A teacher sent me a link to a provocative article in the Teachers College Record by University of Oklahoma professor Lawrence Baines comparing the education reform movement in the United States today with that of the 1930s Soviet Union.
Author of “The Teachers We Need,” Baines cites many shared trends — nationalized curriculum, frequent standardized tests, achievement level tracking by demographics, emphasis on the teaching of science, math, and technology and less teacher autonomy but greater accountability.
Of the following three statements, which refer to the Soviet Union in the 1930s and which refer to America today?
1. “Teachers are asked to achieve significant academic growth for all students at the same time that they instruct students with ever-more diverse needs….The stakes are huge—and the time to cling to the status quo has passed.”
2. “We had to have a campaign for 100 percent successful teaching…all students must learn.”
3. “Poor work by the school and poor achievement by the entire class and by individual pupils are the direct result of poor work by the teacher.”
Although all three of the above sentiments could be attributable to current officeholders in Washington, D.C., only the first is American—from Secretary of Education Arne Duncan (Duncan 2010, January). The second and third are policy statements which emanated from old Soviet policy papers on educational reform (Ewing, 2001, p. 487).
In the 1930s, the Soviet Union was mired in recession. Poverty and unemployment, especially among the peasant class, were rampant. Although the existing educational system was efficient and progressive, especially considering schools’ negligible funding, most Soviet children did not attend school. The Soviet government, led by Joseph Stalin, instigated a series of educational reforms designed to obliterate the established educational system and to create a new centralized structure that would increase literacy, create “good citizens,” and transform the Soviet Union into a global power, particularly in the areas of science, mathematics, and technology. The similarities of Soviet educational initiatives in the 1930s to American educational reform today are as discomfiting as they are striking.
Here is another excerpt on the similar rhetoric:
Try to identify who said what below—Comrade Stalin or President Obama.
1. “There is no doubt that our educational institutions will soon be turning out thousands of new technicians and engineers, new leaders for our industries.”
2. “Improving education in math and science is about producing engineers and researchers and scientists and innovators who are going to help transform our economy and our lives for the better.”
3. “Galileo changed the world when he pointed his telescope to the sky and now it’s your turn.”
4. “In the course of its development science has known not a few courageous men who were able to break down the old and create the new, despite all obstacles, despite everything. Such scientists as Galileo…are widely known.”
Key: Joseph Stalin said the first (Stalin, 1954/c1934). President Obama said the second (Obama, 2009, November 23) and the third (2009, October 8), and Stalin said the fourth (Stalin, 1978/c1940, pp. 329-330).
–From Maureen Downey, for the AJC Get Schooled blog