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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

A Crusader for Education

For Yevgeny Tkachenko, Russia's minister of education, reform has been both a bitter pill and a chance to make changes that he, a teacher, has campaigned for all of his professional life.

"Many families now tell their children to go work and earn some money", he said. "Education's place in society has fallen significantly in recent years, but that's understandable, because it's difficult to get by now, and there's no connection between salary and level of education".

Even as raw capitalism lures some of the young away from the classroom, though, learning in Russia is undergoing cardinal reforms of its own.

Tkachenko, 58, minister since only last December, says he never would have left his career in chemistry and vocational teacher training had it not been for ambitious plans in Moscow to decentralize and overhaul the rigid Soviet-era educational system.

"This is not a change but an educational revolution", he said, sitting in the spacious office that Russia's education ministers - or ministers of "enlightenment", as they once were called - have occupied for over a century. "We are finally getting rid of totalitarian education".

Since a landmark educator's congress in 1988, officials in Moscow have been chipping away at the propaganda machine that once fed Uncle Lenin to children in steady doses and forced them to learn by boring rote. For over 70 years, Soviet schools across 11 time zones taught the same subjects, from the same dry textbooks, in the same language.

Tkachenko was one of the first to speak out against this stilling system, calling in a 1988 article in Komsomolskaya Pravda for major educational reforms - such as giving students some choice about what they learn.

"The system just drained student's interest and motivation", he said. "Our schools had to teach the same thing, from the Baltics to Sakhalin. There was no choice, and it was a curriculum that students couldn't keep up with".

Eight thousand of Russia's 67, 000 elementary schools are now experimenting with a new curriculum the ministry has developed to rid education of the old vestiges.

"We want to teach students to think for themselves", Tkachenko said.

They are doing this by allowing schools to choose the courses, textbooks, and even the languages they will use. Retaining only a minimum of federal requirements - 10th grade students have six or seven required subjects now, as opposed to 14 before - the new curriculum puts an emphasis on regional needs and interests.

"Russia has 120 peoples and 76 languages", Tkachenko said. "We used to have one history for everyone. Now people want to know the history and customs of their regions, and this is important".

In regions like Chuvashia, where half of the population is Tatar, school officials are deciding what languages to use - Russian, Chuvash, or Tatar.

"It's a very interesting problem deciding how to teach in these schools", he said.

Despite the government's ambitions, funding is paltry. Over 60 percent of the ministry budget goes toward salaries and stipends, the latter of which President Boris Yeltsin raised in his pre-referendum campaign to woo student support. Another 35 percent goes toward maintenance of schools. The regions, some of which devote local taxes to developing education, chip in some, he said.

The ministry has found some funding for new textbooks to replace those outdated by new thinking. But its hopes are in a $12. 5 million project sponsored by Hungarian-American philanthropist George Soros for completely new textbooks in the humanities and social sciences, those areas most touched by Communist ideology.

Although the money is American, the texts are generated by Russian teachers and researchers. Over 300 texts are currently being prepared for testing in schools. By 1994, Tkachenko said, teachers will have a solid choice of textbooks - including some in subjects that have never been taught in Russian schools, like anthropology.

Not everyone has taken to reform. Tkachenko said 16 percent of Russia's schools have balked at the idea of change. Competition, though, may force them to update their methods, whether they like it or not.

"If a school doesn't want to change, we say leave them be", he said. "But the student in time will vote with his feet".