Risks of reform

  • 2002-09-05
Brigita Zepa, director of the Baltic Institute of Social Sciences, says a plan to require minority high schools to teach most subjects in Latvian by 2004 risks widening the divide between Latvians and Russians. Interview by Steven C. Johnson

A sociologist by training, Brigita Zepa was instrumental in establishing the Baltic Institute of Social Sciences that evolved from an early social research firm set up in 1991.

The non-profit group's latest study, a survey of principals, students, teachers and parents from 50 Russian-language schools across Latvia, finds that most schools are not prepared to make Latvian the sole language of instruction for most secondary school classes by 2004.

The state's plans are aimed at increasing Latvian proficiency and promoting a Latvian identity among the country's ethnic Russian students.

But Zepa claims the best solution would be for the state to delay the deadline and donate more time and resources to studying additional methods of bilingual education.

Your report concludes that just 16 percent of minority schools are fully prepared to meet the 2004 deadline and roughly half feel they still have a lot of work to do. Given that the shift to bilingual and then Latvian education has been official policy for more than five years, why is this still the case?

It's very difficult to change the education system. Only about 20 percent of minority school teachers have excellent Latvian skills. Secondly, preparing a workable methodology for all levels and all subjects takes a lot of time. It's not simple. A lot of teachers have been trying to learn how to teach bilingually, but it's not so easy for them.

Do you feel the Education Ministry has rushed the shift?

Yes. In reality, it simply isn't possible to make this major shift in such a short time. The problem is that the ministry has to fulfill policies made by politicians who decided changes must occur in 2004. Their approach is too simplistic. They decide they have to do this by a certain date and that's it, no questions asked.

You're saying they have approached this in a manner resembling Soviet-era planning, the five-year-plan for education reform and so on?

Exactly. A plan is a plan and we can't take a single step backward. This means we will lose and the other side will win. This is old-fashioned, anti-democratic thinking.

Reality has shown (all secondary schools teaching the main subjects in Latvian) isn't possible. Even Estonia delayed this and pushed back their deadline.

The report recommends removing the 2004 deadline for all minority schools. What should happen next?

The deadline part is easy. We have this deadline, and the schools that are ready by that time should go ahead and change. But for those that aren't ready, we should be more flexible and move it back.

Some Russian parents object in principle to the idea of Latvian instruction in the main subjects. Their alternative is to maintain Russian instruction for those who want it with strong Latvian language and literature courses. Is this viable? Will these students speak Latvian well enough to compete?

I think this model must be involved as one of the possible models. If we're going to experiment, this should be one of the models used and we should monitor how well it works.

The plan to change in 2004 is not realistic. We need to discuss a greater number of models. In a democratic society, I think it should be understood that parents have a choice about these kinds of things. I cannot imagine Latvia without good Russian schools.

But doesn't maintaining a separate but equal, if you will, system of education, with Russians in Russian schools and Latvians in Latvian schools, lead to segregation in the long run?

I don't believe that's what will result. People are different and there are different ways of educating children. I think all of them can result in kids speaking good Latvian.

I'm a sociologist by profession and I can say it's actually the opposite. It's dangerous to create situations that fuel latent conflicts. Education reform must be very cleverly done, step-by-step. Politicians are only thinking about today and today's victories. Strong nationalists are not thinking about conflicts that could erupt in the future from these policies.

Your report finds that Russian parents want their kids to start learning Latvian early in school so they can one day enter university and get good jobs. Yet most remain opposed to the state's bilingual system and the 2004 deadline. Why?

The reason is nobody knows for sure what the results of this policy will be. Bilingual education is a pretty new issue. It's experimental, and we're carrying out this experiment on an entire country. That's a little dangerous. Russian parents want their children to know Latvian, but they're afraid of this system. It's all so new for them.

A lot of principals, teachers and parents questioned in the study said they fear native language skills deteriorate in bilingual courses. Do you think that's true?

Well, it's clear that the system that endorses switching the majority of subjects into Latvian in secondary schools is voluntary assimilation. Many of the parents who want their kids to be educated that way are from mixed marriages, so that's fine. But in the long run, it is assimilation. In Soviet times, assimilation was in the Russian direction, today it's in the Latvian direction. When the Latvian language is the primary one in classes, Russian knowledge can suffer.

What do you make of the argument that students in a bilingual biology class fail to learn biology properly?

If the teacher is very strong in both languages, then it could be a great class. But if Latvian skills are poor, then, yes, I think it can be a problem. And the poor Latvian skills of minority teachers is a main problem of the whole reform.

Do you think some of the teachers who say their skills are not up to par are lagging behind because they are opposed in principle to the law and haven't worked hard to make changes?

In some cases, of course, it could be so. Political attitudes do play a part.

But it's also hard for them to stop what they've been trained to do and learn entirely new methodologies. Most schools have really tried to prepare, but in general, I think it's hard for Russians especially to change because Russian is such a big language. Americans are much the same. For small countries, it's different. Learning multiple languages well is expected. So it's psychological as well as political.