Good School Is Worth Its Weight in Gold
How to assess the quality of education in schools? How to identify the right atmosphere for a particular child to maximize the effect of learning? What is the role of teachers and school leaders in educating children? Maria Vasilyeva, expert in school education who works with schools across Russia, answered these and many other questions in her interview with the Global Women Media news agency.
founder of the PROvybor consulting service, expert in school education
Maria Vasilyeva is a consultant in the field of school education with a rich academic and managerial background. Her background includes a successful career in the state education system, cooperation with private schools, and working on educational projects. Maria Vasilyeva was engaged in assessing the quality of education as Deputy Director of a large school, participated in the implementation of regional and all-Russian projects, and worked with the Agency for Strategic Initiatives as an expert, thus contributing to ‘reloading’ the educational system in one of the single-industry towns.
Today, Maria Vasilyeva works ‘on both sides of the barricades’. She heads her own consulting agency called PROvybor (translated as PROchoice), accompanies parents in choosing both public and private schools in Moscow, and contributes to the development of schools in different regions of Russia.
In her interview with the Global Women Media, the expert explained what criteria can be used to assess the quality of education in a particular educational institution. She shared her vision of the role of teachers and school leaders in the formation of a quality education system and talked about her main projects in 2022.
– You have developed your own system for analyzing data related to independent assessment of the quality of education in schools. What criteria do you take into account when analyzing educational institutions?
– We carry out an independent assessment of the quality of education based on publicly available data. The level of openness of such information varies in different regions of Russia. However, Moscow currently provides us with more information than other regions.
First of all, we pay attention to the data of the main state exams in Russia: the Basic State Exam (BSE) and the Unified State Exam (USE). They are taken in absolutely all Russian schools. Despite the impossibility to get information about which school did best in biology, English, or any other subject, it is possible to draw many conclusions based on aggregate data. For example, it is important for us to understand what percentage of graduates got 12 points or higher during their exams in the 9th school grade.
In Russia, many parents have rather contradictory attitude to the BSE and the USE today. They believe that preparation for exams is just about memorization of rules and facts and has nothing to do with the quality of education. I have a completely different opinion on that matter. Those exams are constantly changing and being improved. They have long ceased to be a ‘guessing game’ where students can randomly choose the right answer in the test.
The BSE and the USE are not only about knowledge and its application in new situations. They are often an indicator of logical thinking, attentiveness, and literacy in terms of information and reading.
State school exams mandatorily include tests in the Russian language and mathematics. These are the subjects that allow a person to master the most important skills: language and math literacy, basic communication, and the ability to learn in general. That means that we can use the results of the exams at least to judge how well the two key departments in the school are working.
As an expert, I am more interested in the BSE, the exam that students take after 9th grade. These results make it possible to assess the work of teachers. If speaking about the USE, the stakes are too high. A graduate’s admission to the university depends on his or her USE result. That is why parents often use all opportunities available to them to prepare their child as much as possible for the exam. An excellent USE result can often tell us about the quality of the family’s resources spent to achieve the result, rather than about the work of the school itself.
In addition, we also consider the activity and performance of students in intellectual contests in various subjects. That helps us understand how well a particular department works in a school.
All the data are collected manually from the official websites of the schools and other official sources. Since we have been doing that kind of analytics for many years, the information is getting more and more voluminous. We can look at the dynamics of the data and predict the further development of the educational process in a particular school.
It may seem that there is not much information I have told you about. However, an experienced expert can make calculations based on that data and draw a lot of conclusions. For example, I can tell parents about one school for over an hour.
If speaking about the private education sector, I acted as a guest expert on Forbes’ first ranking of private schools and was involved in the creation of its methodology. This is a list, in which positions are evaluated and ranked in accordance with several indicators.
Such a meta-study is objective and can help many parents make the right choice. It was important for us to create such an open information source with an independent assessment of the quality of education that one could trust.
– Education is not only about statistics, but, in the first turn, about live communication and people. What role do school leaders play in shaping quality education?
– The leader has a vital role in any project. The leader puts meaning into the team’s work and, in one way or another, takes part in shaping the team. Of course, a lot depends on the values, principles, and attitudes of the person in charge.
In my opinion, a leader in the field of education should not be too ambitious. If a person comes into this sphere with a desire to assert him- or herself and make money, then education loses its essence, no matter how successful the marketing moves may be. It is much more important for a leader to have a clearly articulated social mission. Most often, good educational projects come from the interest of people who are motivated internally rather than externally.
Education is one of the most difficult areas for business. People who just want to make money can find much easier ways for that.
At the same time, it is important for a leader to have certain business skills. He or she must be able to select the staff, calculate the financial model, and build a strategy to promote the educational brand. To manage a modern school, the leader needs to have a harmonious combination of management skills, understanding, and knowledge of the school system.
