.

The additional money these schools requested is needed for extra courses, to pay for lab technicians, summer school and conferences, as well as for suitable pay for the teachers. School No. 30 was lucky — the city has supported it, and it may be officially designated with special status.

Not all are gifted

People are proud of the teachers and students at the school, which includes several award-winners, and they are also proud of the educational curriculum. Kids arrive in fifth grade after going through a selection process. Every graduate is expected to go to college. The older kids are divided into groups based on different levels in various specialized subjects.

School director Aleksei Tretyakov considers the education at school No. 30 neither elite nor selective. “We see how the kid is developing, as fifth grade is early to know what he or she is going to be,” Tretyakov says. “Of course, the earlier kids come to us the more they are able to absorb the lessons here, but the school is open to everyone who wants to study here.”

Selecting the students for entry is not easy, which the director says is a good thing. “In the end, every kid can develop successfully.”

People here are philosophical about the new law, which means instructions are still coming from Moscow. Teachers still remember the school inspections in the 1970s that were meant to verify whether the specialized physics and math programs were educating dissidents. With all the costs of education reform today, similar inspections would be inconceivable.

What really worries the educators is that parents have started to see education as part of the service industry, Tretyakov explains. “Mothers come to us and say that their kids are talented and get fabulous test scores. Or the opposite, they come to us and say, ‘I will pay you to make a genius out of my kid!’ That isn’t education.”

In this school, people believe in parents, in society and in good teachers, but above all in the students themselves. “In our school, we believe that not everyone is gifted. There is a normal distribution of abilities, and there are actually very few real geniuses,” Tretyakov says.

The school recognizes that gifts can manifest themselves differently. “We honestly have the goal of working with intellectually gifted kids,” Tretyakov says. “They need both an educator who will help them develop their abilities and a teacher to teach them to take care of everyday problems, since gifted people also have to be part of society. Some are not always very well-adjusted socially.”

Using talent is even harder than being gifted. Alksander Smirnov is a 32-year-old graduate of another specialized physics and math school, and an example of successful integration within society. He entered the specialized school in eighth grade, after going through a selection process, and now he’s a lawyer and the owner of a company that has branches all over Russia and the rest of the world. He started his first business when he was a university student. “All of my classmates have been successful,” he says. “Some have six-figure incomes, some have four kids already, some are amazing researchers or programmers. Two-thirds left Russia, but I can’t say that they have achieved any more than the ones who stayed.”

Even though the elite school was his whole social life (and he married a woman who went to the same school), he thinks that school, even school for “advanced” students, is mostly a place kids can learn to live. “It should be safe, and if they teach the kids something, great. You’re not going to get any real social experience, but you can teach kids to listen to the teacher and discuss with their peers — but there won’t be another similar experience in life."

History of hate

Opponents of the system say the special high schools should be eliminated, and a more “inclusive” education should be spread from the capital. The “Framework for a National System of Development for Young Talent,” which was adopted last year, has been criticized due to its lack of understanding of educational practices.

Aleksander Kovaldzhi, the deputy head of science at the “Second School,” which is always rated one of the three best schools in Moscow, openly opposes the recent innovations.

“I understand where the negative feelings that people have toward specialized schools come from. Some of these schools really have become places that only take the kids of bosses and businessmen, and even then they don’t have very good results,” Kovaldzhi says. “The truth is, as soon as a school has bad test results, it should be stripped of its status as a special prep school. And schools for the rich should be private.”

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Russian schoolgirls — Photo: Vitaliy Ankov

Some think that special schools “suck the blood” from regular schools by taking all of their best students. There is also the image of special institutions as “schools for the rich,” which started in the 1990s when education had very little money and some specialized schools started to take kids based on the thickness of their parents’ wallets.

School or conveyor belt?

One of the most popular critiques of the current reforms regards the merger of the remaining elite schools — which only take children based on competitive exams — with regional schools that take everyone. Most teachers say that educating a cross-section of students, who come to school with different levels of ability and preparation, inevitably requires lowering the level of instruction.

“A huge school, with several hundred students, is a factory where the principal is a manager who doesn’t know the children, doesn’t understand the pedagogy or the subjects, but is prepared to carry out any orders from above,” Kovaldzhi says.

The elite school director compared the process to “collectivization,” the Soviet-era policy of consolidating private property into collectives.

The reason for so much displeasure is the two opposing educational philosphies, one that favors “personalization” and the other “access.” Tatyana Vorobeva, principal of another elite Moscow high school, school No. 1521, says it is damaging to talk about merging “strong” and “weak” schools, that they should be characterized instead as those that are “effective” and “less effective.”

A planned merger last winter with another school caused a wave of discontent among parents and alumni at school No. 1521. The merger was originally planned with an experimental school, run by the Institute of Asian and African countries at Moscow State University, which had been rated No. 1 among Moscow schools in 2011. But since then, the Institute has merged with a less-prestigious school and has grown to a student body of 900. A merger with Vorobeva’s school would result in 1,750 students.

“Education is moving toward increased specialization in high school,” Vorobeva says. “The students choose subjects to explore in depth and specialize in. But how is that possible, if a high school only has two classes in each grade? The kids all have to be divided into different specialities, create an individualized study plan. That’s why it is better to have more students in a high school.”

Presumption of genius

For any revolution, there has to be a guiding concept. The recent reforms in Russia have promoted the idea that each child is talented in his or her own way, which makes seeking out the talent a waste of time.

“Based on my own extensive experience as an educator, working with kids in different situations, I can confirm that all kids have gifts. They are just different,” explains Isaac Kalina, head of the Moscow Department of Education. “The problem is that our school system is able to understand and recognize a very narrow spectrum of giftedness, and those who don’t fit into that small spectrum unfortunately aren’t very interested in school.”

Still, teachers in advanced schools seriously doubt that all kids are equally talented. “In order to create the circumstances for a child who shows signs of genius to turn into a gifted adult, we have to create a high-quality educational environment with individual trajectories of study,” says Marina Xolodnaya, head of the laboratory of psychological abilities and mental resources at the Institute of Technology.

This is known in Russia as the “principle of presumption of genius,” which Xolodnaya says requires the widest possibilities for the children, “not only intensive education.”

A second wind

Despite good intentions of those pushing for a system of advanced education for everyone, the outrage from parents and educators who thought it would be the end of special schools was enough that President Vladimir Putin announced a “rebirth of special educational institutions” in order to give “math education a second wind.”

Already existing specialized schools can apply for grants by showing the top-level results of their students in math and science competitions, as well as on standardized tests. In Moscow, the grants range from $60,000 to $450,000.

But the advanced schools in the city are hoping to have a more stable, systematic source of support for Russia’s unique system of advanced high school education that is provided by lawmakers. Grants are unreliable, and they require data reporting and grant writing. Among other things, the special schools need the money to provide evening classes to children from other schools. Without additional funding, the schools would have to start charging for those classes, which are now free. The first to lose out would be poor parents and their children.

There is one more innovation in specialized schools for gifted kids: Several of the best universities in Moscow are starting their own affiliated high schools, with advanced education, specialized subjects and university-level teachers. These schools are preparing this fall for their first class of students, all of whom were accepted after taking national exams. “It’s a question of professional orientation and the integration of high school and universities,” says Efim Pivovar, the rector of the Russian State Humanities University. “We are interested in the program because we want to attract the best high school graduates.”

On the other hand, according to the new approach where all children are potentially equally gifted, then the doors to the university should also be open for everyone.

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