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Retooling Russian schooling. Educational perestroika slowly introduces classroom reforms

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NEW calls by Soviet leaders for a ``serious change'' in Russian schools are an important admission of the stratified system of education in the Soviet Union - of a small group of elite schools, a vast number of inferior ones. So said American scholars discussing Soviet education reform here at the Hoover Institution last week as part of a presidential advisory committee.

Two years ago, the Soviets began an ``educational perestroika,'' as one scholar put it - reforms to improve teaching, curriculum, and facilities, and to introduce new subjects such as computer science.

It's been an uphill battle. Two weeks ago, ideology chief Yegor Ligachev, second in power only to Mikhail Gorbachev, gave a stinging speech on the ``dearth of resolution and lack of scope'' in current efforts for reform. He spoke of an engineering school in northern Russia where 70 percent of the students failed a basic math exam. He also noted that 40 percent of Soviet secondary schools have no in-door toilets, 30 percent have no electricity, and 21 percent no central heating.

``The Soviets are now acknowledging that schooling is not fair. They are going to try to broaden the number of good schools, and if they can, they will,'' said Harley Balzer, director of Russian studies at Georgetown University. ``The problem is, how do you get people who have been trained not to take initiative to take it?''

Summarizing his findings on a recent trip to the USSR, Dr. Balzer outlined five key Soviet reform efforts: First, earlier schooling. Students must now go to school an extra year - starting at age 6, not 7.

Second, improved content. An effort is under way to make curriculum less complex - but at the same time more comprehensive.

Third, occupational education. There's a demand for ``technical training'' - where every student would learn an applied vocational skill.

Fourth, universal computer literacy.

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