Could Russia’s 21st Century Sputnik Be in Educational Transformation?

Russia's Educational Transformation

By: Richard DeLorenzo

Richard DeLorenzo made his mark on US education as superintendent of Alaska’s Chugach School District, the first to build a mastery-based system where students meet performance targets rather than earn credits to graduate. He co-founded the Re-Inventing Schools Coalition (RISC, now part of Marzano Resources) which shared the model with districts in Alaska, then across the country. DeLorenzo is the co-author of Delivering on the Promise.

For the last two years, DeLorenzo has been an advisor to Russian banker and philanthropist Hermon Gref on the transformation of Russian education. This report outlines the development of a mastery approach and platform now widely used in Russia.  

We had the chance to learn from and support Rich’s leadership in Alaska and then more broadly. We appreciate his important contributions to the United States and now global education. Like Rich, the systemic design and the commitment to equity in education outlined in this report are inspirational. – Rebecca Midles & Tom Vander Ark

More than sixty years ago, a small, unmanned satellite called Sputnik was launched from Russia that successfully orbited the earth, setting in motion a series of events known as the Space Race.  That launch ushered in new political, military, technological, and scientific developments.   Now another Sputnik is being launched in Russian schools that offers the promise of Russian students surging to the top in the global education race of excellence. This new system can be found in isolated schools throughout the world, primarily in the United States, but never before has an entire country the size of Russia attempted to realize such an ambitious vision that shifts all of its schools from the outdated time-based system to a digital personal-proficiency system.

It is one that focuses on defining the purpose and passion of each child combined with a personal trajectory using a digital platform that enables each student to not only embrace a growth mindset, but allow then to navigate their future both academically and economically.

In the United States during the 1970s when the economy took a setback, there was an outcry from stakeholders that many students were ill-equipped to contribute to this new economy resulting in a report called “A Nation at Risk.”  The report brought to the attention of the American public that its schools were in crisis and that without major educational reform our economy would continue to spiral downward and negatively impact the welfare of our nation.    Over the decades, numerous attempts have been made to achieve a new level of systemic excellence, but unfortunately, few, if any efforts, have proved to be sustainable, replicable, or scalable.

These attempts at major improvement have included restructuring of failing schools, introducing a rigorous and more competitive curriculum, additional resources to help systems innovate, and finally, the continuation of alternative options such as magnet schools and charter schools.  Although some improvements in student achievement have been documented, the vast majority of schools have fallen short of deep transformation and, as a result, too many students still do not graduate or graduate with inadequate skills to prepare them for a future of success.

Fifty years later the question remains: have we significantly improved the education for all students? A recent article by Dan Goldstein ‘It Just Isn’t Working’: PISA Test Scores Cast Doubt on U.S.  Education Efforts states that despite billions of dollars in spending, two-thirds of our students are not proficient in reading.  This illustrates clearly that we need a different, comprehensive, scalable approach to help every child succeed.

Nonetheless, pockets of excellence do exist across the country.  Through collaboration with other inspired, pioneering educators, the robust, transformative effort called Digital Personal Proficiency System (DPPS) – often referred to as Competency-Based Education – has emerged.   This approach has had excellent results in a few places in the United States, but Russian educators appreciate its value for their entire country and are moving forward aggressively to initiate it there in every school.

In 1994, I was part of a team that set out to dramatically change how schools operate in a small rural district in Alaska.  Several years later, after showing tremendous achievement growth, we were awarded the prestigious Malcolm Baldrige Award for organization excellence. Ironically, this was a business award of the highest nature given by the president of the United State for performance excellence.

As a result of this recognition, interest in our work continued to grow. I founded the Re-Inventing Schools Coalition (RISC), whose mission was to transform 1,000 school districts in America. During the next decade we were successful in transforming a number of  schools throughout America most notably in the Westminster Public Schools just north of Denver, Colorado and in the  Lindsay Unified School District near Fresno, California.

However, we never reached the tipping point of impacting the entire nation for many reasons.  Primary among these was the hurdle of overcoming the inertia of the traditional system that has been cemented in school culture and the unintentional policies which are designed to protect their status.

The Genesis of Change in Russia

Several years ago, I received a message from a gentleman I had served with on an international think tank called Education Impact. He had attended a keynote I had given as part of the Microsoft Global Partnership Conference in London. During our call, he reminded me of a promise I had made to him at that conference to help him transform schools in his country. I had already transitioned out of this work to pursue other interests. I did my best to find him someone else to fulfill my promise. Unfortunately, he kept insisting that I needed to come myself. Three weeks later, in the middle of January, I found myself on a British Airline flight headed to Moscow. When I landed at Domodedovo International Airport, the reality of this challenging adventure hit me.

I was met by the director of Horoshkola School. It was quickly clear to me that she not only understood my vision of learning, but had tremendous passion to make it a reality.

