Ukraine: Running in Place

running in placeKYIV, Ukraine | Fourteen-year-old Sergey Gusev recently skipped class to play online games in an Internet cafe. His parents, who thought he was in school, believe that their son is a good student. “I don’t like chemistry and geometry, so I always miss those lessons,” Sergey said casually. He planned to attend only one class that day: physical education.

Sergey is typical of many secondary school students in Ukraine who say they rarely attend their classes because they don’t find them interesting. But adolescents’ bad attitudes are only one part of the problem. Their lack of motivation is rooted in larger problems in the Ukrainian classroom, including outdated teaching methods, underpaid and uninspired teachers, and a critical lack of resources. And, in a system in which the highest marks often go to the highest bidder, skipping class and avoiding hard work do not necessarily hinder a student’s chances for academic success.

Shifting the Blame

Rote memorization remains the norm in Ukrainian schools. Students learn early that they are required merely to reproduce the information drilled into them by their teachers in order to get a good mark. Indeed, many of their exams beginning in primary school are also oral.

Maria Gorobets, a high school English teacher in Kyiv, says Ukrainian students are not taught how to think critically about their lessons or to study outside of the classroom. “Education in Ukrainian schools is mechanical,” Gorobets said. “All the teachers know it, but they have no motivation to change it because their salaries are low.”

A primary or secondary school teacher typically earns about the equivalent of $250 per month, on par with the national average but still considered relatively low. As a result, many teachers, especially in the regions, leave the profession for higher-paying jobs.

But low salaries are not entirely to blame for the lack of innovation in Ukrainian classrooms. Georgiy Kasianov, director of the education program of the International Renaissance Foundation in Kyiv, sponsored by philanthropist George Soros, said the underlying problem is the absence of autonomy and self-regulation in Ukrainian schools.

Because of Education Ministry requirements, he said, “On the one hand, schools can’t work in the manner they consider necessary, and on the other, they can shift responsibility away from themselves for the poor quality of education they deliver.” Experts have accordingly identified decentralization as one of the major tasks of education reform in Ukraine.

“I have ideas about how to make lessons much more interesting for my students, but I can’t set my lesson plan independently, since I must fulfill the plan set out by the ministry,” Gorobets said when asked about her teaching methods.

Private schools have freer rein, but they are only a minority of educational establishments in Ukraine. And studying there is expensive. In Kyiv, one year of private tuition costs approximately $2,000 and in the regions it runs to between $700 and $1,000, making attendance an option available only to Ukraine’s elite minority.

Ukraine spends 6.4 percent of its GDP on education, according to the UN Human Development Program, putting it on par with Belarus and even ahead of Poland, but its schools seem woefully underfunded. Working-class parents frequently foot the bill for their children’s studies, even in public schools.

Parents often supply the money for repairs or to buy chalk and other basic supplies. Students are forced to buy most of their own textbooks because their schools cannot afford to provide them free-of-charge. This sometimes results in confusion in the classroom, since students will purchase more up-to-date editions that contradict the outdated – and often out-of-print – versions used by their teachers.

Skewing Marks

In 2007, Ukraine implemented standardized examinations for graduating students wishing to go on to higher education. Before, students mostly passed final oral exams and, on the basis of these results, were admitted to universities – a process that was notoriously corrupt. Parents and students were expected to give, and just as often willingly offered, bribes to “pass” these exams.

Now students seeking to attend higher education write a single test covering general knowledge, Ukrainian language and literature, and their chosen specializations. The test is evaluated externally by the Ukrainian Center for Educational Quality Assessment, a state institution charged with managing the process.

Kasianov from the International Renaissance Foundation believes the evaluation of students’ knowledge upon leaving secondary school is more objective under the new system. Maybe so, some parents and students say, but it’s far from perfect.

“The new system is objective. It checks concrete knowledge,” said Marina Egorova, who took the test and graduated this year. But she believes that the format is unforgiving, unlike the previous oral exams: “It doesn’t give you a chance to correct your mistakes. If a student doesn’t know one date or one place, or makes an error by chance, the result is already bad.”

“My son graduated from school this year and took the test. He was always studying and always got good grades in school, but he still did badly,” said Svetlana Demchak, the mother of a recent graduate. “The results of one test cannot give an objective evaluation of a student’s knowledge,” she argued.

Proponents of the new exam say the main benefit is that there are far fewer possibilities for corruption in the university admissions process. While it is still possible for a corrupt teacher to sell the right answers, the fact that the test is evaluated externally removes the teacher’s subjective opinions – as well as undue influence – from the equation.

