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Regular version of the site

Basic General

Dispelling some myths about school


Basic education as a social elevator, school management stereotypes, student achievement and teacher prejudice — these are just some of the topics covered in the new book (Un)common Schools: Diversity and Inequality. Its authors, researchers of HSE's  International Laboratory for Educational Policy Analysis,examine the subject from various perspectives reflecting on a school’s paradoxes and charms, excellent intentions, struggles and challenges.

School: a Сross-section

The book's six chapters offer both a bird’s-eye view and a close-up of school as it really is: recognizable, controversial, ever criticised, and ever-changing. Produced by HSE's International Laboratory for Educational Policy Analysis , the paper reads like a novel, full of captivating characters such as impressive principals, teachers with a black-and-white mentality and those who are more flexible and work to engage all students without exception. Perhaps the most remarkable thing about this story is its absolute realism in depicting schools which promote beautiful ideas but struggle with the implementation.

The study is based on fundamental sociology, including findings from the Trajectories in Education and Careers  longitudinal panel surveys, interviews with teachers and school administrators, and classroom observations.

These empirical findings refute many widespread myths, such as the assumption that promoting student achievement is a priority for schools. While this objective is generally declared, all too often it remains abstract.

Another myth busted by the study is that high-quality education is accessible to all students of high-end schools such as gymnasiums and lyceums: not really. Instead, students in these high-status schools may find themselves in very different learning conditions.

By destroying stereotypes, the monograph offers plenty of material for reflection. So, contrary to popular opinion, schools do not seek to shift most of the responsibility for students' learning and upbringing onto their families.

Many school principals, while they may find their students problematic in certain aspects (such as commitment to learning, academic achievement and family environment), still assert that school is 'responsible for student cultural and academic development as much as family and community'. According to teachers, their objectives include providing education and promoting student development, helping them prepare for exams, offering vocational guidance, and more.

These intentions inspire hope, since they are indeed what matters most for school students. The question is whether they are pursued in practice.

Principals Struggling with Day-to-day Workflow

School performance and student success largely depend on the management style. The principal's leadership and ability to implement a clear internal policy (while allowing some flexibility in following external regulations) have been found to correlate  with student achievement. However, a large proportion of school administrators are forced to forgo strategy and focus instead on tactics for dealing with everyday issues — such as managing paperwork and raising funds.

In fact, many principals do not consider students and their families as key customers but admit to being guided primarily by state-set objectives and their service provision contract.

Business manager is the predominant type of school principal.  If this is the case, the content of education is usually left for his or her deputies to decide. While this management style makes it easier for schools to procure hardware such as equipment, textbooks, etc., it doesn’t directly contribute to academic performance.

Only a small proportion of school principals invest in learning new teaching methods and  building long-term strategies.

Academic Achievement not a Priority

It would seem that a school's number one goal is to broaden student choices (of educational pathway and study major, etc.), made possible with better academic performance. However, multiple factors, including the principal's policies, can get in the way of this.

Just one of the conflicting priorities is that the per capita financing principle of 'money follows the student' encourages schools to retain as many students as possible, particularly after the 9th grade — and ideally to attract new ones. Given that students differ widely in academic ability, schools' preparedness to admit underachievers can affect the average academic performance, bringing down the overall results.

In addition to this, schools can differ in how they see their mission: some go to great lengths to engage students from underprivileged families to make up for the lack of parental involvement, and sometimes show impressive results .

Indeed, certain schools can be described as 'islands of the Soviet system' where good academic performance is viewed as secondary to 'being brought up to be a decent person and a loyal citizen'. However, according to the researchers, some schools tend to highlight their focus on morality and patriotism in order to de-emphasise their responsibility for academic performance.

The reverse is also true: schools catering mainly for students from well-educated and affluent families care less about creating a positive school climate  or 'compensatory mechanisms' for underachievers. Most of their students  perform better  than average and benefit from more favourable starting conditions (plus, their parents can afford private tutors ).