Horoshkola School was founded in September, 2018 by Herman Gref, head of the state savings bank, Sherbank, along with his wife, Yana. Horoshkola School looks more like a futuristic high-tech center than how most people would envision a typical Russian school. But the futuristic high-tech feel of the school mirrors its mission: to transform the whole of the Russian economy in order to be globally competitive and, through that algorithm, completely change the obsolete education system that sits at the top of the current paradigm. Herman Gref is one of those rare leaders who continually pushes the system forward because it is the right thing to do for his country and people. It was clear at that first meeting that his vision for Russian schools was aligned, at the core, with the work supported by the RISC foundation.

That initial meeting was followed the next day by a larger one consisting of influential leaders from several organizations which resulted in my understanding of their strong, shared commitment to this vision.  It was not long afterwards I moved to Russia to support their mission of transforming their education system to embrace the PMO philosophy.  The initial goal became to transform sixteen schools in five regions the first year and quickly scale to 1,000 schools in many more regions until the tipping point is reached, impacting the remaining 72,000 schools.

Below are some of critical elements of a Digital Personal Proficiency System (DPPS).  In Russia, it is called Personal Model of Education (PMO).

Traditional System Digital Personalized Proficiency System Benefit of DPPS
Student Role “Sit and Get.”

Students are primarily passive, compliant learners who frequently try to game the system to get passing marks or a high GPA

Because of the shared beliefs and agreed learning expectations, students are able to navigate their own learning.

Students are placed in their Zone of Proximal Development (ZPD) or where they have the most success.

Students’ road map provides individual learning trajectory

Increases student engagement by allowing more voice and choice in their learning.

Students can learn anywhere, anyplace any time.

Prepares students for the global economy by accelerating their learning especially with 21st century skills.

Teacher Role Teachers instruct to the middle of the class through whole- group instruction

One size fits all approach.

(common to nearly all classes in the U.S.)

The teacher’s role changes from a traditional one to that of a facilitator.

Teachers become very agile in their approach and constantly adjust their strategies to meet the needs of every child.

Whole group, small group, individual instruction

Teachers begin to understand the art and science of their profession by allowing students to partner with them.

In this new learning environment, teachers are learners together with students regarding how to best meet their needs.

Grading A-F scoring based on arbitrary criteria.

Example: Final quarter grades may be based on various combinations of participation, attendance, and test scores.

Grading is based on mastering individual standards.

“A, B, or try again” scoring. Students have multiple opportunities to achieve and improve their grades.

Minimum GPA for graduation is 3.0.

Creates transparent and consistent expectations across classrooms so that students, parents, teachers, and administrators know expectations.

Reliability and validity of this system dramatically increases.

Curriculum and Assessments Traditional core subjects plus some electives. Rigor rarely goes beyond students’ recalling information.

Mostly textbook- driven with paper- and-pencil testing

Reprioritization of what students need for their future in addition to core traditional subjects, a stronger emphasis on embedding 21st century skills

Performance tasks and projects driven by clear rubrics

Students create multidisciplinary projects that solve real world problems, thus increasing student engagement and preparing them for their future


Instruction “One size fits all.” Students move on even if they are not ready for next steps.

Whole group instruction dominates the delivery system.

Prescribed programs and textbooks drive instruction.

Instruction is balanced (students must first understand, then apply in real-life situations whenever possible).

Instruction is differentiated, thus meeting individual students at the point of their needs and interests.

The needs of all students are met resulting in more efficient and effective learning and an increase in equity.

Instruction is not just about learning skills but applying them in a meaningful way, thereby increasing student engagement.

Where Do You Begin?

In pursuing this type of change, many minefields can derail the mission before results are realized. At every level, multiple pitfalls can easily discourage participants from continuing.

Several critical elements that need to be considered to implement DPPS at any level follow:

  1. Change driven by the values and beliefs of the community that support this new paradigm
  2. A shared vision with all stakeholders that support this shift
  3. A commitment of at least 80% of the staff that are willing to change
  4. A school’s proof of concept that reflects these values and beliefs
  5. A clear road map that illustrates the changes that are needed
  6. A strategic plan that supports the road map with timelines, roles, responsibilities and deliverables
  7. A comprehensive digital platform that enables quick deployment and accelerates the replication of new schools

What Are the Driving Beliefs Underlying DPPS?

The following statement is foundational to DPPS: Every child has a destiny.   Schools need to provide the conditions to help them find their path in life.   

These beliefs help make this possible:

  • Every child is unique, needs to understand themselves, and must build positive relations with peers and adults.
  • Learning is about developing the mental, emotional, physical and spiritual dimension of a child.
  • Every child learns differently and, when ready, can control their trajectory.
  • Every child learns at a different rate.
  • Every child needs to be deeply engaged in their learning.
  • We need to prepare children for their future.
  • Learning needs to be transparent in that it can happen anywhere, anyplace and anytime
  • When all of these conditions are in place, students will accelerate both the amount and depth of their learning.
  • When ready, every child should be in control of their learning and create ambitious goals to achieve/maximize their potential.

