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Happy Teachers. Happy Students. High Achievement: A Tiny Country with Little to Spend is Killing it in Public Education. By John Grabowski

It’s a common belief that nations that spend the most on their educational systems have the most well-educated students. But a tiny nation in Europe is showing that isn’t necessarily the case.

Estonia, that little blip of a country west of Russia and south of Finland, ranks the best in all of Europe when it comes to quality of learning. So says the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development’s Programme for International Student Assessment. The index ranks Estonia’s schools highest in Europe and surpassed only by those in several Asian countries. Estonia is hardly an economic powerhouse, yet it’s shown that modest means can pay off hugely when everyone is on the same page and that page is about the welfare of the children.

A Diverse Model for Learning

Estonia’s model seems to defy both liberal and conservative visions of what’s necessary for quality learning. Children intensely study “fun” subjects, such as folk dancing, cooking and knitting—things long banished to the “extracurricular” department in America if not eliminated outright—because they believe these activities teach critical thinking, discipline and teamwork just as math, language and science do.

But it’s not simply fun and games. One student says, “There is still discipline. You still have to pass every test” to graduate. Those tests are in math, science, a foreign language (most choose English) and history. It is mandatory to study humanities—that luxury so many U.S. schools have jettisoned. And the pupils must complete a cross-disciplinary creative project to graduate from basic school, and a research project before they leave their upper school. Music, sport, drama and art are staples.“There is no such thing as extra-curricular,” one educator says.

And Estonians are ahead of the curve when it comes to tech: They were integrating the internet into their classrooms as far back as 1997, and today almost all of their learning is done through digital tools. “The idea is not to have an IT class, but to have digital skills incorporated everywhere,” says Gunda Tire, a Project Manager at the country’s Education and Youth Board. In short, they have managed to integrate the new into their traditional learning, rather than chasing them as novelties and silver bullets. “We value continuity,” says Liina Kersna, a member of the country’s education commission.

Taking Children Forward

Self-suffiiciency—what we might call “life hacks,” are stressed—from cooking and housekeeping to financial literacy and handling money. “Estonians, if they wanted to survive, had to be smart, and they understood that education would take them forward,” adds Tire. “It was the same when we were under Soviet occupation.”  Parents are deeply involved in their children’s success; children, who start school at age seven and attend till 19, are viewed as partners. Despite diverse populations—the country is composed of Swedes, Danes, Russians, Germans and indigenous peoples—most still tend to think of themselves as Estonians first and foremost: Of the 1,365,884 people who live there, 925,892 have marked their nationality as “Estonian,” and 67 percent consider “Estonian” their mother tongue.

They definitely have not succeeded by throwing more money at the problem, because they simply don’t have it. Estonia is poor by both European and American standards. Their classes are the same size as in the US, though they do separate children with learning difficulties into smaller groups. They have lunch programs, which are open to everyone. They lean heavily on cultural trips (that are free and state-subsidized). They say they would never dream of cutting these elements out of their educational system.

A Different Attitude

Which brings us to possibly the biggest reason for their success: their attitude toward education. 

Teachers and parents aren’t at odds over how their children are taught or what they are allowed learn. Teachers and administrators aren’t at constant loggerheads, either. They see themselves as on the same team. Of course disagreements happen, but the spirit is one of cooperation.

Another difference is safety. Estonia is one of the safest countries in the world. Incidents of violence all too frequent in the US are rare or unheard of. And surely that peace of mind helps parents, students and teachers all focus on schooling.

What Can the U.S. Learn from Estonia?

This is hard to say because there is no single take-away, no silver bullet. But a few things are obvious. Estonia seems to be a more unified country. People share common goals and outlooks. 

Contrast that with teachers in the US. One who spoke to me, a retired elementary school teacher from Pennsylvania, said her professional life was a never-ending battle. “[Administrators] take a ‘my way or the highway’ approach to anything … Make a big deal about standardized test scores … Don't tell me to worry that our school or my class did three points worse this year than last year. You are comparing two totally different groups of kids.” She says administrators here have become obsessed with funding and not outcomes. She also believes lower quality nutrition plays a factor. “In the US … the food is junk, which has an impact on learning. Student lunches in Europe are made from whole foods and are so much healthier, which is a win-win for learning and even behavior issues. Behavior issues are less likely to happen without all the sugar and artificial junk US kids eat.”

There’s no reason the wealthiest country on earth can’t do what one of the poorest has been doing for decades. Though no two countries face exactly the same challenges or can expect exactly the same outcomes, it seems that common goals and common sense trump money and bureaucracy. At the very least, it’s worth a try. 

John Grabowski is a San Francisco Bay Area writer specializing in tech—specifically AI and chatbots, real estate and real estate tech. He has worked in PR, television news and advertising. He is also the author of two novels and a collection of short fiction. His latest novel, Made in the U.S.A., will be published by Arbiter Press early this year.


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