There is a widespread perception in Russia that Soviet school education was the strongest in the world. To what extent is this notion true, and to what extent is it distorted by nostalgia for the Soviet past?
To answer this question, we must first define what we take to be the strength of the national educational system. I would suggest that it ultimately boils down to two main components: on the one hand, equality of access to education for every citizen and, on the other hand, the knowledge and skills that children acquire throughout their schooling.
In terms of access to schooling, the Soviet school was undoubtedly very strong. Already by the middle of the twentieth century, 100 percent of children attended elementary school, and although this figure fluctuated slightly later, it always remained very high.
The same can be said of the number of years that children spent in school on average. Not every country has a school standard of 8/10 years. For example, even today in China, the average number of years of schooling does not exceed 8.
But was the content of schooling of good quality and how was it to be assessed?
Usually it is assessed through two prisms: first, through subject knowledge, that is, literally, what students know about a subject; and second, through meta-skills, such as how to think critically and creatively, solve non-standard problems, conduct independent research, and so forth.
In terms of knowledge, defenders of Soviet schooling usually cite the victories of Soviet students in numerous international physics and mathematics Olympiads. Soviet math textbooks, they say, can be used in schools even today! There is some truth in these words.
It cannot be denied that the USSR had an outstanding network of specialized mathematics schools, from which prize-winners and great scientists emerged regularly. Does this speak to the strength of the educational system as a whole? To me this connection is not obvious.
But for the sake of clarity of argument we can admit: there was a strong mathematics education in the Soviet Union. But perhaps education is not limited to mathematics, and to be fair we need to look at other subjects as well.
Let's ask, was the Soviet history education strong? What was on the school social studies curriculum? Did students know how the economy worked? Or were all of the humanities subjects so emasculated and ideologized that today it's impossible to pick up these textbooks without crying?
What did Soviet schoolchildren get out of their literature classes? Did he know the poems of Mandelstam or Tsvetaeva, the novels of Pasternak or Solzhenitsyn? And finally: how many foreign languages did the average Soviet schoolboy know? On average less than one.
But the saddest thing is that education is not the ability to reproduce the right answer or solve this or that standard problem.
And if we judge the quality of Soviet education by its victory at mathematical Olympiads, then let us also judge it by how easily a Soviet person went to mass healing sessions with Anatoly Kashpirovsky, or gave his money to the famous financial pyramids of the Nineties, or, finally, by how confused a Soviet person became after the fall of the USSR in the face of the big world. A world he had never been taught to interact with.