What is the Process to Change?

Both a bottom-up and top-down approach are needed, beginning with the values and beliefs driving this need for change.

At the local level, the top-down approach means the administrative leader needs to believe and support this journey by actively participating in, or ideally, leading the change.  Initially, a new type of leader is necessary who goes beyond only being a competent manager, and instead becomes a change agent inspiring other to join in this journey.

The bottom-up aspect is where teachers either create their belief system or follow one that has been established support a Digital Personal Proficiency System (DPPS). Next, teachers are trained on every aspect of this new system, beginning with how to create a collaborative culture and then gradual releasing control for learning to the students.  Initially in the journey, several teachers begin to slowly shift the culture of the classroom to the new paradigm. Finally, entire schools, or at least 80%, commit to making the shift.  This creates the proof of concept that is monitored for fidelity and can be replicated, then later scaled to change an entire ecosystem.

Finally, there needs to be a comprehensive digital platform that helps deploys and monitors every aspect of this paradigm shift.  This platform is critical to scale this vision. Besides managing student progress, it needs to manage and provide real time data on teachers and administrators, monitoring their competencies. This platform provides clear dashboards, contains “evergreen data”, meaning it is updated in real-time, so adjustments can continue to be made in the roll-out of this system.

If an entire country’s education system is to be changed, the challenge is necessarily increased because of the scale and politics which make decisions much more complex.  Policies have to be revamped to allow innovations to occur unobstructed.  Everything from teacher certification programs to policies that support the outdated traditional system (i.e.   – high-stake assessments and how students earn grades) need to be overhauled.  If such major changes are not possible, there needs to be a comprehensive waiver system for 5 years to allow schools and districts to truly have a chance to innovate and implement promising practices such as the DPPS vision rather than running a dual system.  Accountability remains important, but it is based on the new system and not the old.  Running a dual system is very difficult and not in the best interest of students and staff.

Can Russia Be Successful?

The journey in Russia has many of the same barriers we faced elsewhere in respect to trying to change almost everything known and believed about how schools’ function.  Dramatically overhauling a system that has been essentially untouched in 150 years is not for the faint of heart.  Most importantly, overcoming the status quo that protects a system and keeps it in place is daunting even when there is strong agreement that the system needs to be radically changed.

Russia can be successful if more key leaders such as Herman understand the need to change and support this new paradigm that prepares all children critically for their future.  Unlike in America where we defend our need for local control, Russia has a huge advantage in scaling new initiatives because of their hierarchal approach to decisions making.  Therefore, there is much more potential momentum in Russia to impact an entire ecosystem in a shorter amount of time.  If successful, Russia has the potential to be a serious contender in the global economy and seen as an international partner, helping to influence the world’s future in a positive way.   Eventually, the changes that are currently occurring in Russia will certainly impact their system, but the more major impact or “3rd order change” depends on of how quickly it will be scaled and how deeply the quality of change will be measured.  Other countries will take a keen interest in Russia’s story in this regard and ask themselves: what should we be doing to impact the future of our own children so we have an equal chance of not being left behind?

Below are the current realities of Russia education system.                                   

Reasons for Hope Current Challenges
Policy Some key top leaders have the vison that policies are obsolete. Current policies don’t reflect current best practices.    There is not a clear vision of what policies hinder this change.
Leadership There are a handful of key leaders that are pushing for this change. School leadership currently operates in a top- down management style, and this new paradigm needs a different type of leader.
Curriculum and Assessment Everything sits on the digital platform that replicates best practices in teaching and learning for not students, as well as teachers and administration. Traditional classrooms have teachers lecturing and assessing at a low level of rigor.  High-stakes assessments drive the curriculum.
Teacher training New teacher training philosophy has been designed that supports student-centered learning in a proficiency system. Traditional teacher training that is done in isolation has little measurable impact on the system.
Technology There is a new digital platform that differs from any other platform in that it supports a transformational shift supporting students, teachers and administration on this journey. Most schools lack the technology or the infrastructure to have reliable internet and minimal bandwidth.
Values and Belief Some key leaders voice the need to change to be globally competitive. Traditional schools with little attention to adopting best practices.

What Can American Educators and Leaders Take Away From the Russian Experience?

Billions of dollars have been invested into transforming American education. I admire those foundations and public leaders who have been part of these efforts, as well as their desire to change the way we educate students so that far more succeed. However, I humbly suggest that we have invested in the wrong strategy. Three essential elements are needed to correct that strategy. First, the investment should be moved away from incremental change and focus instead on systemic change that creates the conditions for schools to support the beliefs of DPPS. Next, policies have to be changed to not only support this innovation, but to encourage educators to pursue this journey. Finally, this new system should be not only sustainable, but also scalable, using the best digital platform to impact all 76,000,000 students currently enrolled in our country’s schools.

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