Friday, December 07, 2007

Estonian Education in "Not Completely Shit" Shocker

So, this is old news, but it's worth mentioning.

Apparently there was a test of science proficiency among 15-year-old schoolkids, and Estonia scored quite well. Fifth place overall, second place in general achievement (how good the entire student body is on average). The test was conducted by the OECD, which is a fairly credible organization, and nearly 5000 kids from Estonia took part, so it's representative.

Which is nice. I've been asked about education in the comments to a previous post, and I genuinely believe it is the most important long-term issue for the country. We have some natural resources we can use in a clever way (the timber, and the shale), and there's always the tourist industry, but first and foremost Estonia is a knowledge economy. We have great software developers, we have a great biotech scene, and we have great engineers coming up with stuff like ultra-smart fabrics for skiing jackets. That's what will keep us going and make us rich in Europe. Estonia has been such a success story because we got to start from scratch in 1991, but it's not just that: everyone east of Vienna started from scratch in 1991. We were simply very clever about it. That cleverness, the ability to find the best solution and implement it, ignoring all the reasons why it probably won't work, is what makes this country great.

To keep it up, we need lots of highly skilled specialists, and therefore lots of very good education. We already have completely tuition-free university education for the top performers, but we need to expand on that. I don't have a well thought-out Antyx Fix for you right now, but my first thought is to give the University of Tartu more money to take in more kids, and let it reinstitute entrance exams, so the faculty can have more control over the quality of students they accept. (Right now university entrance is based on a bell curve number calculated from high school graduation exams.) So yeah, let's keep up the good work.

But there is an interesting point here. Russophone kids scored demonstrably worse in the OECD test than the ones in Estonian-speaking schools. This is ever so slightly counter-intuitive. Back when I was in high school - which wasn't all that long ago, after all! - we still used Soviet textbooks for a lot of the science courses. This is fine; the laws of the universe don't really change over time, and the superiority of physics & chemistry education in the Soviet curriculum was unassailable. The SU really did teach kids a lot more science than the West did.

You would think that the Russian books and especially the Russian teachers, trained in the old Soviet system, would produce quite good results. And yet, they don't.

The Education Minister, Tõnis Lukas, suggests that this happened because the Estonian teachers have had more opportunity for further training and raising their own skill levels. Teachers from Russian schools, who don't speak Estonian all that well, would not have the same opportunities. But hold on, this is science; surely all the training materials would be in English anyway? And in that case there shouldn't be a difference?

Maybe there is. Maybe the older teachers, the ones who learned their trade in the Soviet days, the ones who have been teaching physics for thirty years - they can't learn English any more than they learn Estonian. Can't or won't. Maybe the general sense of pessimism has gotten the better of them, and they really can't be bothered making an effort any more. Maybe.

In any case, it does rather put a new twist on the old Russian-schools issue. We're told that the kids would have too hard a time learning science in Estonian, with confusing terminology and such. But if they're doing badly learning it in their native tongue, and the gap clearly correlates with language, don't we owe it to the future generations to make sure they get the best education - in Estonian - they possibly can?


Hansken said...

It's interesting. I read the the Helsingin Sanomat comments-thread about this. The theory they developed there was that it is about the languages and more specifically - about how finno-ugric languages are written. So - relatively similarly how they are pronounced (don't know what's the term for that in linguistics). Point then being that for the most part those sciences exercises that were part of the test were in the first place about understanding. And then the argument is that finno-ugric kids are then learning to read fluently and conceive what is written about two years earlier than kids who for instance speak Indo-European languges as their mother tongue. And they continue to have that advantage for a while. Don't know how close that is to any reality...

I have been living abroad for few years now and have to say that these results didn't come as any surprise to me. My experience is that Estonians are in general better educated that most other 'Westerners'. They just know stuff. In last years in Estonia there has been a lot of masochistic bashing that our education system favors 'boning' and not using the knowledge you acquire creatively. Well, my point has been always that you first have to know things and then perhaps use this knowledge creatively. But now this study also proved interestingly that Estonian kids are actually able to use the scientific knowledge pretty creatively too... So, now reason to complain really.

Anonymous said...

Utterly brilliant and insightful posting by Flasher, followed by equally perceptive and thoughtful observations by Hansken. May drop in my own two cents' worth when time permits, but anything I add would only serve to validate and embellish the foregoing based on my own experience.

AndresS said...

Another good post, education is clearly the key to the future.

I don't personally have any experience with the Estonian education system but I've heard a lot a second hand stuff. From my understanding primary education is quite good (which is confirmed by these scores) but the real problem lies with university education which is often not at world class levels.

I have numerous foreign friends who have studied all over the world including Eesti and they feel that the level of education is a bit disappointing here. I'm sure this isn't the case for all subjects but I do see a lot of Estonians who leave the country for higher education (masters, phd, etc) simply because they can't get the level they need in Eesti.

What can be done to raise the level of education at Tartu (and Tallinn) to world class levels?

Anonymous said...