Good School Does Not Equal Good Education

While many parents assume that switching to a more prestigious school is a guarantee of good education, it is not always the case. Just like ordinary schools, high-status gymnasiums and lyceums practice student segregation into good and poor performers. Such segregation usually has consequences: classes with stronger students often get the best teachers, while struggling or disinterested students can be virtually ignored, causing a  lack of academic progress and decline in self-esteem.

In addition to this, a number of research papers indicate little (or almost no) difference between ordinary and elite schools in terms of teacher performance. Thus, a study in St. Petersburg reveals that teachers in both ordinary and prestigious institutions share most of their performance-related characteristics, such as training, attitude towards children, academic workload, and even lifestyle, among other things.

Fatalism and Pessimism

Another popular myth is that of teachers' excessive demands and expectations.

Instead, many teachers are quite sceptical about the possibility of boosting student motivation or abilities, and some even do not find it necessary or appropriate, believing that one's ability and potential are innate. What they mean by 'innate potential', according to the researchers, is 'not a student’s interest in a subject but a genetically determined mindset which can’t really be changed'.

It is quite common for teachers to label their students as motivated versus negligent, good versus poor performers, 'mathematicians' (which is a kind of praise) versus 'humanitarian' (which is almost a judgement, being a euphemism for 'underachiever').

'Pedagogical fatalism' is a common outlook.  'He [a student] is simply unable to learn maths', a teacher might say, 'and there is nothing else [about maths] that we can teach him'. Typical reasons given for a student’s assumed inability include 'a very short memory span', lack of logical thinking skills, and some others. But according to the study authors, such labelling can be used to camouflage the teacher's own lack of skills or commitment needed to help those who struggle with their subject. 

Poor Learners Not Only Ones to Drop off

The assumption that only students who struggle or lack motivation drop out after the 9th grade is also wrong. Academic performance and family socioeconomic status (i.e. education and income) are both key determining factors in whether a particular student will drop out or stay on, the researchers note, adding that the latter factor, if unfavourable, often blocks the youngster's further education.

For one reason or another, some parents believe that allowing their child to continue studies does not make sense ('it’s time for them to earn money', 'we cannot afford private tutors anyway'). These tend to be poorly educated families with low incomes, and their high-performing, capable children are thus denied the opportunities available to their peers from better-resourced homes. As a result, upward social mobility fails and inequality is perpetuated .

There is another reason, however, for some students to leave secondary school after the 9th grade. They can enter a vocational programme in a sort of bypass manoeuvre making it possible to enrol at a university without sitting the Unified State Exam (many vocational schools and colleges have cooperation agreements — or are affiliated — with certain universities).

And of course, schoolteachers and administrators influence their students' choice of further educational trajectory. Even in those schools which make every effort to help students maximise their abilities, it is often a common belief that 'for various reasons, a significant percentage of students should not continue their education in high school', the researchers conclude.


Study authors:

Andrey Zakharov, Leading Research Fellow, HSE Institute of Education/International Laboratory for Education Policy Analysis.

Martin Carnoy , Professor, Stanford University, Academic Supervisor, Leading Research Fellow, HSE Institute of Education/International Laboratory for Education Policy Analysis.

Galina Larina, Research Fellow, HSE Institute of Education/International Laboratory for Education Policy Analysis.

Valeria Markina, Research Fellow, HSE Institute of Education.

Tatiana Khavenson , Research Fellow, Institute of Education/International Laboratory for Educational Policy Analysis, Ksenia Alekseeva (Syrchikova), Manager for Media Research, GroupM, Master of Sociology.

Ksenia Vergeles, Project Support Specialist, Centre for Neurocommunicative Research, Pushkin State Russian Language Institute, Master of Psychology.

Tatyana Sergeeva, Leading Psychometrst, National Institute for Quality of Education, Master of Psychology.

Author: Olga Sobolevskaya, June 06, 2019