Author Archives: T Hatch

What can change in schools after the pandemic?

“What if this is a moment when we can re-imagine education?” But “What if it isn’t? What if, despite the changes wrought by the pandemic, the conditions that sustain conventional schooling remain in place?” These are the questions I asked in a commentary I published in the Journal of Educational Change in August 2021 and that were excerpted in a post on International Ed News (Full commentary available at the Journal of Educational Change website). My commentary is the second in a series launched by Corrie Stone-Johnson Editor of the Journal of Educational Change and builds on the first commentary by Yong Zhao and Jim Watterston – “The changes we need post-Covid My commentary is part of a new project exploring school improvement efforts and educational innovations in both developing and developed contexts post-pandemic (following-up on issues my co-authors and I raised in The Education We Need for a Future We Can’t Predict (Corwin, 2021).

“We will now resume our regular programming…”

The times are always changing. The question this year is whether we can build on some of the changes schools made in the face of the coronavirus and reimagine education altogether. Like many, I am hopeful that we can take advantage of the current moment to make at least a few meaningful steps in some of these directions.

Nonetheless, my work over the past thirty years on school improvement and school reform efforts in the US and in “higher” and “lower-performing” countries also makes me deeply skeptical. Time and again, I have seen how ambitious plans and visions fall short of their aspirations. As a consequence, although I believe this may be a crucial time to ask: “What if this is a moment when we can re-imagine education?”, I also know that we need to ask a second question: “What if it isn’t?”  What if, despite the changes wrought by the pandemic, the existing institutional structures, practices, incentives, and beliefs that sustain conventional schooling remain in place?

Is there a real opportunity to re-imagine education post-pandemic? Or will the existing institutional structures, practices, incentives, and beliefs that sustain conventional schooling remain in place?

I don’t see this as a pessimistic take. It’s imagining the future and understanding the past that enables us to take off on journeys where the exact destination is unknown. When getting ready to climb a mountain, adventurers don’t just hope that the path they envision does not lead to an impassible ledge; they don’t rely on the hope that the weather will hold. They try to imagine what might happen when they turn a corner or reach a new level, and they get prepared. When the unexpected happens, when the conditions predictably change in unpredictable ways, we need to be ready to respond and rise above.

As my colleagues Jordan Corson and Sarah Van den Berg and I argue in our new book, The Education We Need for a Future We Can’t Predict, education systems all around the world find themselves in this situation today. Now more than ever, it’s clear that we do not know exactly what lies around the corner, and we cannot determine, with certainty, what today’s students will need as adults or what roadblocks or supports societies will put in place for helping them to get there. But we can build on what we know about why it’s so hard to improve schools, and we can imagine what it will really take to create more powerful and equitable educational opportunities in the future.

We can build on what we know about why it’s so hard to improve schools, and we can imagine what it will really take to create more powerful and equitable educational opportunities in the future.

In my commentary in the Journal of Educational Change, I explore what it will take to support real changes in schools post-pandemic by exploring three questions:

Part 1: Why don’t schools change?

Part 2: How (and why) did schools change during the pandemic?

Part 3: How can schools change post-pandemic?

My responses to those questions build on several key principles derived from my working in and studies of a variety of efforts to create more powerful learning experiences in both developed and developing contexts: 

First, new possibilities for schooling are most likely to take off when their goals, capacity demands, and values fit the common needs, existing capabilities, and prevailing conditions in the schools and communities where they’re supposed to work.

Second, this first principle leads to a corollary or second principle that seems particularly problematic for those who want to reimagine schooling altogether: the more radical our visions are for education and the more they diverge from conventional practice, the less likely they are to take hold on a large scale. However, that does not mean that it is impossible to pursue the new visions for education that Zhao and Waterston and others imagine. It means that the demands and pressures of conventional schooling make it easier to bring those visions to life in particular circumstances and contexts – ecological “niches” in a sense – rather than across entire school systems.

This tension between the nature and extent of reform efforts, however, yields the third principle and opens up another avenue for change: There are places – “niches of possibility” – where the conditions are more amenable for transforming education. That does not mean that we have to accept every aspect of the conditions or ignore those that are deeply problematic. But we have to figure out how to challenge and work with and around the conditions in order to change them.

From this perspective, the specific vision for learning remains important, but that vision has to be accompanied by the recognition that it is not the vision itself that will change schools; schools will be transformed, over time, with changes in the conditions and the construction of the infrastructure for more powerful learning. Rather than aiming to develop a program and scale it across contexts, the focus shifts to the student level and to making sure that all students, particularly those left out and systematically disadvantaged by conventional schooling, encounter more and more opportunities inside and outside schools to engage in powerful learning experiences. Those experiences create new emergent possibilities for education that build directly on the specific conditions in which students live and learn every day.

(Full commentary available at the Journal of Educational Change website)

The Education We Need for a Future We Can’t Predict on the Getting Smart Podcast

In February, the Getting Smart Podcast featured a conversation with me and Tom Vander Ark about my new book The Education We Need for a Future We Can’t Predict. Tom talked with me about the key stages of my career and we walked through the key sections of the book. I was particularly interested to learn that Tom first encountered my work through my article “When Improvement Programs Collide,” published almost 20 years ago. That set us off on a discussion of how I see may work as focusing on what we need to do to improve school reform and to build the capacity of the whole eco-system of organizations, agencies, services, and people who are engaged in the work of school improvement.

What do we need to do to improve school reform efforts and build the capacity of the whole eco-system of organizations, agencies, services, and people who are engaged in the work of school improvement?

You can find the full podcast here: https://www.gettingsmart.com/2021/02/thomas-hatch-on-the-education-we-need-and-the-future-we-cant-predict/

Here are some of the key takeaways that Tom highlighted:
[:51] Thomas shares the origin story of NCREST as well as its mission.
[3:01] Tom shares his appreciation for Thomas’s early work on the concept of coherence.
[3:39] Thomas takes us to the early beginnings of his work around coherence and explains what it is and why it is important.
[7:54] Thomas tells about each of the sections in his book, starting with part 1: “Why Should Schools Change?” He headlines the case for change and provides some suggestions on how to create agreements around them.
[11:40] Tom shares the key insights he appreciated in the first section.
[12:27] The second section of the book covers barriers to change. Thomas lists some of the barriers and what we can do to make progress in overcoming them.
[15:39] In section three of Thomas’s book, he writes about how schools can improve. In particular, he focuses on high-leverage problems. Thomas explains what these are, why they’re critical, and shares some examples.
[17:33] The next section of Thomas’s book is on how education can change where he introduces the concept of micro-innovations. Thomas explains what these are and what they can do to move a system agenda forward.
[20:18] Tom shares how 4.0 Schools have been teaching this idea of micro-innovations.
[21:07] Chapter 5 of Thomas’ book is on systems change. Thomas speaks about two critical elements of systems change that are covered in this chapter: capacity building and collective responsibility.
[25:28] Would Thomas agree that it takes a decade-long push on all three of these primary levers to really promote systems change?
[27:44] Thomas reflects on his career, professional learning, and how he has seen education change over the years.
[30:29] Would Thomas say that writing is part of his learning process?
[32:00] What’s next?

