Aydarova publishes book on Russian education reform with ideas for the United States

Elena Aydarova, assistant professor of social foundations at Auburn University College of Education, is the author of a new book, Teacher Education Reform as Political Theatre: Russian Policy Dramas. It was published by SUNY University Press.
The book situates recent Russian reforms in the context of transnational transformations in education and captures the interconnectedness of global political flows. Ethnographies of Russian education and other post-socialist systems are relatively rare. The book approaches Russian reforms as drama and political theater, where “some ideas are disguised, other ideas are changed, and still others remain completely invisible to the public”. Aydarova’s ultimate conclusion is that “reforms such as those we see in the Russian context normalize social inequalities and put education systems at the service of global corporations”.

It shows the blurred lines between fact and fiction that characterize much of Russian politics and life while demonstrating that similar processes are taking place in other countries around the world, including our own.

“An important point to note is that people assume that the United States is different from the rest of the world, and if it happens in Russia, it has no relevance for us,” Aydarova said. “Different historical trajectories or political orientations do not necessarily prevent similar reforms from taking place in different contexts.

When Aydarova began her research, teacher education was already under attack in the United States, England and Australia. A common denominator in these countries was that the reformers wanted to get rid of traditional teacher training. “Reformers often push for individualized learning where students rely on technology to instruct themselves. All teachers need to do is monitor and assess students using a standardized exam. Such follow-up does not require traditional teacher preparation.

In her book, Aydarova shows that some education scholars assumed that these calls stemmed from an uneasy relationship between universities and teacher training programs. Research-oriented institutions tend to view professional schools, such as colleges of education, with suspicion or even disdain. The assumption was that in countries where teachers are trained in autonomous institutions, teacher training would not come under similar attack.

“I had anticipated that in Russia, teachers and teacher educators would have more power and authority to fight corporate reforms because of the historical prestige of the teaching profession,” Aydarova explained. “I learned through my fieldwork that during the Soviet era, many political elites came to power after graduating from teacher training institutions. But even these powerful relationships have not shielded teacher education from drastic reforms that have reduced its autonomy and authority.

One of the surprising findings of this research is that many reform proposals are prepared by interest groups outside the traditional legislative bodies. In Russia, it was a group of academics affiliated with a university of economics. In the United States, intermediary organizations, such as advocacy groups, nonprofits, and think tanks, have become particularly influential in shaping education policy over the past two decades. In both contexts, the political activities of these groups are invisible to the public. But because these interest groups are often plugged into global policy networks, their policy proposals end up in unexpected places. In the United States, Teach for America has been heavily criticized for deprofessionalizing teaching and undermining the professional preparation of teachers. Despite these criticisms, thanks to the work of reformers connected to global networks, it now has a Russian subsidiary – Teacher for Russia.

A common method used by these reformers is to create a crisis and compare countries using international ratings. The Pew research report shows that most people are satisfied with schools in their neighborhood. But then when the PISA results come out, the alarm goes off that we can’t compete.

Aydarova developed her interest in educational reform when she began her teaching career in China, which emphasized a need for modernization. She was struck by the kind of contradictions it created. Later, as a teacher trainer in the United Arab Emirates, she observed the same conversations.

“Both countries were borrowing educational models from other countries that were considered more successful,” she said. “In China, everyone was talking about the West and the teaching models there. In the United Arab Emirates, everything was focused on the Singaporean model, where they excel in international tests and achieve high results.

Aydarova demonstrates in her book that these reforms end up normalizing inequalities.

“We are all talking about improving our education systems using international standards or global skills,” she said. “The problem is that under this discussion there is only support for a tiered system. The elite are learning to think, and everyone is just preparing for a job.

Russian reformers in Aydarova’s book state publicly that “only a few can benefit from education, the rest need training”, while American reformers could use more subtle means to describe how certain approaches would benefit “those children”. But ultimately, both approaches normalize educational achievement gaps and naturalize social inequalities.

This book takes place in Russia, but it could have taken place anywhere.

“That’s what people need to know. In a world where we are all interconnected in more ways than we can imagine, we need to rethink how we engage in educational reform as scholars, parents, and citizens. A movement of market-based education reforms that started in the US and UK is now sweeping the world, increasing inequalities between different social groups. We all have a moral and ethical responsibility to consider how we might be complicit in these reforms, even if that means we have only been silent when they first affected our own communities.

Aydarova came to Auburn in 2017 and she is the first Auburn scholar to win an American AAUW scholarship.

Sylvester L. Goldfarb