A new brief from NCEE explores how, in the wake of the pandemic, education systems both in the U.S. and abroad are harnessing innovation and digital technologies to deepen and accelerate learning for all students.

By Austin Delaney and Jackie Kraemer

Estonia has emerged as a top-performer on PISA, raising the question of how this former Soviet Republic created one of the strongest education systems in the world over the past twenty years.  The innovative education reforms in Estonia highlight how changing an education system can contribute to the economic development of a country.

Since regaining independence in 1992, the Estonian economy has grown nearly tenfold and is deemed by the International Monetary Fund (IMF) to be an advanced economy.  A key component of this success story is the well-developed information technology sector, exemplified by the global prominence of Skype which was started in Estonia.  An important policy lesson from Estonia is that these outcomes are not spontaneous or random, but rather a result of a national strategy to develop an education system to support a high-tech, high-skill, high-wage economy.  This kind of forward planning can be clearly seen in the 1998 “Estonian Education Scenarios” strategy which envisioned developing an information society by 2015 and in the Tiger Leap (Tiigrihüpe) project aimed at teaching computer science to Estonian secondary students.

Screen Shot 2014-05-27 at 2.09.05 PMThe educational reforms in the 1990s likely contributed to the country’s high PISA ranking in each of the subject domains in the past three rounds of PISA (2006, 2009 and 2012).  The table below shows how Estonia has been a consistent top-performer. Among the EU member states, Estonia was ranked second in both mathematics and science on PISA 2012.  This is a remarkable result compared to western European countries given their much more well-developed education systems and more disposable financial resources throughout the 1990s and early 2000s.

This impressive and steady rebuilding of the Estonian education system occurred in three main areas: the development of a new national curriculum adapted to the needs of a new economy; revamping teacher training to focus on innovative teacher practices and teacher mentorships; and upgrading the status of vocational education and training (VET).

Curriculum and School Management Reform –Empowering and Trusting Local Schools
The education system in Estonia consists of primary and lower secondary education, upper secondary academic education and upper secondary vocational education.  Primary and lower secondary education is compulsory, while upper secondary education is optional.  The students who finish upper secondary education obtain the Secondary School Leaving Certificate and have access to higher education.  About 30 percent of students in upper secondary education choose the vocational education track and on completion, can obtain a Certificate in Vocational Education.  There are also two language streams in Estonia: the Estonian language stream and the Russian language stream, to reflect the fact that the Russian minority makes up approximately one quarter of the population.  There are 63 Russian-language schools currently in Estonia, where subjects are taught 40 percent in Russian and 60 percent in Estonian.

The development of the framework of the national curriculum is the responsibility of the Ministry of Education and Research.  The Government approved and adopted the national curriculum for basic and secondary education in the academic year 1997/98.  An OECD review of the Estonia education system notes the five goals of the national curriculum:
–    Defining learning and educational objectives, including at different stages of study;
–    Identifying cross-curricular and interdisciplinary topics;
–    Recommending ways to organize the learning environment;
–    Specifying the areas of assessment of pupils’ knowledge and skills and defining requirements for graduation from compulsory school; and
–    Determining the methods and structure of preparing school curriculum.

The new national curriculum includes the following eight subjects: language and literature, foreign languages, mathematics, science, social studies, art subjects, technology and physical education.  The curriculum emphasizes traditional academic subjects as well as skills such as self-management, learning-to-learn, communications and entrepreneurship.  The fact that the curriculum was fostering these skills in the 1990s, before they became mainstream across OECD countries, shows significant foresight and adaptability to changes in the modern global economy.

The national curriculum makes a number of subjects compulsory (Estonian literature for Estonian stream of schools, Estonian language for the Russian stream of schools, mathematics and a foreign language) and includes a syllabus and the number of lessons per subject for each of these compulsory topics. However, schools have the responsibility to develop their own specific curriculum, within the boundaries of the national framework.  Schools are also entrusted with designing and implementing their own plan to change and improve education to take into account the needs of the local area, school staff, parents and students and the schools’ resources and capacity.  Amendments to the school curriculum can now be submitted to the school’s board of trustees, students’ board or teachers’ council.

The autonomy of schools can also be seen in a number of additional areas. Schools have significant autonomy in teacher selection, induction and professional development.  Schools can use their own assessment and grading system.  However, when the student graduates, the student’s grades have to be converted to a national five-point scale.  This provides useful and comparable information about student academic performances to higher education institutions and facilitates access to higher education.  School leaders are also now allowed to allocate additional pay to teachers and other school personnel for extra work or for effective results, as long as pay increases are in line with the conditions agreed to by the staff and within the national regulations governing teacher pay.

School autonomy in Estonia goes hand-in-hand with school accountability, mirroring good practices in other OECD countries.  Estonia’s schools are overseen by a school inspection system.  Inspectors assess schools by regularly reviewing their leadership and management, planning and preparation, teaching and learning, student data collection and attendance, the learning environment and extracurricular activities.  Inspectors identify a school’s strengths and areas in need of improvement.  The school inspectors provide feedback to the school on areas in need of improvement and can, if necessary, revoke the school’s license if it is not abiding by the educational regulations.