Mentioned in The Episode:

https://www.gettingsmart.com/2021/02/thomas-hatch-on-the-education-we-need-and-the-future-we-cant-predict/

From Learning Loss to Learning to Read: High Leverage Strategies for School Improvement

This post draws from my new book with Jordan Corson and Sarah van den Berg, The Education We Need For A Future We Can’t Predict (Corwin 2021). An edited version of this post was published originally at: https://corwin-connect.com/2021/01/what-it-takes-to-improve-schools-now/

Along with the devastation of the coronavirus outbreak and widespread school closures come hopes for reimagining schools as they reopen. These hopes for the future, however, rest on making the concrete improvements in schools that we know we can make today.

Despite the enormity of the challenges and the massive race and income-based inequities in society and schools that the coronavirus exposed – again – the pandemic has also made visible the fact that many communities already have the capacity to address at least some of these challenges. In New York City, in the first month of the school closure, the Department of Education worked with businesses like Apple and Microsoft to provide almost 500,000 computers and iPads to students who needed them. Across the US and around the world, even with limited digital infrastructure, communities are opening up hotspots for public use, equipping buses with Wi-Fi (and sometimes solar power), and pursuing other innovative ways of getting students online. Given the existing possibilities, one commissioner for the US Federal Communications Commission testified that the connectivity gap could be closed “virtually overnight.” If it can be done, then it should be done. No need to wait any longer.

Getting students connected to the Internet is no panacea for educational challenges, however, particularly in many parts of the developing world, where almost half of all students don’t have a computer at home and over 40 percent lack access to the internet. We also know that even with Internet access and online opportunities, significant improvements in students’ learning depend on developing more powerful instructional practices and providing better support for educators. Nonetheless, the responses to the coronavirus show that we have the capacity to address some inequitable learning opportunities, and we can take these steps right now by responding to high-leverage problems.

High-Leverage Problems

My colleagues in the New Jersey Network of Superintendents and I argue that those efforts can begin by developing a coordinated response to what I call high-leverage problems:

  • High-leverage problems concentrate on issues widely recognized as central to the development of more equitable educational opportunities and outcomes.
  • They present opportunities for visible improvements in relatively short periods of time.
  • They establish a foundation for long-term, sustained, systemic efforts that improve teaching and learning.

Addressing high-leverage problems depends on developing a keen sense of what matters to people and what matters in an organization. It requires careful analysis of multiple problems and continuous reflection on the process of addressing them. It relies on a powerful repertoire of strategies that meet the specific demands of different situations and on developing new practices and resources when necessary. All together, these steps can lead to the “quick wins” that help propel organizational and social changes in many sectors.

#Learningloss & Learning to Read

Take the critical concern for the “learning loss” likely to be created by the massive disruptions to schooling that so many children around the world are experiencing. That term – now almost a one-word hashtag – actually obscures a host of challenges that have to be unpacked to be addressed productively. First, different children experience learning loss to different degrees; they may experience it in some academic areas and not others; learning loss may also be affected by experiences of trauma and the stresses and socio-emotional challenges that come with the pandemic; it may result from inaccessibility to online learning and school support services including free meals and counseling; and it may stem a loss of relationships with peers and teachers, disengagement with school, and prolonged absences from learning in person or online. Such a litany of problems can make any first step seem inadequate and pointless. Nonetheless, breaking down a high leverage problem like learning to read yields a coordinated series of strategies that many communities already have the capacity to pursue:

  1. Make books by authors from a variety of backgrounds freely accessible.
  2. Find children with vision problems and provide them with glasses.
  3. Develop and understanding of why some children are chronically absent from school/online learning and support regular attendance.
  4. Identify children who are struggling to learn to read and provide targeted interventions.

The logic is simple: when children have access to books, when they can see, when they’re in school, and when they receive targeted support if they’re struggling, they’re much more likely to learn to read.

The logic is simple: when children have access to books, when they can see, when they’re in school, and when they receive targeted support if they’re struggling, they’re much more likely to learn to read.

Even in countries like the United States, children in high-poverty areas have a much harder time getting books than their peers in middle-income areas, but a number of programs (including one sponsored by the country singer Dolly Parton) have taken advantage of book vending machines, doctor’s offices, and other mechanisms to address this issue. Organizations like EmbraceRace and the Jane Addams Peace Association post lists of books by authors from different racial and cultural backgrounds so that there’s no excuse not to provide all children with access to materials that reflect their heritage.

 Of course, making books and print materials available in a variety of languages, by authors from a range of backgrounds, is just one step. Children still need to be able to read those books once they get those books into their hands. Nonetheless, 25 percent of school-aged children in the United States have undiagnosed eye problems that inhibit their ability to read, and one in three children haven’t had their vision tested in the past two years (if at all); but relatively low-cost programs to test students’ vision and get glasses to those who need them do exist. In the developing world, it may be complicated to create a supply chain that makes print materials readily available and ensures every child who needs glasses gets a pair, but it can be done.

We know that chronic absences from school have a devastating effect on children’s learning and have a disproportionate impact on students in communities of color, but that knowledge has also led to the development of a number of successful strategies for helping many children to get to and stay in school. Despite the re-emergence of the “reading wars” over the best approach to teach reading, there are a number of well-established strategies and supports that many teachers and schools are already using that target the specific needs of at least some of the students who experience difficulties in learning to read when they are in school.

Improve Schools and Transform Education

These first steps may not reach every student right away, and any initial success has to be followed by developing educational activities that foster more advanced skills and a broader set of developmental needs – an even more challenging proposition. Ultimately, addressing these challenges will depend on truly reimagining schooling, and, reconceptualizing notions like “learning loss” that ignore the mile-wide and inch-deep curriculum and age-graded pacing that make it almost impossible for students to catch up once they’re left behind.

We need to reimagine schooling, reconceptualizing notions like “learning loss” that ignore the mile-wide and inch-deep curriculum and age-graded pacing that make it almost impossible for students to catch up once they’re left behind

In short, the pandemic itself will not change schools:  Nothing will change in schools unless we change it. Yet the strategies to provide glasses, to address chronic absences, and to provide targeted support in reading can lead to real improvements in schools – even in the midst of a pandemic – if we choose to dedicate the time, resources and commitment to put them into practice on a wide basis.  We can take these critical steps to make the schools we have more efficient, more equitable and more effective today and to lay the groundwork for transforming education as a whole in the future.

How to take responsibility for the future of education

This post was adapted from my forthcoming book The education we need for a future we can’t predict and “Building the capacity for collective responsibility in Norway” (to appear in Leading and Transforming Education Systems edited by Michelle Jones and Alma Harris). It was published originally on GettingSmart.com.

