Following reforms in the early 1990s to the structure of governance and accountability that delegated more authority to schools and districts, schools have a high level of autonomy for resource allocation and staffing. The state sets national standards and established principles of education funding, supervision, and quality assessment. Early childhood education and care is managed by local authorities.
Estonia’s complex system of shared accountability can lead to an unclear distribution of responsibilities. Many of the municipalities are too small to maintain effective and efficient school operations. In some cases, municipalities have come together to share resources, such as teachers, services, or extracurricular facilities.
The Basic Schools and Upper Secondary Schools Act (BSUSS) of 1993 assigned responsibility for general education to local governments. The act also put in place a per-capita education funding system drawing on both national and municipal revenues. The present formula was first implemented in 1998, and was amended to create the current formula in 2008. The new funding formula splits the education grant into two categories:
Block Grant: Allocation for the basic minimum costs of teaching and other resources that the state grant is meant to support. Basic costs depend upon regulations, which include the number of weekly subject lessons that students must receive, teacher basic salaries, and maximum class size.
Equalization Grant: An additional allocation, which is to be spent on education at the discretion of the local government. Included in the per-student amount for each grade range, it is not a separate allocation for the municipality. This grant takes into account the population aged 7-18 as well as the expenditures of the original grant.
The country also provides additional resources to ensure that all students, regardless of income level, have access to basic services. These include hot school lunches, study books, and learning materials, which have been provided for free to students in basic education since 2006.
According to OECD indicators in 2017, Estonia’s per-student expenditures — $6,760 at the primary level, and $7,077 at the secondary level — are well below the OECE averages of $8,733 and $10,106 respectively. However, Estonia’s spending used to be much lower. The country increased its total education expenditure by 47 percent between 2000 and 2009, despite lower levels of enrollment. As a result, expenditure per student more than doubled.
Accountability and Incentive Systems
The Ministry of Education maintains the Estonia Educational Information System (EEIS), an online portal that contains school, student, teacher, and system-level data on all levels of the education system. Individualized data are password-protected, so, for example, students can log in to see their progress towards graduation requirements, or teachers can log in to see evaluation results. School and system-level data, including report cards that track schools’ progress along indicators of student performance and course offerings, are available to the public.
In addition, schools are required to conduct self-evaluations at least once over a three-year period. The self-evaluation summarizes strengths and areas for improvement of the operations of the school. These internal evaluations are used to judge the effectiveness of teaching and education activities and management of preschool institutions, basic schools, upper secondary schools, and vocational schools with little external review or support. While the Ministry has developed tools for self-evaluation, they are voluntary. This limits the ability to compare schools’ experiences and the consistency of practices across schools.
The Ministry also provides support to able and willing schools to participate in a voluntary program called Datateams. Schools form teams of teachers and administrators who participate in a research protocol by: collecting performance data on the school over three years, identifying a problem to be solved based on that data collection, forming a hypothesis for a practice or intervention that would solve the problem, and then conducting follow-up data collection to test the hypothesis over several years. The Ministry provides training on statistical methods to Datateams, and provides the statistical tools and data necessary to enable them to do their work.
Principals are required to evaluate their teachers but they are given wide latitude on how to do this.
Support for Low-Performing Schools
Low-performing schools self-identify, as part of the school self-evaluation system. The Ministry provides support to schools with the capacity to effectively self-evaluate and provides comparison data. The entire staff participates and schools are expected to identify strengths and areas of improvement and then develop an action plan. The self-evaluation looks at leadership and administration, personnel management, cooperation with interest groups, resource management, instruction, and educational outcomes. An internal evaluation report is discussed by the school staff council and approved by the board of trustees and the owner. Data are submitted to the Estonian Education Information system.
In addition, the Ministry of Education and Research organizes a system-level assessment of the education system by inspecting a sample set of schools each academic year. Inspectors assess schools by 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.