EstonianSchoolsThe Teaching Profession in Estonia
In 1998, the government of Estonia, teacher education institutions and the teacher unions drafted a Memorandum of Understanding on Reform of Teacher Education in Estonia.  The Soviet model of teacher education, which Estonia had adopted, focused mainly on subject knowledge and traditional pedagogical practices.  With the reform, teacher education now prepares Estonia’s teachers, not only in the subject they will teach using particular approaches to teaching those subjects, but for a job where they will develop curriculum, use new pedagogical approaches to serve more diverse student needs, engage in self-assessment activities with teacher mentors and promote an interest in life-long learning among their students.

Teacher education currently consists of two routes: a five-year BA/MA program of study for primary and secondary subject teachers and a one-year teacher education program for adults that have already completed an MA in a field other than education.  Both programs focus on subject knowledge, pedagogy and understanding the professional standards in the Teacher’s Standard of Professional Competence of Estonia.  Teachers have a practice year following completion of teacher training.

Teacher education and training at the Master’s level takes place in three stages: Pre-service education that provides basic pedagogical knowledge and skills, an induction year that supports the students’ introduction to educational organizations and promotes the development of skills through practice and analysis, and in-service training once the student has graduated.  The induction year restricts new teachers to a maximum of 18 working hours a week and all new teachers also have access to mentors.  After completing the induction year, novice teachers acquire a certificate of teaching, issued by a certification board, while a certificate of completion of the support program is issued by the university.  The latter requires an individual development portfolio and an evaluation of the new teacher’s performance.

The Ministry of Education now mandates an individual professional development plan for teachers which outlines educational and training targets for professional development, based on teachers’ qualifications and work experiences.  Under this plan, teachers must undergo at least 160 hours of continuing education in five years.  The funding for the continuing education of teachers is provided from the state budget.  Professional development in teaching plays an important role for the different salary levels and in progression up the career ladders, as in other top-performing countries.

Estonia has also developed teacher career pathways.  These pathways aim to enable teachers to stay motivated in the profession by seeking new opportunities, engaging in skills development and self-reflection and assisting new and beginning teachers to improve their practice.  The teacher career ladder system in Estonia consists of four positions: junior teacher, teacher, senior teacher and teacher-methodologist.  Teacher pay increases linked to the four positions fall under a thirty-four step career ladder that covers all educators in the country from classroom aides to directors of post-secondary institutions.

VET_EstoniaVocational Education and Training
Vocational education has also been one of the key areas of reform in Estonia since the collapse of the Soviet Union.  Around thirty percent of upper secondary students in Estonia are in the vocational track.  In 1999, Estonia created a national qualification system, and developed national standards for vocational education.

Vocational education standards are developed by professional councils, which include representatives from the Chamber of Commerce and Industry, the Employers´ Confederation, the Confederation of Trade Unions, members of the non-profit sector and representatives from the teacher and trainer workforces. There are 16 professional councils in the following sectors: Transport and Logistics, Commercial Service, Construction, Real Estate, Energy, Mining and Chemical Industry, Information Technology and Telecommunication, Forestry and Wood Industry, Engineering, Metal and Machine Industry, Folk Art and Handicraft, Health Care and Social Work, Light Industry, Justice and Internal Security, Food Industry and Agriculture, and Culture and Services.  Vocational education standards are competence-based, measure learning outcomes and form the basis for the school curricula in vocational educational.  Estonia does not have a national curriculum for vocational education.  VET institutions develop curriculum in compliance with the relevant professional standards.  All VET programs include a work-based component.

The new vocational education system led to the development of multifunctional regional centers of vocational training across the country.  There are now 43 VET institutions in Estonia, three of which are municipally owned and ten that are privately owned.  In addition, there are 8 applied higher education institutions, which also provide vocational education.  These VET providers must provide training places and appropriate work placements that align with the curricula objectives.

Each vocational education institution has a subject council and a teaching council, which evaluate the student results and works to improve student learning in each subject.  There is also a county-level council for vocational education, which analyzes and decides on the education and training areas to promote in the region and implements changes and reforms in the schools in order to align training with the demands of the local economy.

The teaching staff in vocational centers is assessed internally within the school in collaboration with the Department of Education in the county and with the Board of Trustees of the institution.  The Inspectorate of Education of Estonia, the Ministry of Education and the county council are responsible for supervision of the education and training in these institutions and for evaluating the effectiveness and quality of the system.

Graduates of vocational educational institutions account for approximately 12 percent of the labor force.  Employer and company engagement in vocational education is developing with almost all large firms and 60 percent of small firms (10-49 employees) participating in vocational training programs.

Estonia’s success in education illustrates how a country can adapt to both a dramatic societal transformation and changing trends in the global economy. Changes in the national curriculum, school organization and management, school accountability, professionalization of teaching, and in vocational education are among the reforms boosting the performance of Estonia’s education system.  Other nations wanting to move in this direction should keep a close eye on Estonia as it continues to improve on its successes.  For more information, see our last feature on Estonia’s investment in IT skills.