In a recent article in Forbes, Tom Vander Ark outlined 15 “invention opportunities” that can support the development of equitable high-quality learning opportunities in the future. Among the fifteen are challenges to create “accountability 2.0” and develop the mechanisms that can bring people together to share diverse perspectives and support community agreement on the aims and purposes of education. These mechanisms are essential for fostering the common understanding and collective responsibility that fuel the social movements we need to dismantle systemic racism, create equitable educational opportunities, and transform education.                      

Re-defining accountability itself serves as a first step in developing these new mechanisms. For too long, accountability in the US has been synonymous with answerability: Answerability reflects the beliefs that individuals and groups should be accountable for meeting clearly specified and agreed-upon procedures and/or goals. Yet the focus on answerability ignores responsibility another crucial aspect of accountability. Responsibility reflects the belief that individuals and groups should be held account­able for living up to and upholding norms of conduct and higher pur­poses that are often ambiguous and difficult to define in advance.

Individuals and groups should be held accountable for living up to and upholding norms of conduct and higher purposes that are often ambiguous and difficult to define in advance.

Although carefully specifying outcomes that need to be achieved and establishing consequences for failing to meet those targets can increase efficiency, it also ignores many other valued outcomes, and it can undermine the discretion and expert judgment that may be needed to make many decisions. When taken to extremes, this approach spawns a compliance mindset and leads to efforts to game the system that make it look like the goals have been achieved when they haven’t.  

At the same time, simply leaving individuals and groups alone is not the same thing as supporting the development of individual or collective responsibility. Developing responsibility also involves developing the capacity—the investments, materials, abilities, commitments, and relationships—needed to carry out responsibilities effectively. In short, accountability comes from the capacity to support a balance between answerability and responsibility.

Finland’s PISA scores have slipped a bit in recent years, its education system still excels in many respects and continues to stand out as one of the most equitable high-performing systems. Even though many analyses highlight the autonomy of teachers as central to that performance, those analyses often fail to mention several other key aspects of Finland’s education system that support the development of the relationships, trust, and common understanding in education so central to developing collective responsibility and achieving equitable outcomes:

  • A well-established social-welfare state that supports all members of society by connecting education, health, social services, and other sectors
  • A national curriculum framework and a strong, coherent infrastructure of facilities, materials, assessment and preparation programs to support teaching and learning
  • A curriculum renewal process in which stakeholders from all parts of society participate in reflecting on and revising the curriculum framework
  • The use of a vari­ety of high-quality informal and formal assessments that inform efforts to improve practices and performance throughout the education system

The Finnish approach to assessment play a particularly important role in supporting the development of common understanding and common aims. That approach includes diagnostic and classroom-based assessments that elementary teach­ers can use early in children’s school careers to identify those who may need some additional help with academics and to ensure that all students stay on track. In secondary schools, well-known exit exams anchor and focus the system. The National Board of Education in Finland also regularly gives tests to samples of students and schools, providing an overview of national and regional performance in key subjects, such as Finnish and mathematics. Although the National Board doesn’t use that information for ranking (and can’t, because not all students and schools are assessed), it shares school-level information with the schools that participate and municipal-level data with the munici­palities involved. In addition, the National Board makes these sam­ple assessments widely available for free, so that any teacher, school, or municipality that wants to administer these tests can do so. As a consequence, even without national testing, Finnish schools and municipalities have government-paid tools that link directly to the core curriculum that they can use to benchmark their performance against regional and national samples.

Under these conditions, students don’t have to pass tests that require them to demonstrate proficiency by third grade; they hardly ever “fail” or have to be held back; and most students reach at least a basic level of educational achievement.  At the same time, this approach both supports considerable autonomy for educators and schools and builds the common connections that steer the system toward broad education goals without having to rely heavily on rewards or punishments.

This approach contrasts sharply with those in contexts like the US that focus almost exclusively on answerability by using tests to hold teachers, school leaders, and schools “accountable” for reaching specified benchmarks and other outcomes. Rather than using assessments to look back to see whether educators did what they were supposed to do, educators and system leaders in Finland use assessments to look forward and to see if people, classes and schools are headed in the right direction. Such an approach doesn’t require data on every single aspect of student, teacher, or school performance, but it depends on making sure no one gets too far off course. It means using assessment to look for outliers and listening for signs of trouble, not to check on each individual or make sure everything is done a certain way or in a certain timeline. In the process, Finland supports the development of the collective responsibility central to guiding education into an unpredictable future.

Rather than using assessments to look back to see what educators did, we need to use assessments to look forward and to see if people, classes, and schools are headed in the right direction.

New technologies, artificial intelligence, and many other kinds of innovations can help to improve education. But those technical achievements will not accomplish much without the personal commitments and broader social movements that can transform our communities. If we are truly to develop collective responsibility in education, then we have to develop collective responsibility for education. We have to hold ourselves, our elected officials, and our communities accountable for making the changes in our society that will end segregation and discrimination, create equitable educational opportunities, and provide the support that everyone needs to thrive.

What in the world is happening in the US? Scanning the headlines for news on education and the election

This is an updated version of a post that I published initially on internationalednews.com

The US elections on November 3rd spawned uncertainty and anxiety across the country. In addition to summarizing the initial presidential election results (using the headline “Trump sets U.S. on course for institutional crisis”), Politico’s Global Translations provided links to headlines from around the world.

Beyond those headlines focusing on the Presidential election, I found a series of stories that described the implications for education at the national, state, and local levels as well as several articles and blog posts that explored how educators and students are responding so far.

Before the election, Education Week focused on 7 Big Questions for Schools and Education and noted as well that Educators Prefer Governors With a More Cautious Approach to COVID-19. After the election, Sean Cavanagh reported on the “muddled picture for K-12 and the education industry.”

Chalkbeat previewed 8 big consequences the election could have for America’s K-12 schools. After the election, they took a look at what the results mean for schools and reported on a series of education related issues in Indiana, Colorado, and Michigan:

The74 continues to curate a live blog with updates on key education related votes across the country 2020 Liveblog — Education on the Ballot: Rolling Updates, Results & Analysis From 50 Key Votes That Could Reshape Education Policy. In addition, they have summarized many of the results of state and local elections for governors, senators, and school board members (Education on the ballot 2020) along with highlighted results of several different ballot initiatives:

  • Pre-K Wins Big in Colorado, San Antonio, St. Louis, and Multnomah County
  • California Ban on Affirmative Action in College Admissions Likely to Stay in Place
  • Washington State Passes Sex Education Bill
  • Florida Voters Choose to Amend State Constitution to Say ‘Only a Citizen’ Can Vote

Ballotpedia provides links to an extensive set of overviews and results of national elections, ballot measures/issues, state-by-state elections, and school board elections, and google searches of education and elections turns up many stories on local ballot measures and school board races.

Beyond the results, both before and after the election, a series of stories have been looking at the aftermath and how to deal with it in schools and classrooms.

