The government now says: We need talented people

The government now says:  We need talented people

On Tuesday for the first time in Russia its regions were ranked according to their number of victors and prize winners in the Russian National School Olympiads.  Our reporter ANNA MAKEEVA talked with IVAN YASHCHENKO, author of the study and director of the Moscow Centre of Continuous Mathematical Education, who explained how the Republic of Mordovia could overtake Saint Petersburg in testing and how concentrating on talented children can alter the life of a whole region.

Why did these rankings come out at this particular moment?

We like to say that Russia’s potential comes from more than oil and gas.   For the most part it comes from talented people.  The main purpose of our social project is to influence the situation in the regions.  Now the government is saying, ‘We need talented people.’  At the federal level there are presidential grants, special stipends, conferences on working with talented children and on the way to shape education in mathematics.  For example, it says there that one of the principal indicators for a region would be to have at least one victor or prize winner in the math olympiads over the course of three years.  To make that happen is a matter for the regions because primary and secondary education are under regional administration and are paid for by regional funds.

How will the rankings help in judging regional performance?

The finals of the Russian National Olympiads for students are certainly one of the indicators that objectively show how well things are going.  There had been a question about how to present this indicator properly.  And even for this first ranking we are not simply taking down the number of prize certificates.  Instead we are looking at the change for a region over several years.  Regions with a very strong uptrend can already be picked out.  They are, for example, Moscow, Tatarstan, and Saint Petersburg.  The Republic of Mordovia is a very interesting case.  We looked at the changes over a four-year period.  In 2012 there was no score at all, but by 2016 the results in this small-sized republic became comparable to Moscow’s.  That is why we are quite certain that any governor who makes the investment will get results and that everyone has talents.

The number of prize certificates for Mordovia is substantially behind that for Moscow.  How was the calculation made?

When we are considering education, of course we must take into account the size of a region.  That is exactly why we devised a regional coefficient based on population.  And then the picture for Moscow is not quite so rosy because it was one thing when Moscow won the greatest number in 2012.  However, when you divide the number of certificates by the population, then Moscow experienced an upsurgein 2013 and 2014.  In addition, we divided the regions into two categories:  those with a population of less than 3 million and those with more.  We did that because it is a totally different story if we are talking about a huge industrial region that will have university centres in most cases or about a region without those features.

You made a separate ranking for mathematics.  Why?

Mathematics is the basis for all education in natural science.  The plan for education in mathematics states that each region should have a victor or prize winner at least once in three years.  Therefore we look at three-year intervals.  We understand that even a good, comprehensive effort in a small region can yield good results in one particular year but not in another.

If certain regions sharply improve their indicators, what impact will it have on the other regions?

That is where it really becomes complicated.  A certain region begins to put in the effort and prepares a child.  But at the same time regions that already are quite strong, Moscow or Saint Petersburg perhaps, begin to prepare even better.  The result is that the child from that weaker region who had reached the competitive level that held a year earlier might not win a prize this year without reaching the level set by the leaders.  It becomes difficult when strong regions experiencing a sudden surge simply force out other regions.

How can that problem be solved?

Our goal is to find more talented children, more mathematicians, physicists, chemists and historians.  We would suggest increasing the number of participants in the finals.  Right now the overall number of participants in the finals in all subjects is a little over 5,000.  There has been practically no increase.  We need to examine the results of the Russian National Olympiads over several years—and our rankings will certainly help with this—and then in subjects that show a strong upsurge in the outcomes increase the number of participants in the finals.  Obviously, with that approach the number of talented children you find will become greater.   It definitely would not be right, as is sometimes suggested, to set different quotas for different regions—that would interfere with the children’s right to equal treatment and degrade the quality of the Olympiads.

How can the rankings help weaker regions?

Often the local education administrative heads persuade the regional authorities that there is no need to get involved with talented children because the competition is too strong:  ‘Moscow and Petersburg will fight it out, and we can’t come close.’  Our first priority is precisely those regions that are now lagging.  Rankings according to the trends in a district show it is a mistake to think that there is nothing at all to be done in weaker regions.  Competition with other districts stimulates effort.  There are studies showing that gifted children are born everywhere, regardless of the conditions.  This means there are talented children in every region, and the main thing is to realize who they are and support them.  Alongside the example of Mordovia you could cite Dagestan.

How can local authorities support working with talented children in a region?

We are offering a ‘road map’ that describes how to ‘start from zero’.  You have to realize that it is essential to foster talent, and the example of successful regions demonstrates that good results are attainable.  You create the conditions for realizing talent, such as opening business incubators with local investors and giving all the support possible to teachers.  That way to begin is absolutely within the means of every region.  There are talented children and people ready to work with them everywhere, and you need only to give them the proper support.  Once again Dagestan proves that this model works.  The authorities let it be known that they were interested in this and hooked up with a local partner, Ziyavudin Magomedov’s PERI Foundation.  They gave motivated teachers who were deeply involved in their work and in helping children a chance to exchange experience with their colleagues in the high-performing regions.  After a year of dedicated effort striking results were achieved.  The students’ eyes were literally gleaming.  They entered large-scale olympiads, and some children made it into the select group at the Sirius Education Centre.  Soon we will see them winning at the national level.

By the way, the public-private partnership is just as important for the stronger regions, Moscow for one, where the city strongly supports system-wide efforts.  In addition to the federal grants of 60,000 rubles for a win in the Russian National Olympiad, there are the mayor of Moscow’s grants for performing well in international olympiads—and these can total in the millions, which is attainable through the sponsorship of the Dar Foundation’s project supporting neighbourhood math clubs while IT businesses support olympiads in computer skills.

How will the rankings help parents?  Won’t they look over the rankings and put their children in other regions?

My fondest wish is for the idea of boarding schools for gifted children, which were successful and quite essential in the past century, to be complemented with an efficient system allowing children to develop in their own schools.  In fact, the top 25 schools in Russia include not just schools that board their students (school no. 239, the secondary school in Mordovia, boarding schools affiliated with Moscow University and the universities in Novosibirsk and Ekaterinburg), but also regular schools in Moscow, Kazan, Novosibirsk, Kirov. . .   And in particular I would like to see more schools that foster winners in the national olympiads—for Moscow that already stands at one school in every three.  By the way, the Sirius Education Centre really helps children with their basic preparation in the regions by using top-notch teachers to reveal the secrets to winning at the federal level.

Will the rankings be done annually?

Yes, we intend to continue the research in order to follow the regional trends going forward.  That process can form the basis of completely fresh solutions at the local level which will actually have an impact on the educational system as a whole as well as on the development of talented children, whose existence unfortunately is hardly even acknowledged in many places.  We will show that everyone has a chance.