A flawed plan

  • 2002-09-05
Students across the Baltics went back to the classroom this week and politicians returned from their summer breaks for the fall legislative session. Unfortunately, one of the most divisive and important issues in Latvia today — the closure of Russian-language schools — involves both.

A survey of teachers, principals, students and parents from 50 Russian schools released this week shows that at least half aren't ready for the government's planned switch to mandatory instruction in Latvian by 2004.

There are numerous arguments about why they're not ready — inadequate Latvian skills among teachers and no clear methodology for the shift among them. Some say it's simply a lack of will.

Less than one in five schools are ready for the transition, according to the survey.

Critics of the plan — and they're not just ethnic Russians — say it simply isn't possible.

What's clear is that students will suffer if the deadline is enforced across the board and further study and funding to train teachers in Latvian is not forthcoming.

One argument that has been offered for the plan — this is particularly a favorite among politicians who helped draft it — is that no country offers state-funded education in a minority language. That's wrong. The United States, for example, has been doing it for 200 years. Programs there teach major subjects in the native language side by side with a strong emphasis on learning English.

Estonia soberly examined its plan of a full transition to Estonian-language schools by 2007 and pushed it back to 2010. The Latvian government is resisting a similar move.

There is an air of political vindictiveness around this issue that's hard to swallow. Why aren't schools ready? Some say it's simply because teachers don't want to learn Latvian. That may be the case for some of them, but the fact remains that they aren't ready.

More time and more types of bilingual teaching methods must be found —- methods that incorporate sound reasoning from educators rather than the politicized opinions of lawmakers.

Transition to all-Latvian education should and will be done. In the long run, all residents will need to speak Latvian well and segregated schools will only institutionalize inequality for minority children.

But the transition must be done slowly and in the interest of students, not politicians.

Research shows that forced transition in just two years to all Latvian-language education will simply punish Russian-speaking kids.

Maybe that's the point?