Small steps to big changes in schools

As schools in the US and other parts of the world make difficult decisions about how to reopen this fall, I look at some of the concrete steps that, over time, could make schools healthier places and transform the basic parameters of schooling. This post expands on comments I made at the Education Disrupted/Education Reimagined convening sponsored by WISE and the Salzburg Global Seminar in April  and summarized in a volume sharing the conference proceedings.

Have the wide-spread school closures changed schools forever? The history of school reform efforts shows that schools are much more likely to change slowly and incrementally than they are to suddenly transform, even in the face of a deadly virus. Yet we can take advantage of what we know about how students learn and how schools change to address a critical problem with the design of conventional schools:  Schools are a better medium for spreading disease than they are for supporting meaningful learning.

Learning depends on healthy, safe conditions for students, educators, and all those who work in schools; but schools cram too many people into too little space, and the typical lay-out of age-graded classrooms along labyrinthian hallways limits collaboration, exploration, and engagement with the world. We’ve made things worse in the US by leaving buildings in disrepair, and failing to provide adequate ventilation, air conditioning or heating, particularly in low-income communities. Add on a draconian schedule with little time for exercise, lunch, or other healthy activities; and then ramp up stress levels with high stakes tests where students have to sit in rows in silence for hours facing a ticking clock.

But things can change. We can make schools safer for students and staff as schools reopen, and we can create a foundation for much healthier and more powerful educational opportunities in the future.  

We can make schools safer for students and staff as schools reopen, and we can create a foundation for much healthier and more powerful educational opportunities in the future.  

Focus on learning that matters

The school closures and the inequities of access to online learning immediately launched a spate of proposals for dealing with “learning loss.” Many of these proposals rely on intensifying work on academic subjects, yet these proposals ignore the mile-wide and inch deep curriculum and age-graded pacing that make it almost impossible for those left behind to catch-up. Addressing academic learning loss begins by concentrating on a small set of key skills and concepts and providing educators with the tools to ensure that every student actually meets those learning goals.

Although academic needs have to be met, the challenges that students face as they return to school go far beyond academic achievement and a “less is more” approach to academics creates the efficiencies that provide time and space for supporting other critical aspects of children’s development. Back in school, learning will be enhanced by creating educational opportunities for students to reflect on their experiences during the outbreak; to develop coping strategies; to rebuild positive relationships with their peers and teachers; and to get engaged in meaningful and constructive work in areas they care about. When that happens, educators can shift their focus from covering the entire curriculum to addressing the critical needs of every child.

Addressing academic learning loss begins by concentrating on a small set of key skills and concepts and providing educators with the tools to ensure that every student actually meets those learning goals.

Break down the barriers between learning “inside” and “outside” schools

As we remake schools to help stop the spread of the virus, we can stagger schedules to fit students’ sleep patterns and development as they get older. We can make sure that students have regular chances to take the breaks and get the exercise that we know benefits learning and productivity. As we limit the number of people using school facilities at any given time, we can rotate students in and out of schools and expand support for students’ learning far beyond school walls. In addition to online learning, we can take advantage of possibilities for education outside on playgrounds, in the natural world, and in the neighborhood in gyms, museums, libraries, community organizations, and businesses. In the process, we can shift the focus from getting children into schools to enabling them to explore the world.

Expand the power of the education workforce

         To increase the reach and power of teachers who have been limited largely to working with students in classrooms, we can engage a host of people who have the time and the capacity to play a positive role in learning inside and outside schools. Organizations like City Year and Citizen Schools already demonstrate how to mobilize volunteers young and old who can provide targeted academic support as tutors, act as mentors, or guide students’ in projects, apprenticeships, and community service. Numerous proposals could help meet the demand, whether it’s through the kind of education “Marshall Plan” discussed by Robert Slavin or by expanding National Service and Americorps as outlined by David BrooksJohn Bridgeland and Alan Khazei, or bills  being developed in the Senate.

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Condense schooling and increase learning

All of these changes are within our reach right now. They do not require new curricula, massive professional development for teachers, or new technologies. Reimagining education depends on re-orienting our priorities, making schools healthy and safe, and focusing first and foremost on students’ needs and interests, particularly those of Black, Latinx, and immigrant students, students from low-income communities and the communities hardest hit by this pandemic. But as we change our priorities and take these initial steps, a more radical possibility emerges: Condense the school day.

Instead of extending the school day and requiring students to spend even more time on basic skills, we can concentrate more efficient academic support in more limited time slots, with educators able to utilize sophisticated materials and coordinate contributions from colleagues with specialized expertise as well as volunteer tutors, mentors, and online and offline guides. In a sense, every day could be a half-day, opening up opportunities for students to have lunch, get outside, and participate in a host of school-based, community-based, or online activities; to get any counseling they need; to pursue their own education interests; and to participate in activities that foster a much wider range of developmental and educational goals. Such an approach rejects the tacit assumption that limits education to schooling and embraces the possibilities for supporting students’ learning and development wherever and whenever it occurs.

6 Things Educators Can Do From Home To Help Their Students

What can we do? That’s a question we are all asking right now. For all of us that question begins with what we can do to keep ourselves and those around us safe and healthy.  But parents and educators like me are also thinking about what we can do to support our children, students and colleagues as K-12 schools close and classes go online. There are no easy answers, but here are 6 things I’m thinking about to try to deal with the challenges and take advantage of the possibilities:

  1. Focus on health and wellness. Learning is an important goal, but health and wellness for everyone has to come first. Students will learn the most from the acts of courage and kindness that help keep us all going.
  1. Suspend Schoolwork. Suspend exams, grades, and any other requirements that may contribute to stress and anxiety – for teachers and parents as well as students. Children and parents need opportunities and guidance for engagement in positive and productive activities, not more reasons to fight over homework or “keeping up.”  
  1. Encourage invention, design, creative expression and meaningful engagement. Instead of trying to figure out how to cover the curriculum, educators can put the syllabi aside and focus on meaningful activities – activities related to important learning goals that might be motivating and interesting for students to do while they are out of school.  Instead of creating new demands, concentrate on creating new possibilities:
    • Encourage students to keep a weekly diary – in words, pictures or any other media
    • create online journals, newspapers and magazines that students can contribute to
    • Invite students to share artwork, music, writing, photographs, or videos in an online exhibition
    • Stage online “talent shows” for students to share videos they have produced
    • Provide links to online resources and tutorials for learning languages, playing an instrument, developing academic abilities or learning other skills and enable students to share their progress
  1. Connect, connect, connect. Educators are uniquely positioned to provide information and support for their students, particularly those who are struggling the most. We can check-in, ask how they and their families are doing, share the latest news and resources, and help to identify critical needs. Educators can also build relationships and fight isolation by finding and creating opportunities for students to connect with one another as well with adults, particularly those in retirement homes, hospitals or anywhere else people might be disconnected and in distress
  1. Find new ways to serve the community. Create online community service activities and virtual service projects. My oldest daughter, a senior in college, has been serving as a mentor and had to say goodbye to the elementary student she visited every week, but what if they didn’t have to say goodbye? What if they could stay in touch by text or video even for a short-time every week? With so many students of all ages out of school, we can create online clearinghouses where students – or anyone really – could connect with those looking for mentoring, tutoring, or just conversation. Reach out and partner with parents, those from community centers, after school programs, Americorps programs like City Year and Citizen Schools, museums,  and libraries to find and create these activities for students to engage in online. Together educators and these extended programs can work to focus particularly on the students and their families who may be unable to get online or stay connected.
  1. Embrace collective responsibility. From living in Norway for a year, I learned it is possible both to respect the rights of every individual and cultivate a sense of collective responsibility.  There is no more important time for reinforcing our common bonds and recognizing that everything we do has an impact on our neighbors. It could be as simple as inviting children to call their grandparents or extended family once a day or a couple of times a week or just calling down the hall, leaning out the window or talking across the fence. The most profound thing we can do in difficult times can be done anywhere in any circumstances, dedicate ourselves to working with and for each other.

