Education System Reform in Estonia

To close the achievement gap at the level of the local or national system, we need to know what matters so that we can do what matters. Some of what matters is common to every system – the best teachers ought to work with the highest need pupils, for example – but effective interventions also take into account the culture, history and particular challenges facing the system. Teach For All partners rightly focus on recruiting, developing and mobilising a cohort of teachers and leaders to bring vital capacity to the education system, but should we also be trying target this capacity – and our efforts – where they’re most likely to have impact?

Estonia Map

This week a group of CEOs and senior leaders from programmes across Europe gathered in Tallinn, Estonia to reflect on the implications of this choice. Is there more to our work than recruiting and developing teaching and leadership capacity? Are there further opportunities for impact within our education systems? Should we leave this work to our alumni leaders, or is there a role for the organization to play? And are we aiming for a best in the world education system like Finland or Shanghai or something new? Do we get there by building grassroots movements for change or working to influence government policies?

Diagnose the Current State of Play

Our visit began with a shared diagnosis of the current state of the Estonian education system. Estonia consistently ranks in the top 10 global performers in PISA comparisons, and second in Europe behind Finland. It enjoys a relatively low correlation between socio-economic status and education outcomes, though the correlation is becoming stronger.  This is attributed to a strong median performance – most kids in Estonia achieve pretty solid results compared to others internationally – but there are few kids who do really well, and few who do really badly.  This data was confirmed anecdotally in our school visits to the classrooms of both Noored Kooli fellows and other teachers. There were few fireworks – intellectual or emotional – but students were respectful, engaged and learning.

These outcomes are in contrast to the more extreme realities in which many programmes work. However, across the day, we gained an understanding of the more subtle systemic inequalities in Estonia – and the role of Noored Kooli in tackling those. Schools serving the country’s large Russian population (30% of Estonia’s 1.3 million inhabitants and generally of lower socio-economic status) tended to underperform; within each class there might be a couple of kids falling behind due to their background; the kids of the elites tended to navigate an advantageous route through the system. Though our usual vocabulary of inequity was somewhat alien in the context, there were evidently complex problems to be addressed.

Estonia PISA

Create a Coherent Strategy

In our emerging theory of system change, this diagnosis then informs the development of a strategy. An opinion about what is needed at the national level helps to inform what the organization could and should do at the level of participants, alumni and partnerships. Noored Kooli’s strategy broadly resembles that of other network partners: recruit, train and place top young graduates in the country’s highest need schools and mobilise alumni as leaders throughout the system. In these aims, they are broadly aligned with the Estonian Ministry of Education, and this influences some contextually specific elements in their approach.

Noored Kooli frames its strategy for systemic impact around increasing quality rather than equality in the Estonian system. The purpose of this is twofold. They want to raise the highest level at which students in Estonia attain (so that they move from 8 – 15% of kids achieving levels 5 and 6 in Reading on the PISA framework – a good indicator of strong critical thinking skills), and they recognise that high quality teaching and high quality school leadership are the most effective levers in reducing inequality of educational outcomes (whether within class, school or country). Context plays a strong role here, as until 1990 the Soviet education model mandated equality over quality.

Within the system in Estonia there is also an already large number of excellent teachers and school leaders, so Noored Kooli’s strategy also emphasises the importance of partnering with high performing institutions and organizations to create coalitions for change. As their aims align with those of the Ministry of Education, they are able to posit themselves as agents of change working with and within the system, rather than outside of it. And they see their alumni doing this too: as teachers, school leaders and policy-makers in the system and not as entrepreneurs or politicians.

Devote Most Energy to Implementation 

During our visit, we also met with system leaders. In one meeting Estonia’s Lifelong Learning Strategy for 2020 was introduced. Artur Taevere – formally of Teach For All  and now advising the Estonian government – explained that there was general national consensus about the direction of this strategy (decentralise school leadership, raise quality of teacher recruitment and training, use new technologies effectively), but that this was only a small part of the overall solution. Strategy isn’t really the difficult part, he argued, because it is essentially frictionless process: nothing changes by writing down your plans on paper. The real impact, and the real outcome of system change comes through high quality implementation.

It is a lesson that is well for us to remember. We often see policy-makers and education departments passing legislation or creating new policies with the best of intentions. And we are all familiar with the subsequent failure of these policies and interventions to create real change. We know better than national governments that change depends on the hard work of building real leadership capacity throughout the system. We are implementers. And we would do well to remember this as we grow as organizations and as a network. The main takeaway from our visit to Estonia was that we – CEOs, staff, alumni, participants – are all system leaders, and must therefore apply the lessons of system leadership daily in our work. Yes, we must each be clear about our diagnosis and strategy, but it is doing the work of implementation that really matters

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