I also believe that it is much easier for a school leader to work if he or she is an extrovert. The volume of communication processes in his work is huge. I can hardly imagine any other profession where you have to communicate more. However, of course, there are successful school leaders who are introverts.
– What can you say about teachers, people who are in constant direct contact with children? What, in your opinion, a good teacher should be like?
– For a teacher, it is also important to be able to establish competent communication. Effective training is impossible without active interaction and contact of the teacher with children and parents.
Importantly, the teacher must listen and hear the rising generation. He or she should try to adhere to a non-judgmental supportive position.
In terms of professional skills, it is certainly essential for a teacher to not only know his or her subject perfectly but also develop in this narrow speciality continuously. It is very valuable for students to see the teacher’s own interest in what he or she teaches. It is good if the specialist is improving his or her pedagogical methods simultaneously with that. The world is changing and new generations of children are changing together with it. For a teacher, it is important to be able to interest the modern audience. He or she should take into account the formats of perceiving information close to them.
A teacher’s development in other interesting activities apart from school also has a very favorable effect on communication with students. Adults are the ones who charge and fill children with inspiration. When surrounded by interesting and active people, children themselves begin to look at life from a positive perspective.
I know many examples of amazing teachers who are professionally engaged in dancing, various kinds of creativity, expert blogging, and their own business. And all that does not prevent them from pursuing their main profession but complements it harmoniously.
– According to your website, you know how to assess the atmosphere in schools and choose the most favorable environment for a particular child. What does that mean? How do you evaluate atmosphere in an educational institution?
– To talk about atmosphere, we used a word that any parent would understand. In professional terminology, it is called organisational culture. The evaluation and management of that culture is considered to be a first-class skill in any business.
Organisational culture in school is an important indicator that can help parents choose the most comfortable ‘climate’ for their child.
Today, there are many studies about organisational culture in business. However, only two experts named Vitold Yasvin and Vladimir Pogodin write about the atmosphere in schools. Vitold Yasvin’s work is more academic. I didn’t manage to apply his tools in practice.
My service uses the methodology of defining organisational culture created by Vladimir Pogodin. He is a famous educational philosopher, organisational consultant, and teacher of the ‘New School’.
Vladimir Pogodin has developed a special tool tested on hundreds of people and dozens of educational institutions. Through simple phenomena taking place in the school, their ways of solving everyday tasks, and methods of communication with students, our experts determine the type of organisational culture. They consult parents to identify the atmosphere in schools they are most interested in.
My project, in fact, is a unique initiative, in which the author of the methodology for determining the organisational culture of a school allows to use it.
As a rule, organisations have one strongly pronounced culture and several additional ones, which often manifest themselves unconsciously. Importantly, none of them is bad or good, they all have their pros and cons. Therefore, when consulting a family in choosing a school, we try to find out what it expects from the educational process.
I am supporter of the terminology where organisational cultures are divided into traditional, entrepreneurial, organic, and partnership-based. The traditional (also bureaucratic) culture is based on the principle of the primacy of rules, on a clear hierarchy of relations among the participants in the educational process. The main advantage of such a system is that the path to the goal will be very clear and consistent with the conditions that were initially outlined.
The entrepreneurial organisational culture is a culture of high achievements. Here the process resembles a competition where everyone is a competitor for one another. This approach provides students, teachers, and the school itself with a good motivation. Today, most Moscow schools adhere exactly to that model of organisational culture.
The organic organisational culture is often called ‘family culture’ because it is based on warm and heartfelt relationships. This culture is typical for alternative family education, in which a narrow circle of specific people create their own project. As a rule, the list of the participants involved in the educational process does not change.
In the partnership-based organisational culture, everyone works for the benefit of one another. Support and consciousness are the main principles of the functioning of such systems. Many parents whom I consult want this very type of a school for their child. However, I always emphasize that high educational results in the partnership-based organisational culture can be expected for quite a long time. They will only appear when a person becomes ‘mature’ enough for them.
Figuring out different organisational cultures is quite difficult. Our assessment is based on the same open data. If desired and requested by school administrators, our team can investigate the organisational culture within the educational institution by delving deeper into what is happening there. However, the schools themselves more often need such a serious and multi-layered evaluation, parents are not so interested in it.
If the institution wants to change, examining the organisational culture will help it make the change effective and harmonious.
– What projects of yours do you consider most significant?
– I’ve carried out a huge number of professional projects. However, but I would like to concentrate on the most recent ones. They were completed this year. Today, we can already consider them as cases that have shown a concrete result.
The first important project was about promoting a private school in Sochi through the Pedagogical Retreat initiative. For a long time, the school was ‘boiling in its own juice’. The team had amazing experience, good tutor support, a perfectly working mark-free system of evaluation, and many different interesting teaching methods. However, the professional community in Sochi was wary of that educational institution.