Language Wars

Aside from public opinion, the implementation of the new standardized test has also faced another serious obstacle: the issue of the language of the test itself. Originally, the tests were available only in Ukrainian. However, in response to the demands of officials in mostly Russian-speaking Crimea, as well as heated public protests in that autonomous republic, the ministry announced in January 2008 that it would make the test available in Russian for the next two years, except for the sections on Ukrainian language and literature. After this transitional period, all students will have to take it in Ukrainian even if they study at a minority-language school.

The use of the Russian language in Ukrainian schools is a highly divisive issue. Ukrainian is the official language of Ukraine, though the 1989 Law of Languages and 1996 constitution protects the use of Russian and other minority languages. However, since independence, the education system has been increasingly “Ukrainianized” and the number of Russian-language schools has steadily dropped even in areas where a significant number of Russian speakers remain. Still, in Crimea, around 600 schools continue to teach exclusively in Russian, and in eastern Ukraine, the figure is at nearly 30 percent of all schools.

“My son is studying in Russian and I like it because we only speak Russian at home,” said Katerina Lebetskaya, the mother of a secondary school student in Kharkiv, in northeastern Ukraine. “But the problem is that when my son graduates, he’ll have to take the [standardized] test in Ukrainian!”

“A few years ago, I could teach in both Russian and Ukrainian as I liked. Students understand both languages,” said Irina Shuba, a primary school math teacher in Kremenchug, in central Ukraine. “But now my boss scolds me when I explain something to my students in Russian. The government is trying to raise a ‘Ukrainianized’ generation.”

However, many believe that education should be conducted in the official language of their country. “We live in Ukraine. If someone wants to be educated in Russian, let him go to Russia and study there. In my country, I like my people to speak Ukrainian,” said Stefania Savitskaya, a teacher of Ukrainian language and literature in a Kyiv high school.

Diplomas Off the Conveyer Belt

Ukraine has around 300 universities and institutes of higher education, but the quality is low and disconnected from the post-graduation reality faced by students. Students are scarcely acquainted with the demands of their chosen professions because the emphasis in the classroom is on theoretical knowledge over practical skills.

But the blame for the poor output from Ukrainian universities does not lie only with professors and administrators. “The problem is not just the bad quality of education, or the outdated system of teaching, but also the psychology of many students,” Kasianov said. Many students go on to higher education simply for the sake of getting a degree, he said, and, as a result, many institutes just “rubber stamp” diplomas.

A series of European reforms, known as the Bologna process, aim to reverse that trend. In addition to restructuring the length and requirements of university programs, the most tangible changes since Ukraine signed on in 2005 have been in the realm of study habits. Now students get points for attending seminars and for carrying out independent tasks outside the classroom. However, the traditional attitude toward learning persists: many students are still oriented toward getting high marks and getting their diplomas, but value the process of learning much less.

Corruption is simultaneously a cause and symptom of this situation. According to Transparency International’s 2008 Global Corruption Report, higher education is widely considered one of the most corrupt spheres in Ukrainian life. The report cites a survey conducted the previous year by Management Systems International and the Kyiv International Institute of Sociology in which 47.3 percent of respondents said a bribe was demanded up front in their dealings with universities, while 29 percent said they gave a bribe on their own initiative.

Olga Borovik, a student at the Kyiv Institute of Foreign Affairs, part of the National Taras Shevchenko University, said her parents paid $17,000 four years ago as a bribe upon entering the institute. She said she has frequently had to pay money to her instructors for good marks on exams.

Teachers cite low salaries as the main reason why they are open to bribery. Many students see graft as a mutually beneficial arrangement between teachers and students, a fast and convenient way for them to get ahead in a culture in which bribery is widely tolerated.

Holding on to the Past

The professions being taught in Ukrainian universities and the promotion of numerous obsolete specialties do not match the needs of the contemporary Ukrainian labor market. For example, Igor Kozhevnikov, a former math instructor at Kyiv Polytechnic University, explained that it is possible to get an engineering degree specializing in the production of Keramzit, a lightweight clay compound, but there are virtually no companies left in Ukraine producing this product. On the other hand, there are scarcely enough programs to meet the demand for “modern” professions such as clinical researchers, real estate agents, and copywriters.

Part of the problem is that instructors in higher education often have a low level of training and professional awareness themselves. Many teachers, from the primary to the university level, received their formal education 10 or 20 years ago and have not updated their qualifications since. There is no movement to force teachers at any level to update their skills.

“The Ukrainian education system has retained its Soviet shape,” Kasianov said. “It worked in a mono-ideological system with a centralized economic and social system. But now it is outdated. It needs to be reformed to meet the needs of a mobile market economy, a globalized world, and a fluid society.”




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