Chantilly High School economics and government teacher Joseph Clement, 34, got to witness the new attitudes towards economics in Russia, on a recent 10-day tour of its education system. He says the experience was, in a word, incredible.
"The program is designed to teach them how we teach economics," says Clement of Chantilly. "They've only been teaching economics for about 10 years."
"They're more serious about it than we are," he says. "For them it's a matter of life and death, given their current situation."
THE STUDY TOUR, a program sponsored by the National Council on Economic Education through its Economics International program, took 12 American teachers to several Russian schools and education centers in Moscow and Nizhniy Novgorod to meet with educators, administrators and students. The group was also able to visit the Nizhniy Novgorod branches of the Ministry of Education and the Bank of Russia.
The American educators observed lessons and took part in discussions, ranging from studies of the Russian banking and business systems to Russian and American student life. Clement and the other teachers took turns representing the group and leading discussion, with the help of an interpreter.
For decades in the Soviet Union, economics was out of place in the classroom. Students' exposure was limited to Marxism and centrally planned economics. There was little understanding of the basic principles of investment and the market, let alone the philosophies of Milton Friedman or John Maynard Keynes.
The only teacher from Virginia, Clement says he initially didn't expect to be chosen when he applied, but once he was selected, the preparations were a whirlwind. "They don't tell you you're going until November," he says, laughing. "The trip leaves Dec. 4." The first two days were spent at the Russian Embassy in Washington, D.C., for a briefing on the tour's itinerary and Russian culture, allowing tour participants a chance to get to know one another.
ONCE IN RUSSIA, the group stayed on the move, traveling from school to school with stops for lunch in between. Two students would greet the visitors before each lesson began. After observing the lesson, the American and Russian teachers and students would discuss the lesson and teaching strategies. "We were able to get into a rhythm," says Clement. "The lessons were all different, but the format was the same."
Clement says the conditions in Russian schools were incredibly varied. A classroom would have technologically advanced equipment and Internet capabilities that most United States classrooms don't have. In the same school would be bathrooms with no sinks and only holes in the floor instead of actual toilets. "They're in this awkward middle point," he says, "They've made the transition, but they're not fully there. Not everybody is benefiting from the system yet. Certainly not everybody benefits from the system here, but a lot more benefit here than there."
Clement says he was struck by the courtesy, enthusiasm and discipline of the Russian students. "The classrooms were run with military precision," he says. He points out that classroom etiquette is much more formal than in the U.S. He was also surprised by the attention the group received, citing the frequent presence of Russian TV news teams in the classroom. "We were on the news every night in Nizhniy."
One of the most powerful moments on the trip was when the group first set foot in Red Square. Clement says that some in the group who had vivid memories of the Cold War were brought to tears.
WHILE THE TRIP was a success, there were one or two negative incidents. On one occasion, the group discovered an obscenity painted on the side of their bus after returning from a lesson.
Even more unnerving was the news the group received as they were about to head to Moscow. "There was a hotel bombing in Moscow the night of the tenth," says Clement, referring to an incident involving Chechen rebels. "It was very difficult to get any news. The first report we got said that they were targeting foreign tourists in that hotel." While this turned out to be incorrect, tour organizers hired security for the train, and the group had police escort at times while in Moscow, but the rest of the tour went smoothly.
The Economics International program has coordinated study tours since 1998. In addition to Russia, tours have visited Ukraine, Lithuania and Belarus. The organization also trains economics teachers overseas.
"The whole point of the program is that when things changed in the former Soviet Union, and new mixed economies came about, they wanted to see how things were done in the United States," says Associate Director for Training Mark Dempsey. "It's about exchanging ideas about education."