The love Ukrainians have for their families is one of the most attractive things about the country. Children are deeply committed to their parents throughout life, and parents constantly work to provide the best for their children. A good education is one of the most important things parents can provide; it is the foundation for their success as adults.
Education was good under the Soviets. Teaching was a prestigious profession, and the Soviets directed talented people into the schools. Most parents did not have a choice about where their children would be schooled, but the state did not often let them down. As much as anywhere in the world, Soviet schools provided an education commensurate with the child's interests and abilities.
Twenty years of independence have not served education well. The profession is underpaid. The Soviet era teachers are less effective as they grow older, and many are retiring. New entrants into the field of teaching come from the more mediocre universities. They characteristically lack the ability to inspire students, and often do not even have mastery of the material they are supposed to teach.
At the same time, a middle class is emerging in Ukraine with values and aspirations similar to the middle classes of Europe and the United States. In the United States, a child's educational achievement is the ultimate status symbol. The claim that "My child goes to Harvard" carries more status than whatever house you could buy. Ukrainian families are looking more and more to Western educational alternatives for their children.
The educational options available in Kyiv and other major cities include the following:
• Neighborhood schools -- the school your child will be assigned to unless you work to get something different.
• Elite schools within the public system -- schools with selective admissions which specialize in a given area such as English, math or science.
• Private schools, mostly western, where the language of instruction is generally English.
• Boarding schools in the West, primarily England.
• Individual instruction either through home schooling or top end tutoring services.
The choices open to any given family depend on the family's objectives for the child the child's interests, the child's abilities, and of course the money available for education.
The objective of education below the university level is education itself -- establishing a good enough record, and the ability to pass standardized tests, to get to the next level. The long-faded Victorian notion was that education was something to do for its own sake, to create a gentleman, familiar with classic authors and able to express himself clearly. Not so today: parents want material success.
Almost every family wants their children to attend a university, the more prestigious the better. There is an assumption that a university's reputation correlates well with the quality of the education they offer. The reputation depends on how old the school is, how expensive it is, and how strict its entrance requirements are.
Every person in society who makes his living with his head rather than his hands is in the business of processing information. We take in documents, information, and other data; we rearrange it, organize it, summarize it; then we produce some output which may be as elaborate as the book or as simple as a warehouse picking slip. The goal of education must be to make people efficient at processing information. We need to provide students with a broad enough factual basis in science, history, economics and other fields that they can make sense of the data they get. We need to give them the reading and mathematical skills to analyze what they take in, and the writing and calculating skills to produce output that other people can use.
Specialized university education, in fields such as medicine or economics, is designed to make students broadly familiar with the body of factual and theoretical information current in the field, the algorithms that are used to manipulate facts and data, and standard format for expressing results. A parent, and deciding that their son should become a lawyer, is deciding that he should learn a body of laws and precedents, and techniques for making a case verbally and in writing.
Of course, the ultimate objective is to prepare the student to make a comfortable living in a complex society. It is rare for a high school student to have detailed plans for a career, but everybody knows that they will have to be good at manipulating words, and it is a strong advantage to be good at manipulating numbers as well. Therefore, high schools are designed to give children these skills. Standardized college entrance examinations designed to see how well the children have absorbed them, and to match students with university is appropriate to their skill level.
Some students present special challenges. On the positive side, exceptionally bright children have the ability to learn subject matter more quickly than their agemates. Some students are exceptionally gifted in music, drama, or other areas. Once these talents are recognized, a parent generally wants to make sure that they are nurtured.
For some students, just being normal is a challenge. A student who walks with crutches, is in a wheelchair, or suffers from epilepsy wants to be like the other kids. The parents of children with autism, attention deficit/hyperactivity disorder or other neurological conditions want nothing more than for their children to blend in as "ordinary." It is important for parents to find a school that can accommodate their child's needs. Private schools usually do try, and they are quite explicit in stating which types of students they can serve.
The Ukrainian public schools have retained some of their strengths from Soviet times. Classroom discipline is generally fairly good, and children still feel an obligation to complete their assignments. Not only is education free, but school related expenditures are minimal. A parent does not have to pay for expensive books, trips, computers, or clothes to keep up with the other students.
The Soviet philosophy in education, as in most spheres of life, was that the state knows best -- citizen involvement is not expected or even desired. Therefore, in public schools, a parent does not feel pressure to participate in parent teacher associations or fundraisers. There is not a lot of expectation that parents will help children with homework. Whatever effort a parent expends on behalf of their child will be in excess of the norm.
