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Retooling Russian schooling. Educational perestroika slowly introduces classroom reforms

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.

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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.

Fifth, money. Vast increases in school funds, perhaps tied to the prosperity of local collectives such as factories and agriculture, are needed to help build better schools and pay teachers more.

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Yet most reforms still exist only on paper, because of a complex of historical and institutional problems.

Computer literacy is one example: Only about 1,000 classrooms in the 64,000 Soviet secondary schools offer hands-on computer training, points out Richard Staar of Hoover. Reforms call for 400,000 personal computers in ninth- and 10th-grade classes by the year 1990 - but the total number of PCs in the USSR is still in the tens of thousands. (There are 20 million PCs in the United States, by comparison).

What this means practically is that only 10 percent of all students can request computer science, and only 5 percent actually work with a computer (an average of 15 minutes a week). Hence, says Donald Treadgold of the University of Washington, most students now and in the near future will take computer courses with no computers.

How do you revise history books in the Soviet Union, asked Hoover's Robert Conquest. Glasnost may allow real political and social history to seep out in literary journals and newspapers, but to change schoolbooks is still a frightening step, he says.

A need in classrooms for more innovative thinking is stymied by a deeply rooted psychology of cynicism and restraint among both Russian teachers and students, says Balzer: ``Students can see the fraud in the system, and from the beginning they learn not to ask the most important, the key `why?' questions.''

One scholar summed up the current character of Soviet reform efforts by relating a famous scene in a modern Russian novel: Villagers are gathering for mail at the local post office just as news arrives that Hitler has invaded the USSR. Gather the villagers! a party official tells his aide. But they are gathered, the aide says. Then send them away and gather them again, the official replies: ``Comrades, in our country, spontaneity must be organized!''