In many nations today – including Russia – much of educational policy-making resembles theater. When results are released for the Program for International Student Assessment (PISA) or the Trends in Math and Science Study (TIMSS), politicians and news media around the world start blaming schools, teachers, and teachers’ unions for mediocre results. Soon afterwards, government leaders promise reforms that will improve children’s chances in the global economy. Yet, when those reforms are implemented, there is no evidence that they improve educational quality. Instead, they often deprofessionalize teaching and facilitate market expansion into public schools. Spectacular indignation and far-reaching promises become a theatrical performance that diverts the public’s attention away from long-standing social issues, such as economic inequality and political marginalization.

Exploring how these processes play out in a national setting, my new book – “Teacher Education Reform as Political Theater” – examines the drama of educational reforms in Russia that began in 2012. In a span of eighteen months, a small group of reformers designed a teacher education modernization reform. Despite the reform’s stated purpose of supporting the development of teacher education and improving its quality, the policy sought to defund teacher education and introduce multiple routes into the teaching profession. Arguing that “teaching is not a profession, but a craft,” reformers increased focus on practice and introduced modules as program units focused on developing discrete skills. Apart from decreasing teachers’ content knowledge preparation, modules became units that students could accumulate from any providers – a change that in the long run was meant to decrease the autonomy and authority of teacher education universities. Among other measures that deprofessionalized teaching was the introduction of “Teacher for Russia” – an offshoot of “Teach for America” that provides college graduates with two-year placements in schools. To justify the measures they were proposing, reformers claimed that teacher education graduates do not go to work in schools because of the low quality of professional preparation they receive. Yet these claims were a mere performance since there were no official data to support these claims. What these claims obscured, however, was the fact that most Russian teachers’ working conditions deteriorated, teachers’ workloads increased significantly, and pay remained stagnant, leaving most teachers significantly underpaid.

The trouble with teacher education modernization was that it worked in tandem with other reforms that were unfolding in Russia – the introduction of new school standards and new teachers’ professional standard. School standards represented a shift away from knowledge towards competences and away from commitments to equity towards tracking. This, from the perspective of many educators and the public, set an unfortunate precedent for using schools to justify growing social stratification and economic inequality. Along similar lines, teachers’ professional standard shifted teachers’ responsibilities away from instruction and knowledge production towards managing students’ behavior and development. The standard became the foundation for a performance-based contract, which according to one of Russian teachers’ unions, reduced teachers’ rights and made it easier for administrators to fire teachers even over minor concerns.

All of these reforms were presented to the public as a result of broad consensus in the educational community that needed to be undertaken to improve Russia’s performance on PISA. The Ministry of Education repeatedly stated that support for the reform emerged out of conversations with thousands of educators, but reforms remained a contentious matter. For example, one teacher education university started an opposition group that worked on an alternative teacher education reform proposal. Teachers’ unions staged public protests across the country. A number of petitions were circulated on, requesting that President Putin take action against the destruction of teacher education and the teaching profession in the country. The opposition to the teacher education reform was so fierce that it was not signed into law.
Meanwhile, working behind the scenes, reformers continued to advocate for teacher education modernization and convinced the Russian Ministry of Education to run a competitive grant program for universities to design preparation models based on the new reform ideology. In a matter of eighteen months, half of the country’s teacher education universities participated in the program. With widely discussed threats of defunding and budget cuts, many other institutions joined the experiment hoping to receive grants as well. Despite significant opposition to the reform at the outset, by 2016 teacher education modernization became not only an actual reform but also a blueprint for revamping the entire system of higher education.

Amidst all the trouble, however, it is heartening to see a growing mobilization among parents and educators who have begun to take educational change much more seriously. More groups and communities have come together to fight against the overall decimation of public education from kindergarten to higher education. For example, the Civic Initiative, started in 2010 and originally titled “No to the Reform,” brings together educators, parents, and other concerned citizens for a discussion of new educational initiatives and action against reforms that undermine public education. In collaboration with a relatively new professional union “Teacher,” this group organizes strikes, demonstrations, and protests. Many of these organizations gather tips for effective struggle as they report on international teacher strikes and other global movements to defend public education. The global nature of reforms that destroy public education and deprofessionalize educators point to a need for spaces of sustained dialogue and close collaboration across international borders for those who fight for teachers’ and students’ rights.