Interview: Education in Russia

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Last year I read a book about Russian moms. Although the book itself wasn’t spectacular, the chapter on school was full of interesting stuff. Schools in Russia – especially high schools – are no joke! Even understanding all the available options is a tough task. For example, take a look at this building:

Some kids enroll in a школа (school). Others attend a гимназия, which is also a school but with a better reputation and a focus on the humanities. A third option is a лицей, a kind of top-notch school with a math/science focus. A friend told me that a лицей can also serve as a preparatory school for a particular university. In short, kids and teens are either studying in a школа, a гимназия, or a лицей and it can be difficult to describe the differences between them. (If you know more about this topic, please share your thoughts in the comments!)

I grew up in Portland, where schools have names like Westview High School and Cedar Park Middle School. Russian schools eschew these kinds of descriptive names. My husband, for example, attended Школа #37. Two years ago, we lived between Школа #67 and Школа #30.

But one thing that is the same for Russian high schoolers and American high schoolers: test stress.😕

In the US, teens are freaking out about the SAT and the ACT. In Russia, teens are freaking out (or literally having heart attacks, according to rumors that some of my teens had heard) about state exams called the ОГЭ and the ЕГЭ. By the way, the ОГЭ/ЕГЭ testing only appeared in the early 2000s so there are plenty of people around who never had to take them.

ОГЕ stands for Основной государственный экзамен (Basic State Exam) and happens in 9th grade.

ЕГЭ stands for Единый Государственный Экзамен (Unified State Exam) and is for those high school graduates going on to university.

ВПР stands for Всероссийские проверочные работы. I don’t know anything about this test but Wikipedia says it happens yearly in Russian schools.

ОГЕ and ЕГЭ are a BIG DEAL, which means there are all kinds of courses and special prep schools to help students get ready. Here are some things I’ve seen around recently that refer to those tests:

Prep school in Yekaterinburg.
“ОГЭ 2016 answers” in Chelyabinsk.

Overall, there is sooooo much to learn about the public education system in Russia (like having kids of all ages in a single school, going to school six days a week) that I don’t have a complete picture of educational landscape yet. Instead, I have something else to share with you… an interview!

That book I mentioned earlier has two versions. The original version – Motherhood, Russian-style – was written in English. The Russian translation – Shapka, babushka, kefir. Как воспитывают детей в России – appeared a few years later.

I first read the entire book in Russian. Then, curious about how things were translated, I read the education chapter in English. It turns out that while both books covered the same topics, the Russian version had more details.

A little background about this written interview:

When collecting quotes for this interview, sometimes I used the Russian translation and sometimes I used the original English.

Two wonderful women here in Chelyabinsk agreed to share their thoughts on education in Russia (as presented by the book, at least).

Anna is a 20-year-old university student. Maria is a 47-year-old mother of school-age children and a teacher herself. Here are their reactions to quotes from Shapka, babushka, kefir

Russian kids have a great, long childhood (before age 7) with plenty of time for exploring the world. Kindle, loc 2375.

Anna: That’s pretty true, unless parents are too strict or overprotective or decided to put their child into tough sports like gymnastics, artistic gymnastics or ballet dancing.

Maria: Yes, I agree with that. That’s the most carefree period to my mind with practically no responsibilities and a lot of leisure time to do things children really want.

В России все может поменяться в любую секунду, будущее всегда туманно. Так что российские матери обычно не планируют образование своих детей на двадцать лет вперед. Hardcover, page 149.

Anna: It is true and not at the same moment. There is quite a difficult situation with Russian reality. On the one hand, nothing is changing, but on the other hand, situation with some job paths is getting worse (for example, it’s almost no future and no money await you if you decided to become a doctor or a singer or an artist or a teacher here). Personally I haven’t seen a single mother who had planned the whole education for her child, even if she strongly believes in government and the concept of a “bright Russian future”.

Maria: Согласна, что все очень нестабильно, неопределенно. Но в принципе считаю, что планировать образование – проблематично, потому что интересы и склонности ребенка очень часто меняются к концу средней школы.

Each mother [in Russia] is free to choose the [educational] path that best suits her family and her child. Kindle, loc 2574.

Anna: It’s almost always is up to child and his grades, because if you study well and pass the final exam with flying colors you can choose pretty much any university and program, because education in Russia is free if you have enough exam points and/or additional points like volunteering for more than 36 hours or being candidate in master of sports or owning an important discovery (including being Nobel Prize winner). Also you can have additional points in case of getting a golden medal (if you’re a straight A student) or win a school olympiad in needed subject (for example, Russian language or Chemistry or Biology, if you want to become a doctor). Family play a little role in choosing educational path, when it comes to higher education. But mothers do search for a school under a microscope, when it comes to elementary and secondary education. Or just put younger children where their older siblings studied (the actual story of my little brother’s school choice).

Maria: In general yes. But sometimes it could be complicated because of the finances or high competition.

Русские дети более-менее свободны в своем выборе института и профессии… Родители могут помочь, дернуть за ниточки, чтобы вступительные экзамены прошли как надо, но в конечном счете именно ребенок выбирает, где он будет учиться. Hardcover, page 161.