Is Finland’s education system changing?

Finland has been hailed for having one of the best education systems in the world; criticized as scores on international assessments have slipped; and, most recently, flooded with questions about whether it is dramatically changing its education system by making conventional subjects “a thing of the past.” Whether you believe Finland’s education system is moving up or down on some set of rankings, it’s clear that there are some teachers, school leaders, and other educators who are trying to do some things differently.  The challenge as Saku Tuominen describes it, is “not pushing new ideas into schools, but trying to identify innovative ideas that are already out there” and helping them spread. As he joked, the problem is that “whatever happens in the classroom, stays in the classroom.”

To address this problem, Tuominen founded HundrED to find promising educational innovations around the world.  HundrED just released its list of 100 global innovations from Afghanistan to Venezuela and many places in between.  Last year, in a kind of test-run for their global work, Tuominen and his colleagues identified 100 Finnish educational innovations that they have documented and shared online.  During my most recent visit to Helsinki last summer, I had the chance to meet with a few of the education innovators on the Finnish list as well as with policymakers and colleagues from a variety of other Finnish educational institutions.  All those with whom I talked not only emphasized that their work begins with a recognition of and respect for the autonomy of teachers and a commitment to basic principles of equity, but also expressed some frustration with the difficulties and slow-pace of improving and changing the Finnish education system. At the same time, those conversations pointed to key avenues for supporting the development of new and more effective educational practices at both the policy and the school level.

Fin100

Policies for change

At the policy level, as Anneli Rautiainen, Head of the newly formed Innovation Center at the Finnish National Agency for Education, explains, Finland has two primary means of influencing education: the curriculum renewal process and the launch of specific policy initiatives. The curriculum renewal process takes place roughly every 10 years and includes an extensive period for public discussion and feedback on potential changes in the national curriculum framework. As a result, Rautiainen explained, “almost everyone can have a say in what children should learn.”  As part of that process, municipalities and local schools also have considerable autonomy in deciding how to implement any changes. The previous curriculum renewal process in 2004 concentrated on the development of the school as a holistic learning environment for students, but the most recent curriculum renewal process emphasizes “phenomenon-based” learning and “transversal” competences that cut across traditional school subjects. Although the new framework does not eradicate subject-based teaching, it stipulates that all students should participate each year in a multi-disciplinary learning module.  Those modules are to be designed locally by teachers, with the expectation that students will be involved in the planning.

As with all policy initiatives, some teachers and schools are already off and running.  In fact, as part of the earlier emphasis on developing a holistic learning environment some have already pioneered approaches that include multi-disciplinary projects. For example, in Fiskars, a community in Finland well-known for its artisans and craft-workers, the local school has expanded the learning environment to include the whole village.  As a result, students regularly participate in workshops that focus on topics like glass blowing and historically based theatre productions.  As a consequence, the school is already well positioned to respond to the expectations for carrying out interdisciplinary projects in the new curriculum framework.

In addition to trying to move the system forward through the curriculum renewal process, the Finnish National Agency for Education also carries out what have been translated as “spear” projects – targeted efforts to support the implementation of other policy priorities.  Most recently, those projects have included an initiative in which municipalities have been invited to apply for funding to enable a teacher in a school to support the professional learning of colleagues by co-teaching, modeling or coaching. “One of our biggest aims,” Rautiainen pointed out “is to have schools become professional learning communities, and to support learning at work, rather than taking a course somewhere else,” and this project is one way of putting that aim into practice. Another project encourages experimentation among municipalities that want to provide instruction in foreign language in earlier grades (before 3rd grade where it begins in most schools now).  An ongoing project designed to get schools “on the move” was launched in 2010 to increase students’ physical activity during the school day and included the expectation that all students in Basic Education should have at least one hour of exercise every day.

Courses for change

Mehackit and Startup High School, two of the Finnish educational innovations highlighted by HundrED, have found a different place within the conventional education system where new approaches may take root. Both organizations take advantage of the fact that at the upper secondary level (roughly ages 16-18) students have to take roughly 50 compulsory courses, but students can choose the topics for about 25 other courses.  In Mehackit’s case, they began about 2013 by offering workshops and “clubs” to engage young children in programming and coding – making things with technology, not just using technology.  But, as current CEO, Heini Karppinen, explained, Mehackit’s founders are part of a new generation of social entrepreneurs trying to respond to a context where “there are a lot of services that people would like to have, but that they don’t get anymore from the government.” In this case, the founders discovered that those children who attended Mehackit’s clubs and maker-fairs often had parents who were already tech-savvy and working in technology related jobs.  They worried that children who didn’t have parents in tech-related fields would ultimately graduate high school without having experienced the “maker-side” of technology.  To reach all children, the founders felt they needed a way to work within the formal education system.  As the new curriculum framework in 2016 also included computer programming for the first time, they saw a “niche” in working with older students, where teaching programming required sophisticated technical knowledge and skills that relatively few Finnish teachers possess.

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In response to this opportunity, Mehackit created 2 courses for 16-18 year old students that teach programming through projects focused on robotics and electronic music projects and creating multimedia art and graphics.  The courses are designed so that they can be offered by schools around Finland (and Mehackit has already exported them to Sweden and the UK as well) as easily and efficiently as possible. Mehackit not only provides teaching materials, they also hire and train instructors, many of whom are university students working on technology related degrees.  While Mehackit is a for-profit company and schools and municipalities purchase the courses, Mehackit also has a shorter workshop course for 12 to 16-year-old students; provides freely available open source materials; offers a new materials kit at cost; and has created teacher training workshops so that teacher can develop their own, comparable, courses.

