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Estonia on the verge of seeing its teaching force evaporate, says US expert

The representatives of the US National Center of Education and the Economy (NCEE) visited Estonia last week to learn more about its education system. ERR interviewed Marc Tucker, head of NCEE, to ask about his opinions on the pros and cons of the Estonian education system. Tucker said Estonia should take pride in the system it has built, but the there are some serious dangers and weakness that need to be addressed.

At NCEE you research best education systems. Why did you choose to visit Estonia?

For 26 years we've been doing research on those countries that have the best primary and secondary education systems in the world. And we've been doing this in order to see if we can improve the performance of the American education system. We came to Estonia because Estonia, by our calculations, is one of the top 10 countries in the world on the PISA assessments, that are administered by the OECD. That is a very impressive accomplishment and we wanted to come and see how you did it.

Yet you also mapped out some danger points, what are those?

We are enormously impressed by Estonia's achievement but we are also worried for Estonia. What we've seen here is a system that we believe is the result of at least 400 years of development, it did not happen overnight. But it is in what I think I can characterize as great danger. A good deal of what you have accomplished is the result of having teachers who are themselves very well educated. But when you look at the Estonian work-force, what you see is overwhelmingly female teachers of an average age of 49. When we were at two teacher-training institutions earlier this week, we were told by both of them that they had either none or only a handful of applicants for teacher-training positions in science and several other subject in the core curriculum. Estonia seems to be on the verge of seeing its teaching force evaporate. The women, who had very few options when they entered the teaching force years ago, are now being replaced by young women coming out of high school who have wonderful options in a vibrant economy.

And for a variety of reasons teaching does not appear to be a particularly attractive option. It does not pay very well. In fact for a young woman who happens to be single and not have a husband it is almost impossible in this country to have a family. And although wages have been improving recently, they have not been improving at a rate that would correct that problem in a near or even intermediate term. When you look at the number of hours that Estonian teachers are expected to be in front of children every day and every week, there are only a handful of countries in OECD that require even more. These teachers are working harder than most teachers in most other countries. They are producing great results but that will not continue, because young people, as I said, have options now that they didn't have before. And in fact, the public seems to have a higher regard for you if you go into a private economy than if you are a schoolteacher here in Estonia. That is, I think, very dangerous for this country. I think you could see a very talented workforce, on which your whole education system depends, evaporate overnight.

The other major problem that we've seen has to do with the other side of your success in PISA. What you're looking at in the PISA results is the result of a very effective system of traditional education. When we went to talk to Estonian employers, what they told us was that they were having a very hard time getting employees coming out of your education system, who can meet their requirements. You might ask why would that be. The answer is that in today's economy they need people who didn't just do well in their physics class, or their chemistry class, or their maths class; they need people who can not just respond to the problem that's been framed by the teacher, they need people who'd are able to frame the problem themselves, they need people who'd be able to work very closely with other people to solve the problem collaboratively, they need people who can organize the work, their own and that of others, and schedule a complex activity and get it done on time, etc. They need people, in other words, who don't just succeed in academic courses, but who can apply the theory in practice. What they are saying is that they cannot find enough of these people. [...] So people have to be not just well educated, they have to be able to do something useful with the education they have, be very productive in the economy. That does not require a higher quality of education but a different kind of education.

Could you name have some examples whose experiences we could copy?

I think there are people here in Estonia who have a pretty good idea of the kind of education and training that's required. We met with a group of people deeply involved in stem education yesterday, who I think are very familiar with what's going on around the world in this arena and are working with schoolteachers and schools to see if they can redesign the kind of instruction the kids are getting.

But if you look aboard you will see some other countries that are doing some of the things that need to be done. In Denmark, for example, we have seen approaches to high school curricula which are heavily project and problem based. So what you learn in school is partly framed by the subject matter you study, and partly by the projects you undertake. That's a very different kind of education. Their colleges and universities too are very project and problem based. The students that come of them are used to taking on project just like one would in the world of work at large.

There are some countries, like Singapore and Austria, where teachers are actually required to go out into the work world, leave school for six months or a year on a regular basis, and work in economy outside of education, so they have experience of the world that teachers of Estonia don't get.

Then there are counties like Switzerland which have very robust vocational education systems. I think one of Estonia's problems is that the vocational education system here seems to be regarded as the system of last resort for people who have failed in academic education. In Switzerland about 70 percent of their kids are in the vocational education system and it's very highly esteemed. In Switzerland it's possible to become the chief executive officer of a major firm having come up though their vocational education system; that seems to be very unlikely here in Estonia. So they have a system that is very attractive to very capable young people who are very ambitious. That's made it possible for them to have a very applied form of education for a lot of kids who are bored to death in a regular academic setting, but who flourish in a kind of academic setting where you can mix the theory with the work, learn how to apply what you are learning in the classroom almost instantly to what's going on in another part of the world.

What about the strong points of Estonian education system?

This system has some very very strong points. First of all we were enormously impressed by the caliber of the people that we met in the ministry, in the pedagogical institutions, in your schools. There are I think few countries we have been to where I can say that the caliber of people were as high generally as what we met here. And we were really impressed not only with their devotion to the cause but also with the technical expertise that they were bringing to their work.

Secondly, not only are the PISA scores exceptionally high, but the fact that you can go to almost any school in this country and see a high level of education, more or less irrespective of the wealth of the community that the students are in, is extremely unusual worldwide. That's a giant achievement.

Your schools are set up to teach kids to write, and to write well, which sounds obvious but in fact, to do that really well, you much teach them to reason well, to think well. And that's what we see going on in those classrooms. You can't overstate the importance of that kind of capability.

We saw no interest in bringing in testing systems that would use computer scored tests. This might seem like a small technical point but it isn't. There are a number of countries that are going in that direction because they are cheaper and quicker to administer. But the fact of the matter is they don't measure some very important skills. The Estonian educators that we talked to understood that.

So I think for all those reasons and many more Estonians ought to take great pride in the system they have built here, and I can say that as someone who has visited many, many countries. As for the challenges that the Estonian education faces, they have to be heard in the context of a system that is really quite remarkable. You need to preserve the best of what you've got as you move forward.

Editor: M. Oll

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