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by Marc Tucker

You’ve never been to Estonia? You owe it to yourself to go. We just returned and the warm glow of the visit has not yet worn off. We cannot wait to go back.

EstoniaFlagWhat these modest, friendly and highly educated people have pulled off is quite remarkable. In case you have not noticed, although the Finns are visited by educators from the world overeager to find out how they climbed into the exclusive club of top performers on the PISA surveys of student achievement, the Estonians, just across the Gulf of Finland from Helsinki, have just about matched the Finns in those league tables. And that is not all. As in the case of Finland, when the Soviet Union collapsed, the Estonian economy went down with it. The difference, of course, is that, while Finland’s economy had been highly reliant on trade with the Soviet Union’s, Estonia’s economy was part of the Soviet Union’s. The Estonians, unlike the Russians, had no oil to sell. Nor were the Estonians like East Germany, with a West Germany to lend them a helping hand. Nonetheless, the Estonians managed to haul themselves out of the depths of depression to create, from whole cloth, one of the most vibrant economies among all the countries of the former Soviet Union. We went to this very attractive country to figure out how they did it.

The feature of modern Estonia that is perhaps best known outside this country is its moniker: “E-Stonia.” When the Iron Curtain came down, a very young government was formed. People in their 30s took the reins, and they had an idea. They would take advantage of their clean slate to leapfrog the rest of the world and turn their country into a beachhead and showcase for modern information technology, and, by so doing vault Estonia to the head of the pack economically. Estonia, with a population of 1.3 million, has a flat tax and no debt. Come tax time, the government sends out an e-mail to its citizens with their tax return attached and filled in. If all is in order, it takes about five minutes to review it, e-sign it and e-mail it back. Estonian citizens have been given an electronic identity, and, by law, that identity must be accepted in the same way that our physical signature is accepted for all forms of contract. So you can sign your tax form or a mortgage by tapping the keys on your keyboard from home while in your bathrobe. The Estonians don’t use paper checks any more. And it doesn’t just stop at banking, information technology is put to use in many sectors including online voting and universal electronic health records. Skype was invented here and the company still employs a quarter of its workforce in Tallinn. No nation on the face of the globe has more completely imagined the digital future and implemented it, seamlessly.

So, when our plane landed in Estonia’s capital, Tallinn, we brought with us a working hypothesis. It seemed likely, we thought, that the educational policies pursued by the post-Soviet government had made possible a modern economy founded on very strong STEM skills. But that is not what we found. The strong STEM skills were there all right, and so was a very strong education system, but they were the result of centuries of development. Even so, what we found was a situation that made us very worried for our new friends.

Hundreds of years ago, when the Swedes held sway over much of Scandinavia, the Baltic and much of western Russia, they were ruled by a king who had an intense interest in education. He was responsible for, among other things, establishing a university in what is now Estonia’s second city, Tartu. It is among the oldest universities in Europe.

In the religious ferment that gripped Europe after Martin Luther tacked his theses to the cathedral door, what would become Estonia went Protestant. The central idea of the Protestant revolution was that each individual had a direct, personal relationship with God. What made that relationship possible was the Bible, which provided each Christian with direct access to the Word of God, without having to go through the priesthood. The Swedes, in their Lutheran enthusiasm for these ideas, made it impossible for Estonians to marry unless they could read. An 1897 Russian Imperial census survey showed that 97 percent of Estonians were literate, compared to most of the other Russian provinces, with an average literacy rate of only 30 percent at that time.

The nobility in Estonia had come from Germany and Tallinn had become one of the most important of the wealthy trading cities in the Hanseatic League of Baltic ports. The German connection made Estonia ripe for the ferment in educational thinking that gripped Germany in the first half of the nineteenth century. The Germans had pioneered the idea of a free public primary school education, had built a very strong system of elite secondary schools set to very high standards and, at the same time, were building the world’s first research universities. Estonia, because of the German connection, was part of these developments.

EstonianStudentsWhen the future Estonia became part of Imperial Russia, it had become a hotbed of education reform at the primary and secondary levels and home to advanced ideas about education and research at the university level. The Russians, seeing a strong asset in their Baltic crown jewel, made Estonia a major research and education center for their rapidly developing economy, further strengthening the education system of Estonia and giving its people an even stronger incentive to achieve academically. Later, after a brief period of independence between the world wars, Estonia would once again become part of Imperial Russia, this time as part of the Soviet Union. The high international standing of the Soviet Union in terms of mathematics and theoretical physics strengthened the Estonians already-high standards in these areas. Estonia became a key center of strength in high technology, including software development. But, in those fifty years under the Soviets, the elitist system of secondary education that Estonia had inherited from the Germans became much less elitist. The high standards formerly reserved for the elite came to drive the whole system.