HighUp

Startup High School has taken a similar approach to Mehackit.  Although Startup High School may eventually create a high school for entrepreneurial studies (along the lines of subject specific schools in Finland that focus on music, the arts, and sports), they are set to begin with an offering of three courses in the fall of 2017.  (Pekka Peura, a teacher whose work I highlighted in “Brand-name” teachers in Finland, is one of the founders of Startup High School.) Those courses are designed to enable students from a number of different upper secondary schools to learn “how to think critically, how to solve problems, and how to be a change maker.” In developing the courses, the founders seek to create the kinds of student-centered, active, and multidisciplinary learning opportunities emphasized in the new curriculum that they described as rarely emphasized in Finland’s typically highly-academically oriented high schools.  Courses will include original video interviews with a variety of Finnish entrepreneurs and artists, including CEO’s, rappers, actors, and dj’s that students will access as they develop their own Linked-in profiles and plans and portfolios illustrating their own design ideas.  Perhaps most importantly, the founders emphasize, students should leave the course as part of a network of peers with common entrepreneurial interests, connected via social media.  While Startup High School could charge for the courses, their plan is to make the courses widely available for free or perhaps with a nominal registration fee that, along with contributions from sponsors, would help to cover their costs.

Although Mehackit essentially delivers the instructors and materials to each school with whom they partner (and they map and track exactly where they are in reaching out to all schools across Finland), Startup High School offers virtual courses that they lead and administer themselves and that students in a number of different high schools can take as one of their 25 elective courses. In both cases, Mehackit and Startup High School are offering new topics and approaches as part of modules or “plug-ins” that not only fit within current course demands and expectations in Finland, but can also be offered as a conventional course in many other education systems.

Opportunities and challenges

            The new ideas and approaches endorsed by policymakers and highlighted by HundrED demonstrate how Finland’s national curriculum framework can support and encourage those who want to change their approach to teaching and learning. But the autonomy that teachers and schools in Finland enjoy also means that many can choose not to change their practice quickly or deeply.  As Rautiainen puts it, the framework and policy initiatives can “nudge” the system, but by no means guarantees that changes will be made.  For example, while some reports indicate that over 90% of Finnish municipalities are participating in the “on the move” initiatives, concerns remain about exactly how it has been implemented and how it is playing out for all students.

Those I talked to acknowledged that there are number of factors that might encourage and reinforce those who choose to use their autonomy to maintain more conventional classroom and school practices.  For one thing, while the new curriculum framework adds expectations for students to engage in interdisciplinary projects, little, if anything, has been left out of the “old” curriculum.  Like Singapore’s effort to create ‘white space” in the curriculum, the changes in the national curriculum framework in Finland try to squeeze more into the conventional curriculum and school day.

But at the same time that some elements of the framework change, many elements of the system remain the same and reinforce conventional practice.  Even without high-stakes annual testing like that in the US, the high-stakes exit exams at the end of high school help to align the whole system, but they also serve as constraints reinforcing the traditional divisions between subjects. Conventional textbooks provide similar constraints. As Antti Rajala, a former teacher and currently a researcher at the University of Helsinki noted, even as they benefit from high-quality textbooks, teachers who are trying to innovate sometimes see “the textbook as an enemy.” As a consequence, as Peura explained, one of the first steps he and others make to change their teaching is to go beyond the textbook.

Along with the autonomy of teachers comes a highly independent teaching force.  Teachers can choose their own professional development plans, and, in many cases, can choose to pursue their work on their own, rather than in collaboration with their colleagues. Peura reported that on one small survey he asked teachers why they don’t share their work more often, and their overwhelming response was that “colleagues” were the biggest obstacle. Peura sees the concerns that Finnish teachers have about changing as understandable, but notes that it means that when one or two teachers do try to make their work public or share it more widely, peers often object.

Perhaps most problematic, this commitment to autonomy runs smack up against Finland’s deep commitment to equity: if early adopters take off with the interdisciplinary projects but others do not, learning experiences across Finland are likely to become less and less comparable. In fact, those I spoke to were less concerned about overall decreases in average test schools and much more concerned that the PISA results and the results of the national monitoring tests are showing that student outcomes are more differentiated and less equitable than they have been in the past.  Illustrating the inherent tension between the autonomy of teachers and the rights of students, Rajala told me that in one of the schools where he is working the principal had to deal with the fact that several of the teachers did not want to incorporate an emphasis on digital skills into their teaching.  In order to respect their autonomy while still ensuring that all the students got the same digital learning experiences as their peers, the principal had to figure out a way to schedule students so that they all got a chance to work with those teachers who were actively working to incorporate digital skills into their classrooms.

Given all of these factors, in a system largely considered to be “working,” with few incentives to change, it should be no surprise that many both inside and outside the education system see maintaining the status quo as a sensible way to operate. That’s why from Tuominen’s perspective, the key issue is to find those innovations that are working – where there is both a clear and widespread need and where the knowledge, skills, and resources to make the necessary changes are also already available.  He cites as examples “the gaming room”, which, essentially provides the plans and materials so that schools can quickly and easily create a place where students can access the most effective educational games and use them during recess and other points during the school day. Similarly, the “house of learning” provides a set of stand-alone tools that help students to plan, track and assess their own learning, without requiring extensive training.  Tuominen does not expect all the “innovations” that HundrED identifies in Finland or globally to take off, but he believes that initiatives like HundrED can help to highlight and spread those that are gaining traction.  In the meantime, however, since the Finnish system is designed to “steer” not to penalize, there will be no grading, sanctions, or public humiliation. But changing the education system will continue to be a subject of public discussion in Finland, particularly when the next curriculum renewal takes place.

Thomas Hatch, Teachers College, Columbia University

hatch@tc.edu

“Brand-name” teachers in Finland?

New York Times’ reporter Natasha’s Singer’s recent article on “brand-name” teachers, created quite a stir.  Reaction in the Times and elsewhere in the US focused on “topdog” teacher Kayla Dalzel and what EdSurge called the “murky relationship between edtech developers and the educators who tout their products.” For me, the emergence of “brand-name” teachers in the US (and “super tutors” and “celebrity tutors” in places like Singapore and Hong Kong) also highlights both long-standing tensions between private gain and the public good and the way that cultural and economic context shapes education systems.

The discussion reminded me of a conversation I had this summer with Pekka Peura, a Finnish high school math and physics teacher who could be described as an “entrepreneurial teacher.” Peura takes advantage of Finland’s celebrated autonomy for teachers by regularly trying out new ideas in his classroom.  At first, he simply experimented with changing his homework assignments, giving all the assignments to students in 7 week blocks rather than every single day, and letting students decide when and how to complete their work. Now he doesn’t use exams (almost unheard of in the highly exam-driven context of Finnish high schools and in math and physics courses in particular), and he doesn’t do any grading – the students evaluate themselves. Peura explained that he made these changes in his classroom in order to create learning activities and environments where students want to work hard and can evaluate and direct their own learning.

Peura surprised me, however, when he told me that, at the same time, he works systematically to build his reputation and “brand” among educators in Finland. He does that by making his teaching visible and sharing his plans and tools (like a seven week plan for teaching vector calculus) in his own blog, Facebook page, and YouTube videos, as well as in a new book, Flipped Learning, by Marika Toivola, Markus Humaloja, and Peura (the book will be published in English this fall).