Standard Ukrainian schools, at best, prepare children for Ukrainian universities. While students may get instruction in English, language teachers are usually poorly paid Ukrainians. It would be rare for a high school student to have enough preparation to attend a university abroad/
Ukrainian is the primary language of instruction in schools in most oblasts. It is the most useful language for students who will be entering public service in Ukraine, but it is not as helpful as English or Russian for students who studies will require that they read material and communicate with scholars from abroad, such as in the hard sciences, social sciences, or business. A question for parents who send their children to public schools is whether their children will develop fluency in English or Russian.
Specialized schools have always been part of the school system. Although they are public, admission is limited to students who have a special interest in a given subject area and who show talent. These schools almost always have a third important asset, parents who are committed to their children's education and willing to spend time and money to advance it
Providing that your family lives within the area serviced by an appropriate school, and that between your child's demonstrated talent and your own connections you can get him admitted, a specialized school represents a great value. Your child benefits from the best of the teachers from the Soviet system, a rigorous curriculum, and a group of peers all of whom are dedicated to success.
The specialized schools have established relationships with the better universities in the country, such as Kyiv Polytechnic Institute and Shevchenko in Kyiv. If your child is qualified, you can be sure that he will be considered for admission. However, attending universities abroad is still a stretch. Ukrainian universities do not prepare students for the standardized tests used internationally, and unless the school's specialization is English, the graduates may not have the language skills needed to move easily into a university curriculum abroad.
Private schools are a post-Soviet innovation. There are still few enough top-ranked schools to be named. The premier English-language schools are Kyiv International School, with an enrollment of about 600 and Pechersk School International, about 450. The British International School, Meridian School and a few church oriented institutions also offer English-language instruction. The Collège Français Anne de Kiev offers instruction in French for 240 students, and the new Deutsche Schule offers primary education in German.
English is essential for students who intend to study and work internationally. The English-language schools are very skilled at accepting children with a minimal knowledge of the language and integrating them into the program. They offer intensive English to bring them up to speed, but the most important advantage is a child's own inherent ability to learn new languages. The near native fluency of Ukrainian high school children in these schools is impressive.
Foreigners make up the majority of the enrollment in each of the private schools. They are the sons and daughters of business people, diplomats, and of course the teachers themselves. Because many of the parents are in Kyiv on temporary postings, the average time that a student stays in one of the schools is somewhere around three or four years.
Tuition varies from school to school, up to perhaps 20,000 dollars per year. Reflecting the lower costs of doing business in Ukraine, and local market conditions, this is less than the cost of comparable schools in most cities in the United States and Western Europe. Tuition is not the only expense: a private school parent must also reckon with the cost of travel on field trips, computers, and other expenses associated with keeping up with the student's newfound peers.
Ukrainian students make up a significant minority of the enrollment. Some are the children of mixed marriages, and others the children of families who have a strong desire to have their children learn English and study abroad. Still and all, the dollar-denominated tuitions are beyond the reach of most middle-class Ukrainians. Some of the schools offer scholarships, tuition assistance for Ukrainian students which the administration believes will be an asset to the school. This echoes the widespread scholarship programs and private schools in the United States, where the objective is to minimize the appearance that private school children form a social elite, and especially to integrate talented minority children into the mainstream.
The private schools in Kyiv also follow the private school practice in the United States and Western Europe in admitting children with handicaps. One sees autistic children and children with braces and crutches in the hallways. Some schools are even capable of serving children who require full-time attendants to accompany them to class.
The two greatest determinants of quality in a private school are the headmaster and the teachers. Whereas a public school principal is often just a bureaucrat in a hierarchy, a private school headmaster has the responsibility and authority of a chief executive officer. They are paid accordingly, and most are rather impressive individuals. The headmaster has great latitude in choosing teachers, and the teachers themselves usually enjoy quite a bit of latitude in setting the curriculum. In a healthy private school, there is a strong feeling that the entire staff is working together as a team.
International schools are able to recruit on a worldwide basis. Kyiv is an attractive posting. Many teachers come as married couples; with two salaries, a housing allowance, free tuition for their children, and usually some tax benefits accruing to expatriates, working here can be financially attractive. The result is that the teachers one finds in private schools in Kyiv are motivated, know their subjects well, and most importantly, love children and are dedicated to their education. They are here by choice: their own and the headmaster's.
Even though the parents who find themselves in Kyiv and are able to afford a private school form a fairly selective group, their children nonetheless vary significantly in ability. While none of the schools overtly track children -- assigning them to a faster or slower group -- nevertheless the range of courses that they offer makes it possible to select courses of appropriate levels of difficulty. For example, health may be offered as less challenging alternative to biology.
The private schools have networks of other professionals to whom they can refer parents. These include neurologists, psychologists, and others who can address developmental difficulties. They also recommend tutors as necessary. They recognize that not every student can learn everything they need simply from the classroom instruction and the textbook. Many students can benefit by working one-on-one with a tutor. Students worldwide have difficulty with math, science, and writing. Writing is even more difficult when English is not the student's native language.
