A modest triumph for the Russians

Study says cultural attitudes to education help to account for low scores of English and US pupils, writes David Budge

A new three-country study has offered fresh insights into why so many children in England and the United States appear to be underachieving.

Researchers at the University of Sunderland tested nine and 10-year-olds in the north-east of England, St Petersburg and Eastern Kentucky and found that the Russians were "strikingly superior" at maths.

But the research suggests that it is the Russians' attitudes to education - rather than teaching methods or the narrower maths syllabus - that may be primarily responsible for their success.

The Sunderland team compared the three regions because they were all experiencing economic hardship and education reforms.

Teachers were asked to rate children's academic ability, motivation and behaviour. The researchers also surveyed the attitudes of 3,234 adolescents aged 14 and 15 and then interviewed 130 children of the same age the following year. In addition, 2,886 nine and 10-year-olds completed a shorter survey.

The younger children also took a 22-item computation test which proved easy for the Russians. They achieved a mean score of 20.9, but the English and Americans scored only 14.5 and 14.6 respectively.

Nevertheless, the Russians had less positive views about their academic ability and work rate than the English and Americans. The Russians also tended to underestimate teachers' perceptions of them, while the Western children, particularly the Americans, invariably overestimated.

The English and Americans were also far more likely to say that their parents thought that their schoolwork was very good. And more of the Western adolescents claimed that they worked as hard as they could in class.

However, the Russians spent much more time on homework. The difference was most striking for younger pupils: 96 per cent of Russians said that they did homework every day compared with only 18 per cent of the English.

Even so, the Russians were much more likely to say that "ability" was the key factor in achievement. The great majority of American and English children, in contrast, saw "effort" as most important even though they did not necessarily work hard themselves.

"Our study reinforces the growing notion that an anti-work climate exists in many English classrooms where behaviour may be poorer than in many other industrialised nations," said Professor Julian Elliott, of Sunderland University.

"Three times as many St Petersburg adolescents indicated that peers made them work harder, rather than less hard. For the younger children the proportions were seven to one. In contrast, the English adolescents' ratio was almost four to one, in the opposite direction, with a two to one split for the younger sample."

Intriguingly, although Russian teachers were much more likely to be critical - albeit in a supportive way - their pupils had much more positive attitudes to school (78 per cent of adolescents said they "quite" or "very much" liked it compared with only 46 per cent of the English and Americans). They were also much keener to become an "educated person".

A typical response from a Russian adolescent was: "I think you still need education, well, for yourself, to know something - to study history, to know your country better, to have some vision of the world."

However, the researchers suspect that Russia's economic and political troubles may undermine such traditional attitudes. "Russian educationists are beginning to express concern about declining motivation and rising drop-out rates, " Professor Elliott said. "The ability to gain wealth rapidly through entrepreneurial activities for which qualifications are irrelevant appears to be encouraging a form of educational bifurcation: greater numbers of children appear to be becoming disenchanted with school while, at the same time, applications to university courses which offer the promise of economic prosperity are rising. The long-term impact of these changes upon educational motivation and academic performance cannot be deduced."

"Why do some countries underperform academically? A study of attitudes, expectations and behaviour in three countries," by Professor Julian Elliott, and Neil Hufton. Copies of the paper are avilable from Professor Elliott at the University of Sunderland, School of Education, Hammerton Hall, Gray Road, Sunderland SR2 7EE. Tel 0191-5152395

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