Your concerns about higher education are entirely valid. In that area, much as been done but much remains yet to be done. I'm not up to speed on all the international organizations working in Estonia on upgrading at the tertiary level, but you might get a partial idea of work done from these two sites detailing work by EuroFaculty, one of the early reform forces on Baltic campuses:

But it was implicit in both Flasher's and Hansken's remarks that the real strength of the Estonian system lies first at the elementary level and secondarily at the high school level, where students acquire rigor of thought and basic literacy. That is precisely where we in North America fall down, and where the Brits are failing too. I can't comment knowledgeably on all Continental systems. The amount of remedial and upgrading instruction that has to be done at the freshman level in N.Am. universities is frightful, and in my experience at the tertiary level (25+ yrs), largely ineffective. If the foundation is weak, one never really catches up.

At a more mundane level, a recent study in the US blamed falling production in industry (vis-à-vis certain Asian countries) on the line-workers' weakness in basic arithmetic and lack of basic literacy, i.e., inability to read instructions. (Sorry, too lazy to dig up chapter and verse on the study, but I'm not BSing). Well, a popular example of proven widespread functional literacy used to be the number of VCRs one would see upon walking into homes flashing 12:00:00. Another example was provided for me within the past hour when I had to spend five minutes on the phone explaining to an acquantance with an MSc under his belt how to enlarge his screen fonts. (No, not an old duffer: he's 38.) It comes down to basic literacy...

"The measure of the decline in reading is to be found not in S.A.T. scores -- those may be artificially high owing to coaching and cramming (cranking!) -- but in our decreasing ability to speak. 'A person who does not
read, or reads little, or reads only trash, is a person with an impediment: he can speak much but he will say little, because his vocabulary is deficient in the means for self-expression,' Mario Vargas Llosa observed not long ago. 'We learn how to speak correctly -- and deeply, rigorously, and subtly -- from good literature, and only from good literature.' The professors, psychiatrists, microbiologists, lawyers, writers, editors, and critics who have been my subject read proficiently, but I cannot say that they read regularly, independently, voluntarily, and, as the celebrity cliché has it, voraciously. Yes, Ozick has penetrated the cause, seen it through: 'We have everywhere a uniform tone. It is in the streets and in the supermarkets, on the radio and on television; and it is low, low, low.'

"Who will perceive an effect?"

--Linda Hall, 'Coolspeak,' Hudson Review, Autumn 2002."

Anonymous said...

Mea culpa!

O wrote:
"...a popular example of proven widespread functional literacy"

Of course I meant illiteracy :-}

Giustino said...

My experience is that Estonians are in general better educated that most other 'Westerners'. They just know stuff.

Estonians are extremely competitive. They would feel shame about not knowing something and, believe me, others would make them feel embarrassed if they didn't already.

Ain Kendra said...

I think the need for going to learn outside comes from fact we are so small country and don't have wide enough coverage in detail areas of science. So chances are that if you learn (and graduate on) something specific in area where there are no doctors in Estonia, your career may become faster. There are no local leaders and you may become it.
In general, we have also in university good overall basis - but to break through, you need to go deeper - and often this is impossible here.

Jens-Olaf said...

This sounds not bad for Estonia, even for both, the Russian and Estonian language schools.
Comparing to the Asian top scorer, like Korea in recent years, they seem to study more for knowledge where the education system in Korea or Japan is for learning (and they are good in it) and there to master a final test like at the end of the school year or the university entrance examns. The level is high but Koreans have difficulties to use (!) English as a language. They are as far from the indo-german languages by heritage, like the Estonians. There is TOEFL they master in Korea but later many are barely able to write and communicate in English.

Anonymous said...

Giustino said,
"Estonians are extremely competitive. They would feel shame about not knowing something and, believe me, others would make them feel embarrassed if they didn't already."

How very true! Peeter Olesk has called this the Estonians' 'Number Two Syndrome':

"Eestis tahab igaüks, et keegi teine oleks number kaks. Kas ta ise oskab olla number üks, ei ole tema jaoks nii suur probleem. Number kaks tähendab alati allumist, käsu täitmist."
-Tiina Kaalep, "Koormatud lepitaja Olesk", Postimees, 2. veebruar 1998.

Nonetheless, the level of literacy and of general knowledge amongst Estos has always been demonstrably high, and they have had a reputation abroad (long before IT) for grappling new technologies to their collective bosom. As someone who has spent the majority of his years abroad, I'm no longer astonished to run across Estos holding positions far above (and indeed often quite far removed from) their formal qualifications.

Giustino said...

The demographics of the situation is interesting.

I have read that ethnic Estonians comprise approximately 70 percent of the population in this country.

But the Ministry of Education tells us that only 20 percent of Estonians are in Russian-language schools.

So, does that mean that 10 percent of the students are Russian-speakers attending Estonian-language schools?

OR, does it mean that the current school-age generation's ethnic composition is different, ie. 80 percent of 16 year olds are Estonians?

I have a feeling that, for example, the proportion of Russian-speaking 50 year olds is higher than their proportion of the overall population.

antyx said...

It's a mix of the two. Estonians are known to have been procreating more enthusiastically than Russians. And an increasing number of Russians put their kids in Estonian schools; for largely the reasons now confirmed by the OECD test - they don't believe the Russian schools have the same level of quality.

Anonymous said...

I was quite surprised with the test results. All I hear from the media is how underpaid the teachers are; I wonder how anybody still chooses that career.


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