Anna: That’s absolutely true, except the part about parents. It’s nearly impossible for parents to help in any way with exams, because it is heavily controlled (but there are exceptions in regions like Dagestan, North Osetia and other regions, close to them).

Maria: Да, в результате выбор за ребенком. Бывает, что родители пытаются давить, заставляют его поступить в университет, например. Но очень скоро ребенок или бывает отчислен за неуспеваемость, или просто сам бросает учебу и выбирает свой путь. Это может быть или другой факультет, или освоение какой-то рабочей профессии, или просто gap year.

[When applying at a university] In Russia, only your grades and parental connections matter. Everything else is just noise. If you play a sport, it is because you are good at it, and you enjoy it. The same goes for art, music, chess, and other extracurricular activities. Russian high school students do not need to build a diverse resume, they simply need to study properly. Kindle, loc 2594-99.

Anna: Grades and serious achievements (which I listed before) are the only thing that matter, when it comes to applying. Parental connections can do the job, but only if they are working on high positions in the university of child’s choice or have a very close contact with those people. And yes, you just need to study.

Maria: As far as I know, it is not that way. Grades are essential of course. But you can get some extra points for University if you do sports professionally and you pass ГТО (it’s the State Program of PE Norms) with distinctions. Or if you take part in national competitions in different subjects (the so called Olimpiades) that also counts for prestigious institutions in Moscow or St Petersburg.

Список обязательной литературы в десятом – одиннадцатом классе включает в себя 158 книг. Hardcover, page 160.

Anna: I don’t remember the actual number, but the thing was enormous 😉 There were lots of books and more than a half of them were novels, some novels even consisted from several books (for example, ‘War and Peace’ and ‘And Quiet Flows the Don’ were four volumes each). Pretty much all of them were Russian classics and, oh boy, those weren’t for teen age.

Maria: Не могу ничего сказать определенно – дети пока только в 5 и 8 классах. Но, насколько я знаю, список литературы действительно очень большой, и по литературе все пишут сочинение на выпускном экзамене

In Russia, it is possible to home-school as long as you bring your child in to take the end-of-the-year tests for each grade level. Kindle, loc 2569.

Anna: Yes. But it’s hard to prove that your child needs homeschooling. Bureaucracy.

Maria: Yes, it is possible. Our friends who have 4 children educate the third daughter at school. They have tests throughout the year and have to study the same subjects on their own. They take several tutors in main subjects. They have chosen this type of schooling because it’s flexible – they are not limited in planning their holidays. And also it enables them to meet their daughter’s individual needs in education.

Мелкое взяточничество – просто (и это уже много веков так!) часть российской действительности, как баня и борщ. Hardcopy, page 159.

Anna: Quite accurate. There is a Russian paradox – bribery is considered a crime, but no one cares. Plus, everyone knows who and how much of a bribe is taken, but no one goes to prison. It is also widely spread in governmental structures. But again, everyone knows, but prefers to look at this problem with widely closed eyes.

Maria: Не могу сказать

В современных русских школах самыми крутыми считаются дети, у которых и с учебой все хорошо, и с каким-то умениями вне школы – вроде спорта или рисование. Hardcopy, page 145.

Anna: Yep. Also, you’re considered cool if you’re sociable, make friends easily (especially with older guys) and can talk your way out of every problem.

Maria: Такие дети пользуются авторитетом, они интересны и участвуют во многих школьных мероприятиях

Smart was, and still is, cool in Russia. Kindle, loc 2519.

Anna: For sure. If you’re smart enough, you can study almost anywhere and work almost anywhere (or move to another country to make money or research things).

Maria: Definitely!

Спасибо большое, Anna and Maria, for agreeing to this interview!!!😊😊😊 It was very interesting to hear about your experiences and thoughts on this book!

One last note on something that really stands out to me: Russia’s cohesiveness when it comes to relationships formed in school.

The words for classmate, for example, are stronger to a Russian than to an American.

Your одноклассник – usually a grade school classmate – is the same person who has been sitting next to you for years. Because Russian students often study in certain specialized educational paths (versus generalized education), your classes in middle/high school are filled with the same people every year.

It’s the same in university. Everyone who enrolls to study subject X moves through the same education path together; однокурсники – uni classmates – have the same classes at the same time until graduation. As my husband says, “This means you either deeply love those people or you deeply hate them.” 😂

Meanwhile, in America we rarely ever have the same classmates (barring high-level graduate courses). I don’t have any classmates that I studied with for years and years so I’m a little envious of how close одноклассники are. Of course, the downside is that Russian students can’t pick out their own classes. Last month I attended a university event for выпускники (graduates). During a Q&A, one выпускник asked the dean why students weren’t allowed to pick out their own classes “like in the US”. Here is the translation of the exact response: “Because while some people can successfully make their own soup, others think mussels, avocado, and orange will make a tasty meal.”🤔

If you made it all the way to the end of this post, молодец!))))) How much do you know about education in Russia? What are your thoughts on школа vs гимназия vs лицей? What about одноклассники and однокурсники? Have you heard of (or perhaps taken) the ОГЕ or the ЕГЭ?

My father-in-law’s high school diploma.

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