Education the Russian way

In many metropolitan school districts in the U.S. — and certainly in the Twin Cities — there can be dozens of languages spoken by the students. This phenomenon is widely blamed for the disparate test scores, like the ones we saw released this week.

It’s coincidence, and certainly fascinating, that the New York Times Magazine is running a piece on what happened when a foreign correspondent put his three kids in a school in Russia where everything is in one language, and it wasn’t English.

What struck me as particularly fascinating is the idea that a parent — a reporter at heart, certainly — used the situation as something of an experiment, while providing an avenue of escape if that’s what the kids wanted. I still can’t decide whether this was genius, or foolishness.

I convinced myself that what they were doing was no different from what millions of immigrants in the United States do all the time. Yet my unease stemmed from more than the school. When we arrived in Russia, the country was still suffering through the aftermath of the humiliating Soviet collapse in 1991. Vladimir Putin, a former K.G.B. agent who scorned Western-style democracy, was ruling undisputed. Many Russians — fed up with post-Soviet disorder — applauded him.

With oil prices soaring, the economy, based on natural resources, was riding high. In Moscow, newly prosperous Russians embraced a breathtaking materialism, making up for Soviet deprivation. They sped down Tverskaya Street in Lexus S.U.V.’s, outfitted their homes with Poggenpohl kitchens and piled into Cantinetta Antinori and other restaurants run by celebrity chefs from Europe. Moscow has 10 million people, and most are not wealthy. But after a few months, I remember thinking, Was this a society that I wanted to embed my kids in?

Everything turned out well, the article certainly suggests, and the reference in the first line of the paragraphs I quoted above was the only reference in the piece relating to the situation faced by immigrants to the United States.

But I’m pretty sure he wanted people to discuss the parallel and whether it’s valid and whether the results would be the same. After all, this isn’t Russia.

  • I have several friends I knew during my own time living overseas, who, as youngsters, had no choice other than to enter Japanese elementary schools. Their parents were missionaries, often assigned to rural areas where there was absolutely no English spoken. As adults now, they look back upon their experiences with some amazement and astonishment (this happened less than 20 years after WWII, and Japan was just beginning to pull itself back together), but, overall, they view their time in Japanese kindergartens and early grade school in a very positive light.

    But, really, there was no mistaking who was out of place in those Japanese classrooms! lol