Estonia's Education System: Full of Promise, Facing Challenges
In my last blog, I told a rather inspiring story of how this very attractive country, a former Soviet satellite, flat on its back when the Soviet Union came apart, has come roaring back to create a vibrant internet-based economy and ascend to the top ranks of the PISA league tables.
But, at the end of that blog, I told you that we returned from out trip full of concern for our new friends.
Our 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 applications 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 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 disaster for 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 the vocational education system, which is widely viewed as a dumping ground 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.