In the eye of the educational storm

  • 2004-08-12
The countdown is on. Sept. 1, the day the education reform program officially begins in Latvia, is just around the corner. Mass demonstrations are already scheduled, and Moscow's propaganda machine is certain to reach full blast. Meanwhile, radical elements among the country's minorities are poised for a prolonged confrontation. Yet the man at the center of this tempest, Education Minister Juris Radzevics, is confident that, despite the expected protests, reason will win the day and the much-anticipated reform in the country's high schools will proceed as planned. Interview by Gary Peach.

What was the crux of today's [Aug. 4] press conference with the ministry and Lashor [Latvian Association for Support of Russian Language Schools]?
It was about the working group we created with Lashor - how it's getting along, what its main goals are. The main goal is to develop one additional bilingual education program based on the Soros Foundation project Open School.

As a rule, does the ministry generally get along with Lashor?
We have a dialogue with them, with those people who work in Lashor because it is an organization that has been working on education issues for quite some time - and because it's an official, registered organization.

Yes, whereas there are other organizations working in this sphere that are not registered. I mean Shtab [Headquarters for the Defense of Russian Schools], of course. What's the ministry's official stance on Shtab?
The problem is that Shtab is not registered, so it is difficult to require any liability of them. There were some unsanctioned [anti-reform] demonstrations [involving schoolchildren], and no one took responsibility for them. Not once have we seen a desire on the part of Shtab to conduct a dialogue.

There have been reports that Shtab officials or officials representing some other organizations had tried to pressure parents and schoolchildren to participate in these demonstrations. Do you know anything about this?
I haven't heard anything about Shtab pressuring parents. But there have been threats toward school directors who did not support these demonstrations.

What is the ministry doing to convince society that these reforms are essential for the improvement of society?
First of all, we're trying to demonstrate that we are primarily interested in ensuring that the quality of education will not suffer. Second, from the first day I became minister I have visited schools, met with teachers and pupils and their parents. I visited a lot of schools. I explained things myself, answered questions and listened to criticism. Often the criticism is legitimate. For the most part it was the same in both minority and Latvian schools and did not involve language - rather, it was about the general state of education.

What will the ministry do to ensure that the reform is carried out, that the 60 percent - 40 percent correlation of classes in national and minority languages is adhered to?
First of all I want to say that the reform isn't beginning on Sept. 1, because the process of strengthening Latvian language classes has been going on since 1995. Only the 60 - 40 percent norm will take affect on Sept. 1. Realistically, that means that two more classes will be taught in Latvian.
Second, there is a licensing of all schools' programs. That is, every school will provide a program describing which classes are to be taught in Latvian and which in a minority language. If we want to inspect something, we have a state education inspectorate that can determine whether classes will be compiled in accordance with the new program.

Is the ministry taking on extra people to pull off this reform?
No, we're not. People [in the Education Ministry and departments] are going to have to work more.

What about additional funds?
The Cabinet of Ministers has approved an additional 12 million lats (17.9 million euros) - independent of different types of schools - for salary increases starting from Sept. 1. Next year it will be an additional 36 million lats - for salary increases alone. That's a solid sum.

Sounds a bit like a carrot to go with the stick.
It's a carrot for everyone - kindergartens, state and municipal schools, for all pedagogues.
What about teachers who have for years taught in their native tongue and will now have to teach in Latvian, a language they might not have a good command of? You said the ministry was concerned about the quality of education, but won't education suffer as a result of minority teachers instructing a class of minority students in Latvian? Any teacher, after all, is bound to be afraid of constantly making mistakes in front of students.
We should return to several things here. A person who has a secondary school education is zero on the labor market. He or she should have a profession, which means enrolling in a higher learning institution. And in all such institutions classes are in Latvian. So in effect, anyone who graduates from secondary school must know the national language.
Second, all subjects taught in Latvian will be determined by the schools themselves - not the government, not Parliament, not the ministry. If a school decides, for example, that it can't have geography in Latvian, then students can choose another class that will be taught in Latvian instead. So there is room for choice in each school.
Third, we have invested large sums in special programs for studying Latvian and raising the level of instruction in Latvian. We are investing so that teachers don't have to leave school and can continue working in his or her favorite subject. I don't think that anyone would argue that knowledge of two or three languages helps a person on the labor market.

No doubt there will be some problematic schools, like in Daugavpils, for instance.
I can say that I have no problematic associations with Dau-gavpils in particular. And here I should thank the local City Council and education department, since they alone, without waiting for any help from the ministry, took to tackling these issues.
Of course there are subjective problems involving attitude [toward the reform], but I'm more worried about village schools were Russian language instruction dominates. In those places we will have to help with teachers, books or methodology.

Most minority students are worried about having to study difficult subjects - science, mathematics - in Latvian. They claim the quality of their studies will suffer dramatically. If the point of this reform is integration, do you think they will be any less integrated in society if they can't explain algebra in Latvian?
There was a case recently when someone came from abroad - as an inspector, I guess you can say - and asked the schoolchildren whether they would agree to study certain subjects in English given the opportunity. The kids said, "Yes, we would agree to that." Then this person asked, "Then if you agree to study a subject in English, a foreign language, then why not in Latvian?"
So I think that there are more emotions at play here than logic or reason.

What, in your opinion, is going to happen come Sept. 1?
I have nothing against street demonstrations or other civilized methods of expressing one's opinion. At the same time I don't think anyone will risk the fate of their children by not sending them to school. So I think on Sept. 1 schoolchildren, decked out in their best uniforms, will go to school.