When the school management invited me as an expert to promote the brand, I brought a whole team of professionals with me. The first thing we did was about highlighting the strengths of the educational institution that already existed. It turned out that people did not even think about the uniqueness and coolness of things they were doing.
Attracting various experts including federal-level professionals to the school raised the status of the educational project quite seriously.
As part of the Pedagogical Retreat project, we began inviting other teachers from different cities in the country to the school in Sochi. Thanks to that, they could learn from the successful experience of their colleagues. We held such meetings every six months for a year and a half. Inspired by the interest in their findings, the school team members began to work even more actively. Our experts were constantly in touch with them and helped the school to develop in the right direction.
During the year and a half of accompaniment, the number of people wishing to study at that school increased many times over. Growth concerned all indicators including an independent assessment of the quality of education. Today, this private school is widely known in the professional community related to private education. The team members of the educational institution are often invited as speakers to various federal forums to share their experience.
That case is important to me primarily because we were able to not only help the school but also to replicate useful experience and knowledge.
The second important project was about the Volginsky Lyceum. It even used not to exist on the Russian educational map. By inventing a name and formulating a concept, we helped the school get an image. Moreover, we influenced the socio-cultural development of the whole community.
I was hired by a large corporation that launched a pharmaceutical production in the Vladimir Oblast. The company moved scientists from different cities and countries to an urban-type settlement populated by 6000 people so that they could work in the laboratory. However, many of them began to complain that they would like to have a quality education for their children. There was a school in the settlement, but, at that time, it seemed completely unremarkable. Later, that very school became the Volga Lyceum.
I conducted extensive research and communicated a lot with people who lived in the settlement in the form of interviews and focus groups. This helped me formulate the concept of the Volga Lyceum. It was based on rebooting the entire settlement into a ‘pharmaceutical valley’. Residents, teachers, and the client company all liked the idea.
One of the features of the project lied in an effective public-private partnership. The pharmaceutical company decided to co-finance the municipal school. That experience can be called unique because there are no ready-made similar solutions that can be used as templates in our country yet. Therefore, we had to come up with not only the concept but also the mechanisms for its implementation.
Today, the project in the Vladimir Oblast is actively developing. Both young and experienced teachers from all over Russia and even from abroad come there. Thanks to my help, the village has created a programme of relocation of teachers, which coexists harmoniously with the already established programme of relocation of scientists. At the moment, this is probably the only initiative in the education market that takes such a systemic approach to organising a teacher’s way of life.
Today, teachers have the opportunity to move into an apartment with a designer renovation, which already has absolutely everything they need for life, from furniture to cutlery. At the same time, people do not feel distant from civilization: they can go to fitness training and receive free medical care. In addition, the relocation programme provides a system of additional motivation, which makes it possible to bring the salary in the Vladimir Oblast to a level comparable with that in the Moscow Oblast.
That is a bright example of how one educational institution can contribute to changing life in an entire village or city.
The third project, which is of great importance to me, is not related to a specific school. It is aimed at supporting the growth of the education market in Russia in general. This initiative is called ‘Internet Marketing, Go to the Blackboard’. The project was implemented in collaboration with the Lead Machine company owned by Igor Mann, Russia’s leading marketer. We also invited the Prosto Education project from St. Petersburg and the Design For School well-known design bureau to participate in it.
I was the initiator of research related to the positioning of private schools in Russia. Our team of experts has done serious work. Today, the results of the ‘Internet Marketing, Go to the Blackboard’ study are the only data of this kind that are open and accessible to the widest possible audience.
It was important for us to let people use the data we collected in order to develop the private education market in Russia and learn to position their projects correctly.
Within the project, we created an educational brand barometer. This is a set of criteria, by which experts can assess private schools in accordance with specific parameters. In order to reveal such criteria, we included 30 schools from Kaliningrad to Vladivostok. That list comprised young organisations as well as schools with many years of experience and brought together newcomers in the educational process and true legends.
– What is your vision of the ideal school system?
– The ideal school is the one that is not separated from the real world but integrated into life. Today, children are educated in certain isolation. Schools they are taught at are like reservations. My vision of the ideal system is as follows: life around us is safe and well-ordered, thus making it possible for a child to spend most of his or her time with family and, upon growing up, with those peers and adults who are beneficial for the formation of his or her personality. It is certainly difficult to imagine that this is possible but we are dreaming now (laughs).
If talking about the content of education, it will be ideal if the school works with the growth of the person, thus contributing to his or her process of self-cognition. That is also a kind of education pre-installed into life. It is called long life learning, continuous education that helps people understand who they are, what they do, and what purpose they have. Thanks to the things listed above, I believe, our world can become a completely different place.
Viktoria Gusakova, Global Women Media news agency
Translated by Nikolay Gavrilov