Peura’s efforts to “build his brand” have paid off. His Facebook page now has 13,000 members, and he regularly receives invitations to speak at conferences and visit other schools and other countries. He’s gained access to other noted educators and those who wield power and influence in education, and his books and other works certainly have a bigger audience than he would otherwise have had.

Since my Norwegian and Finnish colleagues consistently emphasize the importance of equity and common identity – and not building an “individual brand” – Peura’s approach seem more American than Nordic. But Peura has always had a larger goal in mind: changing the traditional, academic focus of the whole Finnish education system.  As Peura explained, building his reputation is a key means of encouraging other teachers take advantage of the autonomy offered in the Finnish education system and to pursue and share their own efforts to change conventional instruction. “We just need a lot of teachers that are creating their own books, and blogs and leading their own subjects,” he told me.

From Peura’s perspective, Finnish teachers need to go public precisely because it is so counter-cultural. Although the Finnish education system is well-known for supporting teachers’ autonomy and independence, Finnish teachers are not particularly prone to collaborate or share their work. Furthermore, although many know the Finnish education system is high-performing, as Saku Tuominen (an expert on innovation and founder of HundrED) regularly points out, few people can name a single innovative educational tool or practice developed in Finnish classrooms (but everyone seems to know that Angry Birds was launched in Finland).

Given these circumstances, Peura explained to me that he feels that he not only needs to go public with his own work, he needs to help build an audience that is interested in hearing from educators and to encourage other educators to make their work and ideas public as well.  As he put it, “if you have some good tools or ideas to share, there is no one to share with unless people will listen to you.”

At the same time, Peura makes it clear that the relationship between commercial enterprises and classrooms in Finland is also dramatically different from the US.  As he wrote to me:

In Finland we don’t promote companies very easily. I don’t know any teacher, who gets money from some company to advertise them. But it is familiar that some companies give technology hardware or software for free for some classrooms to test them. But we give fair feedback, if the product doesn’t work in the classroom, it is said out loud.

From my point of view it is really important NOT to connect your name-brand with some one company, because we are a very small [community] and teachers know each other, especially if you are a well known teacher, and it eats into your credibility as a change maker. And one thing that is also quite common in Finland is that we try to seek open/free solutions, so if there is a free and a commercial product/solution, we promote the free one. It is crucial for your credibility to promote commercial products only if it’s the best and only solution for some problem. 

There are teachers like Kayla Dalzel and Pekka Peura all over the world, and all have to contend with the tensions between personal gain and the public good, but the context is different.  In this case, when it comes to the US and Finland, it all comes down to trust.  In Finland, they trust teachers.  In the US, we don’t.

We sometimes forget why that’s the case.  As Peura points out, trust, visibility and reputation are inextricably linked everywhere, but Finnish educators work in a system designed to build trust in teachers. US educators do not.

Tom Hatch

10 Surprises in the High-Performing Estonian Education System

You can also read this piece at InternationalEdNews.com

For many, the most surprising thing about the Estonian education system is that it is, in fact, high performing (using the conventional criteria of international tests like PISA).  Even with some press in the Hechinger Report, Estonia’s educational performance has garnered much less attention than other high performers like Finland and Singapore. Nonetheless, Estonia has performed at a consistently high level on the PISA tests since 2006.  In 2015, Estonia was ranked in the top ten nations in both math and reading on PISA, and in science, it was ranked third in the world behind Singapore and Japan.

Perhaps most impressive, Estonia has among the most equitable outcomes of all the countries participating in PISA. Although the Estonian population is largely homogeneous, there are distinct groups of lower-performing Russian language schools, as well as considerable differences in the size and performance of schools in cities and rural areas. Although Estonia has among the smallest class sizes and teacher-student ratios among OECD countries, those figures hide the fact that there are some very small rural schools, with particularly low ratios (and students of different ages mixed together), but also many city schools with class sizes higher than the OECD average. Despite these differences, students do quite well on average across all regions, with the percentage of students who are low-performing the smallest in both Europe and the world.

In another surprise, Estonian students perform at a consistently high level despite an aging teaching population and difficulty attracting new teachers.  In fact, almost half of Estonian teachers are over the age of 50 and Estonian teachers have some of the lowest salaries among OECD countries. In addition, although most Estonian teachers report overall satisfaction with their job, only 14% think the teaching profession is valued in society. On my recent visit there, one of the teacher education institutions I visited even reported they have had only a handful of applicants for some of their programs in recent years. Certainly teachers are important – and other high-performing countries like Finland and Singapore demonstrate the value of well-prepared and well-supported teachers – but Estonia shows that it’s possible to have a high-performing education system – and sustain it and improve it – even with problems in the teaching force.

What’s more the Estonians describe their system as one in which schools, school leaders, and teachers have a considerable amount of autonomy. Schools have to provide a minimum number of course hours in set subjects, but they also have some latitude in emphasizing a particular focus like the arts, technology, or the natural sciences.  As a result, some students may end up taking more hours of math and science over their school careers, others more in art and language.  Nonetheless, on average, Estonian students still demonstrate consistently high and equitable performance

Given these equitable outcomes, for me one of the biggest discoveries was finding some school choice in Estonia. While students are guaranteed a place in their neighborhood public school, they can apply to attend private schools, selective schools, or another neighborhood school if it has space. In most private schools, tuition is largely subsidized by the state, but schools can also charge additional fees that can make them out of reach for some students. Some of the private schools are religious schools or international schools, but in recent years, a variety of other groups have started own private schools. I spoke with the founders of two different private schools who both described how parents got together to create schools when they were unhappy with their local options. In both cases, founders described the Ministry of Education’s willingness to assist and support the new schools’ efforts. As one put it, there is a “flexible” attitude toward regulations in Estonia, and the officials understand that “if there is a problem, they understand they need to solve the problem, and everybody helps.”  While only about 5% of schools in Estonia are private, there are also public schools that the Estonians themselves describe as “elite” and selective. In order to enter these selective schools in first grade, 6 year olds have to pass a high stakes entrance test for which many of those who afford it go to a tutoring center to get prepared.

With the choice and autonomy of schools, one would expect that significant monitoring and oversight would be needed to make sure that all schools are performing well. But when I asked the head of the education department of one large municipality (essentially the equivalent of a district superintendent in the US), he threw up his hands and said he trusted the school leaders and teachers to do their jobs. To guide that work, he reported talking on a weekly basis with the local school leaders.  One recent meeting focused on revising and then signing a memorandum in which all committed to 8 points of agreement including “the schools shall value developing a scientific mindset in students”; “the schools shall move towards wider use of digital teaching and learning materials”; and “the students shall get credit for what they have learned in a hobby school to decrease their study load in school.”

