Classes are too large, teachers are underpaid, and too few women are at the top, where decisions about teaching are made. So, a leading Soviet educator said, teachers in her country are organizing to improve their lot.
"Sounds just like home," lamented an American woman who was startled at the similarities of professional women in the United States and the Soviet Union.
"It's a surprise to find out we face the same issues," said Judy Cody, president of the Claremont school board. "I hope we learn from them how to handle problems of core curriculum and class size."
The exchange took place at Pitzer College last week, when seven high-ranking professional women from the Soviet Union visited Claremont on what they believe was a history-making cultural and professional mission for women.
During a spirited discussion, Valentina S. Mitina, head of an educational institute that is part of the Soviet Academy of Sciences, said 90% of her country's public school teachers are women. When their workday ends, they are still burdened with lesson plans and papers to be corrected at home, where they usually must do most of the housework and child care, she said.
"Unfortunately, the prestige of teachers is not very high," she said.
Those in the Pitzer College audience noted similarities in the United States, where about 85% of all public education teachers are women.
The visit was arranged by Claremont Women for Soviet-American Dialogue, organized last year to promote the status of women and understanding between the two nations. The Claremont Assn. for Mutual American-Soviet Understanding was a co-sponsor.
Ann Copple, a Claremont High School language teacher who founded the organization, said this was the first time a group of Soviet women has come to the United States as part of a cultural exchange. Claremont women hope to make a similar visit to the Soviet Union next year.
The visitors stayed with families in Claremont, spent a day in Los Angeles, gave several lectures and visited local schools.
Although the cultural similarities often surprised both groups, the Soviets and Americans focused on their differences, hoping for solutions to improve economic, social and cultural problems.
Mitina marveled at public education for the handicapped at Claremont High School.
"You take so many ill and crippled children into the mainstream," she said. "It's not only good for them--look what it does for the other students who are accustomed to them. In Russia, it is hard for some people to look at the handicapped because they don't come out into society. For us grown-ups, the heart is aching, and there are such tears for these children."
Although educational reforms are taking place in the Soviet Union, Mitina said, there is no special education for the handicapped.
But, she suggested that American education might be improved by the Soviet concept of collectivism.
"We are mostly collective in everything, including education, and somehow we lost the individual approach, and we are working on that," she said. "But here, I think, a more collective approach would be a good thing. Your individual approach (in education) is extreme."
Although she herself favors heavy emphasis on basic education, with fewer electives for high school students, Mitina said many Soviets favor the U.S. model of a wide variety of elective courses.
Elena V. Klinova, a social scientist who heads a department in the Institute for Social Sciences in the Soviet Academy of Sciences, said the Soviet Union is ahead of the United States in providing maternity leave for women.
"Maternity is recognized as a social function, and women have the right to paid leave," Klinova said. Soviet women are given 56 days of leave before and 56 days after the birth of a child and receive a small allowance. She said she has proposed 70 days of leave both before and after giving birth, a larger allowance and longer paid leaves of absence for those who stay home to care for their children.
"But this won't improve women's careers," Klinova said, noting that "domestic work should be more equally distributed. I hope we will achieve equality in all spheres of life, but we must work hard at it."
The women often mentioned perestroika, the name for Soviet President Mikhail S. Gorbachev's political and economic reforms, and glasnost, the country's new policy of political openness.
That openness, evident at the Pitzer visit, was praised by some of the Americans who turned out by the hundreds for the week's many programs.
"I thought they would be a little more cautious," said Pitzer sophomore Michelle Castrovinci. "I learned they're fighting for the same things we are."