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Those Magical School Years:
The Pluses And Minuses Of The Education System

From Poleznaya Gazeta (The Useful Newspaper)
August 30, 2002
By Zina Greenschuk

Education in [American] high schools is built on a model familiar to us from the final years of the [Russian] college system. Each student must take and pass a number of specific required disciplines. Most often it’s math (algebra and geometry), physics and chemistry, biology, history. The students themselves choose all other disciplines. Hence there is no such thing as a class, [of students] per se. Different students will appear in the roster of a math class than that of a photo design class. So what do we get? On the one hand, complete freedom for creativity: if it’s computers that I’m into — I go to computer classes, if not — perhaps it’s photography or the journalistic craft. In other words, the adolescent himself is able to choose an area of specialization. On the other hand, at this age not all are ready to make such a choice. Children, of course, are only too glad. Why not? — they get off from having to struggle in their least favorite classes.

It’s the parents who are complaining. They see that the so-called required "main subjects" do not provide a level of knowledge for even a basic understanding of subjects. For instance, chemistry is taught for one year, and begins from zero at that, without an explanation of the laws of physics on which it is built. How an upper classman can understand what a valence is without first learning the structure of atoms is a mystery to me! Organic chemistry is taught in high schools in the curriculum of biology, significantly earlier than the course on non-organic chemistry. How to explain the relationships between elements in organic chemistry without the knowledge of basic non-organic reactions is also hard to imagine. Ultimately, the child fails to see the point of it all without the proper knowledge base. The task of the above approach is to give an elementary sketch of a discipline without a further and deeper study. The philosophy is: those who are interested will study the subject later, in a college or university. It reminds me of a pencil sketch made just in case I will feel like finishing a painting later.

Parents complain over and over about the same thing: the absence of systematic approach. There is no continuous transition from the simple to the more difficult — the material that has been covered is done with forever — there is no occasional repetition to solidify the material. What we get is a kind of explanation-less jumping around. Take Newton’s laws of physics, which are taught as fact within the curriculum which nonetheless does not clarify the context of their discovery. Tenth graders’ physics exams demand knowledge of three difficult topics — optics, electricity and thermodynamics — to be learned in one sitting, over one weekend.

Education is built upon the idea of freedom of creativity from both sides. The teachers have no more of a unified system (of teachers’ manuals, and other aides) than the students. Often, there’s also no single textbook. It is up to the teacher to select the material from which to teach the class. And here’s where the problem arises. If a teacher is ill, the substitute can teach the material using a different text book. The teachers are not in touch with each other. Of course, you can just forget the occasional repetition to solidify anything! There are no guides, no instructions, so one must, as they say, feel one’s way in the dark when preparing material to be taught. Moreover, since each teacher prepares the curriculum from his or her own material, the level of competence in one class may differ from another class taught by a different teacher.

The students themselves must prepare an endless amount of projects and speeches in different subjects. The upper class students learn to analyze information that they must also find and systematize themselves. In addition to this, they must sometimes come up with original ideas for homework and demonstrate them as such, a task which undoubtedly allows children not only to learn to handle materials, but also to work creatively.

One cannot ignore the relationship between teachers and children. That teachers and students should go on a trip that might last even several days is unheard of. I’m not saying that teachers who love their students don’t exist, but so far I haven’t encountered any.

And all of this is only the tip of the iceberg of the many problems which make up the pluses and minuses of high school education. But you have to agree, this is something to think about.

Translated from Russian by Katya Kumkova-Wolpert

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