Correspondingly, high-stakes testing is limited primarily to exit exams at the end of high school. Results of the exit exams are made public and newspapers and others often publish rankings of upper secondary schools, but no specific rewards or consequences are attached. In elementary and lower secondary schools, in contrast, national assessments are strictly “sampling tests”, as in Finland, given only to a portion of students at the end of 3rd, 6th and 9th grades. The results of those tests are not made public, but instead provide the schools, municipalities, and the Ministry a way to gauge performance and guide planning and policymaking.

Even the Estonian system of inspecting schools is considerably less intrusive than those in many other countries. In England, for example, inspectors from Ofsted (the Office for Standards in Education, Children’s Services and Skills), “carry out hundreds of inspections and regulatory visits throughout England and publish the results online.” In contrast, in Estonia there is no separate inspectorate, and no complex, full-scale inspection is conducted.  Instead, the Ministry of Education and Research carries out individual school inspections primarily for licensure applications or in case of complaints. As a former leader in the office of school inspections in Estonia explained it to me, “the system of evaluating schools in Estonia is not very strong, and that is one of the best parts of our system.” When I asked him to describe how he knew if there were schools that were having problems, he responded that “someone would call me.”  In turn, he reported that the best approach to fix the problem was usually to call someone he knew who also knew the head of the school with the problem.  It’s a kind of management by “phoning around” (akin to “management by walking around” made famous by the founders of Hewlett Packard in the US) that reflects the small size of Estonia and the powerful social networks that connect almost everyone.  As one of my hosts explained, Estonians believe that everyone in the country is only two phone calls away.

Although many countries provide some support for early childhood education, I was surprised to find that Estonia assures a right to municipally funded early childhood education for each child beginning at the age of one and a half.  As a consequence, almost 90% of children between the ages of 3 and 7 (when children begin first grade) are enrolled. As one member of the Ministry commented, this is not “glorified babysitting,” these early education centers have a national curriculum that emphasizes seven aspects of development including the arts, music, movement, language, and mathematics. In the preschool I visited, the students participate in two lessons a day in small groups for guided instruction. Children who speak another language at home also start to learn Estonian as a second language at the age of three; and all those who complete the curriculum receive a school readiness card that documents each child’s development. What’s more, early childhood teachers in Estonia are required to have a Bachelor’s degree in Early Childhood Education, a substantially higher standard than in many other countries, including “high-scorers” like Singapore.

In another surprise, state and municipal support for education extends afterschool as well. Estonia has a whole system of hobby schools and youth work (a legacy from the Soviet system) in which children can participate. In fact, students get funding from their municipality to participate in at least one afterschool activity a week. According to the Standard for Hobby Education, goals include to help young people to develop “into members of society with good coping skills” and to “grant joy in engaging in hobbies.”  Hobby schools provide instruction and activities in sports, technology, culture, nature, music or other arts.  Like preschools in Estonia, hobby schools can be privately run or run by schools or other organizations.  In hobby schools, educators, often university students or others with expertise in a particular subject, work with groups of students on a weekly basis. In one hobby school I visited, physicists and astronomers at a nearby university offered a course in which students participated in the development of a satellite that was eventually launched into space.

While I did see examples of technology use (including programming classes in almost every preschool, elementary, secondary, and hobby school I visited), I was also surprised to hear that the Estonians themselves are unsatisfied with the level of tech integration in schools. According to OECD’s Teaching and Learning International Survey (TALIS) only 29% of Estonian teachers use ICT for students’ projects or class work.  Even more surprising, although Estonia has established itself as a world-leader in e-services – offering online voting and the opportunity to register a business online in a matter of minutes – Estonia doesn’t have much of an edtech sector.  In fact, when I asked to visit a local edtech company, my Estonian colleagues didn’t know where to look; and when I did connect with one local company (who are developing a platform for teachers to share their work), they told me they weren’t sure whether to tell their investors that they were one of the few edtech companies in Estonia or the only edtech company in Estonia.

Of course, every educational system has problems. In Estonia, in addition to the concerns about the teaching profession, there are serious concerns that instruction remains too traditional and that some students are disengaged or over-stressed. Nonetheless, given Estonia’s educational success, it’s also remarkable to see the number of new initiatives underway designed to continue to move the system forward. These include ongoing efforts to attract new teachers, among them an increase in teachers’ salaries of more than 40% over the last 5 years.  The Ministry is also pursuing initiatives to shift the focus of teaching and learning at all levels of education to support the development of eight competences that encompass cognitive and social skills, creativity and entrepreneurship; to create an in-service system for teachers and school leaders to support that focus; and to use digital technologies more effectively and efficiently in the process. The Ministry is also sponsoring efforts to develop assessments for some of these competences that could increase the likelihood that the schools and teachers incorporate them into their curriculum. In fact, five years ago, Estonia changed their high school exit requirements for all students across the country. Now, instead of taking three compulsory exams (Mother Tongue – Estonian or Russian; Foreign Language, and mathematics) and two other subjects of their choosing, all students are required to complete a research project or a “practical project” in order to graduate.  Research projects involve conventional studies and research methods such as conducting an experiment in physics or surveying a group of students.  Practical projects include organizing a local Olympics or developing a collection of insects for a museum.  Both projects are  designed to encourage interdisciplinary work as well as promote the development of the eight competencies.

At the end of the day, the story of Estonia’s high and equitable educational performance on international tests may not be that much of a mystery.  All students have guaranteed access to elementary and secondary education and to publicly supported early childhood education and afterschool activities.  All those learning opportunities are aligned to national curriculum frameworks that emphasize skills in language, mathematics, and science, but support other aspects of development as well. Schools, school leaders, and teachers in Estonia have considerable autonomy, but they also have a relatively small set of aligned textbooks, curriculum materials, national sampling assessments and high-stakes exit exams that help to keep the system focused and on track. The teaching population is aging and instruction may be traditional, but Estonian teachers report less time spent on administrative tasks and on “keeping order” and more time on teaching and learning than those in many other countries. All of this takes place in a small country, where everyone seems to know everyone else. It’s also a country with a population known for hard work and a methodical approach that some of my colleagues here described as a form of “German exactness.” In education, that methodical approach is being applied to goals that are tightly linked to the kinds of activities and outcomes expected on international assessments. (As a former Education Minister in Estonia put it “the exercises used in international surveys that have been made public in the course of previous surveys have been the examples followed by our test and examination writers.”)

In short, the Estonians have developed a coherent and aligned education system that begins in early childhood and extends beyond the regular school day, and they have done it in a place where, less than 30 years ago, basic goods were rationed and it was a luxury to have a telephone. Those of us in the US can’t expect to improve our education system by doing exactly what the Estonians have done with theirs. Policies that work in a country of 1.3 million can’t be simply transferred to 50 states or to large cities in the US. Nonetheless, there are many different ways to create a coherent, focused, and well-supported education system.  Policymakers in the US need to understand that enabling widely inequitable educational experiences across communities isn’t one of them.