We are the best in the world, but it’s hard to believe.
On October 28th, as part of the "Urgent research and design in education" workshop, there was a discussion of the PIRLS international comparative research results from 2006 on the reading skills of primary school pupils, where Russia occupied the top position among the 40 participating countries.
This is the first workshop within the "Urgent research and design in Education" series undertaken this year. There have been a few changes amongst the staff and directors. Last year Yaroslav Kuzminov, HSE rector, Isaak Frumin, HSE deputy rector, Boris Rudnik, chief of the HSE Institute for Education Development and HSE deputy rector, presided over the events. This year, after Rudnick's appointment as Ugorsk State University rector, Irina Abankina, presiding over HSE Institute for Education Development, became the third committee member chief. Victor Bolotov, vice president of the Russian Academy for Education and a former head of the Russian State Educational Inspectorate, attended the workshop as the fourth chief.
PIRLS research, devoted to international comparative studies of schoolchildren's literacy skills and reading behavior, was a natural issue for the seminar. The HSE supports PIRLS studies within the Fundamental Research Programme. The HSE within the Fundamental Research program implementation supports PIRLS studies. The research group chose three techniques: data base analysis, derived data verification (presence at school, presence in lessons, and communication with teachers), analysis of curriculum literature for reading skills improvement used at schools. They were searching for an answer to the "Why" question. As I. Furmin emphasized, "we are the best in the World, and it is difficult to believe".
There is an official explanation for the unpredictable results demonstrated by Russian pupils within the PIRLS study. Last year, after the results had been published, Isak Kalina, the Russian deputy minister for education and science, and Victor Bolotov, the Russian State Educational Inspectorate chief, commented on these results at a press-conference in RIA Novosti agency. They explained the achievements by three main courses: modernization of the educational system (there are some clear improvements at the primary level), the transition from three years to four years of primary school and the strengthening of the family unit.
At the meeting U. Tumeneva, scientific fellow of the Centre for Social Development under HSE Institute for Education Development, reported on "Russian achievements in PIRLS. Thanks to or despite of? PIRLS - 2006 secondary probe analysis". As school-students` answers and internal relations at schools and in families probe exposed, some myths concerning Russian educational system can be exploded. Traditionally, urban school education is supposed to be better than rural. But it became clear that settlement type and location didn't influence the achievements of pupils. The average results were 580, 562 and 529 in cities, suburbs, and rural area respectively. As researchers concluded, reading achievements are influenced greatly by other factors such as internal relations at the concrete school (resources and security) and family status (social position, parents' level of education and their willingness to teach children to read). Put simply, children from a poor family at a badly equipped city school will demonstrate poor reading skills and, vice versa, children from a prosperous family at a modern, well equipped countryside school are able to demonstrate higher reading skills. As U. Tumeneva proved by evident sample, children of 1,2 million migrants resident for 9 months in Moscow in 2008 will study at urban schools but they are not expected to demonstrate high results.
As it seems, the better equipped a school is, the better the results will be. But secondary analysis proved that school resources are a compensating factor only for families with a poor social position. Schools with a large proportion of children from prosperous families improved their achievements by 45 points compared to the "unsuccessful" schools achievement of 8 points which, according to U. Tumeneva, cannot be considered as an improvement (with a significance of 22 points).
The research also shattered one more myth about digital PC units` positive influence on education. As the study revealed, access to computers does not affect achievements in reading skills: it certainly doesn't improve reading and, more probably, has a negative influence. The quantity and frequency of also does not affect reading ability at all, however in fact Russia is at the leading position among PIRLS participants in terms of both characteristics. At Russian schools there are teachers who give basic homework but their achievements in the PIRLS study are not lower than their colleagues who demand more from their pupils. Speaking about class exercises, the only impact on reading literacy is from reading aloud. Teachers should also give exercises for text comprehension and skills development (working with the text structure, predicting the plot based on the current situation and so on).
Pre-school reading skills, the educational level of parents, the importance of reading for parents and the availability of books in the home are among the important factors. Russia keeps its leading position by the number of pupils with high early educational activity indicators. To put it simply, Russia owes its excellent results to highly educated parents willing to teach their children before school. But there is a lack of teachers specializing in training for children with reading difficulties.
A. Vorontzov, the Opened Institute's "Developing Education" General Director, commented on this report by adding: "During the last year we analyzed PIRLS results several times. The more I hear about it, the worse I feel". He cited Analoliy Kasprzhak, from the Moscow School for Social and Economic Sciences, as saying "We have nothing to do with school, everything depends on the family". So Y. Tiumeneva`s two conclusions about resources compensating impact and ICT (Information Communicative Technologies) empty influence on literacy draw us to a gloomier conclusion: teachers are unable to implement the ICT and material resources. The question is what should be done to raise the school's effectiveness.
"We have a remarkable result - nothing influences anything. If school plays a compensative part why should the government finance depressed regions? Probably, it would be better to provide families with money", Elena Yudina, the Russian Academy for Education Psychology Institute research-fellow, asserted.
E. Yudina also added that Russian schoolchildren achievements may originate from pre-school education that was not studied as particular aspect. Fourth grade pupils, PIRLS research participants, started school in 2002 while in 2004 school pressure on pre-school educational intuitions intensified (in this very year the notion "pre-school" education appeared) and strict formal methods were put into use while preparing children for school. As workshop participants emphasized, this aspect needs to be studied more.
Galina Kovaleva, the head of the Department for Educational Quality at the Russian Academy for Education (a leading Russian expert in education research comparative studies), summarized the report for the international conference in Germany on "The effect for Russian schoolchildren of high results within the PIRLS study". As G. Kovaleva recalled, in Germany she had been asked about the way Russian schools obtain high results despite a poor start.
G. Kovaleva praised the HSE colleagues` activity mentioning rich data implemented by Y. Tiumeneva`s for international comparative studies. The researchers began to evaluate the effectiveness through expert estimates as well as stratifying it statistically. "The young guard of professionals is growing. They are not afraid to work with enormous databases. The number of experts in secondary analysis is increasing", G. Kovaleva said.
According to G. Kovaleva, the main problem of Russian education is inability to take any policy decision based on PIRLS results. What should be done to maintain these achievements? In 2012 schoolchildren included in PIRLS research will take part in a PISA study where Russian positions are weak. In other countries special measures are being taken to make results better: curricula are strengthened by compulsory lessons and ad hoc programmes intended to raise interest in reading are being implemented. In this context, T. Abankina`s statement, the chief of the Department at the HSE Institute for Education Development, sounds very pessimistic: "Probably, it would be better to leave the family with responsibility for everything?"
By Boris Startsev, the HSE NEWs service