The Estonians and the Finns share a branch of the European language tree that is very different from any other European language. Helsinki and Tallinn are only a short boat trip away from each other. Estonian teachers and Finnish teachers have shared educational ideas and practices for ages. The teacher union leaders told us that they had sponsored joint conferences with their Finnish colleagues for decades. The Scandinavian commitment to a less hierarchical, more equitable society runs deep in this association as does a deep cultural commitment to education.

When we asked our informants to identify significant changes that had taken place in education policy since Estonia gained its independence, they could not think of any, apart from a very imaginative effort in the late 1990s—the Tiger Leap—to teach Estonian youth computer programming and make sure that all Estonian schools were online. So the fact that Estonia is among the top ten performers on PISA worldwide does not appear to be the result of education policies pursued since Estonia gained its independence, as much as it is the result of hundreds of years of political, social and educational development which ended up supporting a strong, deep and widespread commitment to education as well as a tradition of very high education standards, a very demanding curriculum matched to the standards, high quality examinations built directly on that curriculum, highly educated teachers with masters degrees from research universities, a well designed qualifications system, a strong system of supports for families with young children, and most of the other drivers of high performing national education systems that we had found over the years in such systems.

Not only do Estonian students do well on all of PISA’s subject tests, but there is very little variation in student performance across schools in Estonia, and, on top of that, Estonia spends less per student than most OECD countries, so they are getting an excellent return on their investment.

So we saw in Estonia many of the hallmarks of nations that do very well on PISA: a well-functioning ministry of education; high academic standards translated into a powerful curriculum that is measured by a high-quality examination system, schools full of dedicated, well-educated and highly trained teachers; and an equitable funding system.

QED. Case closed. But not so fast. Despite the high PISA scores and the clear presence of many of the components of high performing systems, we also found cause for real concern. It turns out that high scores on PISA are no guarantee that the students produced by the schools have the skills demanded by the Estonian employers in increasingly globally competitive markets. The fact that the public has a high regard for education does not necessarily mean that teachers enjoy a high status in society. The case of Estonia is both inspiring—that’s the story I just told—and cautionary, not just for Estonia, but for other nations as well.

EstoniaTeacherOur first cause for concern is not very subtle. When we went to visit with the staff at Tartu University, they told us that, last year, they had no applicants from students who wanted to become teachers of science, and very few applicants in several other critical subjects in the core curriculum. Much the same thing, it turned out, was true at Tallinn University. It turns out that the vast majority of teachers in Estonia are female, people who decided to be teachers in an era when university-educated women had few choices other than teaching. The average age of teachers in Estonia now is a little less than 48. They are poorly paid, relative to other occupations requiring five years of university education, even though the government has been raising their salaries in recent years. And they are perpetually exhausted, because, they are responsible for an exceptionally heavy teaching load of compulsory courses, and their school year is very short. If they don’t teach the full curriculum, parents complain, (“My friend Mary’s children are on page 176 of the text and you are only on page 123. Why?”).

It is this combination of low pay, the small number of days in the school year, the high workload for teachers and high student performance that makes Estonia’s system so efficient. But the sources of that efficiency may be a ticking time bomb for Estonia. The success of the Estonian economy has been a huge challenge for schools trying to recruit highly capable people to Estonia’s teaching force, since the opportunities for highly educated Estonians in the private economy, especially in the STEM areas, are far more attractive than teaching. The Estonian education system, it would appear, notwithstanding its enviable position in the PISA league tables, may be in for a big fall, one that is not likely to be forestalled by another modest increase in teacher compensation.

There is another reason for real concern. About 70 percent of Estonian secondary students are in the academic curriculum. The rest are in their vocational education system, which is widely viewed as the only option for students who cannot make it in the academic curriculum. The academic curriculum, though very demanding, is very traditional and is delivered by most teachers in a very traditional way. Even when teachers would like to use modern pedagogical techniques, parents, ever vigilant, complain to the authorities if the teachers are not following the textbooks closely and, as I pointed out above, keeping pace with other teachers as they go through it. Employers told us that this combination of a very traditional curriculum with very traditional pedagogy is producing graduates who lack many of the most important skills they need now in the workplace. Estonia’s population is falling, which means that a smaller workforce will have to support a burgeoning number of retirees. But Estonia’s productivity is low. The only way to prevent a fall in Estonia’s standard of living will be to increase the productivity of Estonia’s workers. But that will not happen unless Estonia embraces a curriculum that is much more applied, much less tied to the textbook, much more focused on helping students learn how to set their own goals, frame their own problems, work collaboratively with other students to achieve those goals and address those problems, and start acting as if work and learning go together, inextricably, rather than thinking of learning as something that you do before you go to work. That will require a revolution in Estonia. And the parents will have to buy into that revolution or it will not happen.

Estonian leaders are well aware of the challenges ahead. They are proud of the high standards they set for teacher education, the high quality compulsory education that all students experience through age 17 and the aligned instructional system that teachers are taught to deliver and students experience regardless of where they live. As the teaching force retires and the economy demands that the majority of Estonian graduates can think for a living, Estonia may have to once again recreate its education system for a new era.