Boarding schools represent the high end of private education. The best known of them are in England, where they prepare students for entry into the most prestigious universities such as Oxford and Cambridge. It goes without saying that a student will graduate from a boarding school speaking good English. In fact, it will be the English of the British upper class, and simply speaking and acting like an English gentleman is a considerable asset to carry through life.
Attending a boarding school, a child rubs shoulders with children of the worldwide elite. It is an intellectually demanding environment, and it requires a student who is self-assured and capable of thriving away from his or her parents. The admissions process is quite selective, and cost, taking in travel, clothing, and other incidentals, comes out several times that of a private school in Kyiv.
For parents who can afford it, a boarding school offers their children an excellent education and offers parents the freedom to travel and pursue their own careers unburdened by the day-to-day issues of their children's education.
Individual education alternatives are becoming more widespread in the West. Americans in particular are disenchanted with the public school system. Parents with strong religious beliefs reject the secular orientation of public schools, and parents with high intellectual aspirations for their children are appalled with the falling expectations for what children learn in public school. Increasingly, parents are choosing to teach their own children in what is called "homeschooling."
Homeschooling takes a vast range of forms, of course, but there are some common threads. A lot of education can be delivered over the Internet. Some of it is absolutely top rate. As an example, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, the best science university in the country, has put most of its courses online, accessible to homeschoolers. There are a large number of for-profit firms selling instructional materials to homeschoolers.
Homeschooling gives parents freedom to choose the curriculum. This can be especially important in the humanities -- literature, history, and social studies -- where there is no fixed canon. The students themselves can decide what books they will read, which civilizations they will study, and what historical eras they will specialize in.
Its name notwithstanding, homeschooling does not always, or even primarily, involve teaching directly by parents. Home schoolers find each other over the Internet and form study groups. Some parents are either trained teachers or have a gift for teaching a given subject. They will get together groups of students and teach them, more or less as if they were at school. Parents will get kids together for field trips. In this way, children have a chance to interact with each other, and they get the best of instruction offered by a community of adults.
Using international post in the Internet, parents and Kyiv have just as much access to homeschooling resources as Americans. All that remains is for a community to develop with a mutual interest in homeschooling so they can share their talents in teaching their children.
A live-in private tutor represents the pinnacle of educational options. A family can recruit a tutor to meet their children's exact needs. The tutor offers all of the advantages of homeschooling, as well as professional training in the field of education and the subject matter at hand. The tutor also relieves parents of the obligation to handle the teaching themselves.
Live-in tutors make optimal use of academic time. In school, most of a child's time spent in activities other than direct instruction. Time is allocated for getting from class to class, for recess, for lunch, to spend in the library, for computer learning and so on. Because each class has to accommodate the lowest common denominator, the children with the least ability or knowledge of English, the pace of a classroom must be below the pace of most individual students. One-on-one instruction avoids all these problems.
A live-in tutor can be used to supplement a regular school education. For instance, a tutor can help a student catch up over the summer if he has perhaps fallen behind in math, or in writing. A tutor can provide intensive training, perhaps preparing a student in the language of the next country in which the parents will be posted. If a family decides to take a "year out" to travel the world, a tutor can accompany them to see that the children keep up with their schooling.
Homeschooling and live-in tutoring are sometimes criticized as producing hothouse flowers, children unaccustomed to social interaction with their peers. The growing body of experience with homeschoolers entering American colleges shows that this is generally not the case. Quite the contrary, children who study in an ambience dominated by adults end up being more comfortable in adult surroundings and generally more polite and mature, which are considerable assets.
With freedom comes choice, and with choice comes responsibility. There are more educational options available than most Ukrainians realize, and a responsible parent should be aware of the options. The difference a child's study environment makes can be striking. The student's peers and the school's teaching style influence a child's willingness to commit to becoming educated. Therefore, the biggest contribution a parent can make to a child's formation is selecting the right educational environment. It supplies the foundation of facts for future learning and familiarity with the tools for acquiring, manipulating and presenting knowledge. Equally important, the school and the peers he meets there shape his image of the adult he strives to become.
The secondary education, and the system of education you choose strongly influences your child's selection of colleges and universities. A Ukrainian / Russian education generally prepares your student to be educated within the CIS. The prestige of the secondary school is closely correlated to the prestige of the universities they can expect to attend. Attendance at one of the foreign private schools, on the other hand, gives a student broad preparation for American, Canadian and Western European colleges. Their grades and their scores on standardized tests are most significant in determining which one.
Regardless of which educational option you choose for your child, it is clear that the world into which they are growing will increasingly demand and knowledge of English and an ability to work in an international environment. Ukrainians already cherish education, and for these reasons they increasingly prize a Western education. With a little planning and research, you can be sure your children have a maximal chance for success.