Aydarova publishes book on Russian education reform with insights for the U.S.

January 28, 2020

Teacher Education Reform as Political Theater: Russian Policy Dramas | Book cover showing an illustration of sketched puppets and puppeteersElena Aydarova, an assistant professor of social foundations in the Auburn University College of Education, has authored a new book entitled Teacher Education Reform as Political Theater: 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 policy flows. Ethnographies of Russian education and of other postsocialist systems are relatively rare. The book approaches Russian reforms as drama and political theater, where “some ideas are disguised, other ideas are modified, and still others remain completely invisible to the audience.” Aydarova’s ultimate conclusion is that “reforms such as we see in the Russian context normalize social inequality and put educational systems at the service of global corporations.”

She shows the blurred lines between reality and fiction that characterize much of Russian politics and life while also demonstrating that similar processes take place in other countries around the world, including ours.

“A big point to note is that people assume that the United States is different than the rest of the world, and that if this is happening 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 settings.”

When Aydarova started her research, teacher education was already under attack in the U.S., England, and Australia. A common thread across these countries was that reformers wanted to do away with traditional teacher preparation. “Reformers often push for individualized learning where students rely on technology to teach themselves. All teachers need to do is monitor and evaluate students using a standardized exam. Such monitoring does not require traditional teacher preparation.”

In her book, Aydarova shows that some education scholars assumed that these calls arose out of an uneasy relationship between universities and teacher education programs. Research-oriented institutions tend to see professional schools, such as colleges of education, with suspicion or even disdain. The assumption was that in countries where teachers are prepared in stand-alone institutions, teacher education would not be subjected to similar attacks.

“I anticipated that in Russia teachers and teacher educators would have more power and authority to fight back against corporate reforms because of the historical prestige of the teaching profession,” Aydarova explained. “I learned through my fieldwork that during the Soviet times many political elites came to power after first graduating from teacher education institutions. But even those powerful connections did not protect teacher education from drastic reforms that reduced its autonomy and authority.”

One of the surprising findings of this research was that many reform proposals are prepared by interest groups outside of traditional legislative bodies. In Russia, it was a group of academics affiliated with an economics university. In the U.S., intermediary organizations, such as advocacy groups, non-profits, and think-tanks have grown particularly influential in shaping educational policies over the last twenty years. In both contexts, these groups’ policy activities 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 U.S., Teach for America has been heavily criticized for de-professionalizing teaching and undermining teachers’ professional preparation. Despite these critiques, through the work of reformers connected to global networks, it now has a Russian affiliate – Teacher for Russia.

A common method these reformers use is to create a crisis and compare countries using international assessments. The Pew Research Report shows that most people are satisfied with their neighborhood schools. But then when PISA results come out, the alarm is raised that we cannot compete.

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

“Both countries were borrowing educational models from other nations that were seen as more successful,” she said. “In China, all the talk was about the West, and the teaching models there. In the UAE, it was all focused on the Singaporean model, where they excel in international tests and achieve high results.”

Aydarova demonstrates in her book that these reforms ultimately normalize inequality.

“We are all talking about improving our educational systems by using international standards or global competencies,” she said. “The problem is that underneath this talk is just support for a tiered system. The elite learn to think, and everyone else just gets prepared 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 might use more subtle ways of describing how some approaches would benefit “those kids.” But ultimately, both approaches normalize discrepancies in educational achievement and naturalize social inequality.

This book was set in Russia but it could have been set anywhere.

“That’s what people need to know. In the world where we are all interconnected in more ways than we can imagine, we need to rethink how we engage with educational reforms as scholars, parents, and citizens. A movement of market-based education reforms that started in the U.S. and in the U.K. is now sweeping across the globe, increasing inequities between different social groups. We all have a moral and ethical responsibility to consider how we might be complicit in those reforms, even if that means all we did was remain silent when they first affected our own communities.”

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