In case you missed it: Interview with Gunda TIRE on school reform and PISA ratings of school children

01.09.2020 (Caucasian Journal).  As September 1st is first day of school in many countries, Caucasian Journal decided to re-post our article on education, which we consider quite important. So, in case you missed it in winter, below we talk not only about the best school reform experience, but also why South Caucasus is lagging behind. This type of articles do not lose their value with time, alas.

Education is basic for achieving progress in any other direction.  But how do South Caucasian students compare with peers? How well can they read?

It is our pleasure to introduce Ms. Gunda TIRE, PISA National Project Manager at Foundation Innove. PISA is the OECD's Programme for International Student Assessment, and Innove is an education competence center in Estonia. The reason why we invited an expert from Estonia is simple: Because Estonian students are the best in Europe
Read the Georgian language version here.

Alexander KAFFKA, editor-in-chief of CJ:  Indeed, according to recent PISA worldwide student assessment results, the Estonian 15-year olds have the Europe’s highest scores in all disciplines. First of all, please accept our sincere congratulations to Estonian friends with this excellent achievement! I know it was not unexpected, since Estonia’s results have been going up for some time, but anyway how was the top achievement perceived - by ordinary people and by professionals?

Gunda TIRE:  Thank you very much for the kind words, and we really appreciate your invitation to share the Estonian PISA experience with your readers!

Before the PISA data is released, it is very difficult to predict in what direction to expect the results. Our hope was not to show a decline to our prior results. As PISA is very poplar and well known in Estonia, the new data for 2018 was expected with certain amount of curiosity.

On December 3, 2019 Estonian ministry of education and research together with Foundation Innove organized a press conference, which was streamed online. The minister of education and research presented the main points and the news spread fast: Estonian students have got the highest scores in Europe, and rank right after the high performing Asian countries in the world! The media covered the news extensively; they interviewed students who had participated in the test and their teachers from different schools. Everybody felt proud and happy as they felt they had personally contributed to the great achievement. So yes, it was a bit like a national holiday and the PISA results were perceived very positively. The topic of education was among the most discussed topics at that time. Achievements in PISA helped to create a very positive image of Estonia in the foreign media as well.

AK:  Can you tell a bit about yourself, and how did you get involved in PISA? What is your role as National Project Manager? 

GT: I have been the national project manager for PISA in Estonia since 2007. Before that I was a teacher and had a good idea what schools look like, and what students at the age of 15 are interested in. PISA is a very complex project. In order to be able to compare different countries and their education systems there are many rules and standards that need to be observed. As a project manager, I have to ensure that every aspect of the project corresponds to the set rules. The key issue for a successful project is to have a good team of professionals and supporting management. Since we need different people with different qualifications during the project, it is very important to have the network of people who would join the project in the right moment. I have managed to create a wonderful network of experts who have contributed to the project over and over again. It is also very important to communicate with schools and have them participate in PISA. My job is also to disseminate PISA results and communicate with the public and help to create the discussion about education, which is very important.

AK:  As an illustration, we are posting here the famous PISA 2018 results table (average of performance in reading, mathematics and science), where Estonia is on the top of European countries with an excellent 525 score. Let’s find South Caucasian countries’ results. The scores for Azerbaijan and Georgia are 402 and 387 respectively (Armenia was not participating). In total, out of 77 countries, Azerbaijan is in 63rd place, and Georgia is in 69th place, so both Caucasian countries are in the group of 20 countries with lowest rating, lower than all other former Soviet republics, which participated in PISA. It means that there are many “lessons to be learned” by our countries, if I may use this “school language”.  Do you agree that our countries can successfully use some parts of Estonian experience?

Click to enlarge
GT: Usually we do not use the average from the scores of all the three subject domains. We look at the scores separately for reading, math and science. Also, the more important number is not the ranking, but the score itself. The score gives an indication about the level of knowledge behind it. The OECD mean score is a bit below 500, and Estonia scores above the OECD average in all three subjects. Another advantage of PISA is that, besides the mean scores, we can also see how many students are able to solve tasks at different levels of difficulty. In the PISA test there are easy and difficult items, and we can see how many students manage to solve tasks with different levels of difficulty. Consequently, we divide students in 6 levels of proficiency (from 1 to 6, one being the lowest and six the highest). We can see how many students are doing well and how many are lagging behind. If there are many students who can only solve the easiest tasks, it indicates that many students will have a problem in the future to manage their further studies and endeavors. Estonian success is to some extent due to the fact that over the last ten years the numbers of students who can solve more complex tasks have increased, while the share of low performing students has decreased.

 Looking at the scores of Azerbaijan and Georgia, it seems that there are many students who barely manage to solve the easiest tasks

Looking at the scores of Azerbaijan and Georgia, it seems that there are many students who barely manage to solve the easiest tasks. There might be different reasons for that. Maybe many students just did not care to do the test properly, maybe they had no idea what they had to do, maybe it was the first time they ever took such a test on computer. In Estonia, we have tried to inform students about PISA, and what they have to do during the test by making a simple informative video, so they would understand what is PISA. That is an easy lesson that could be tried in other countries. Just inform your students in a simple way about the test, and try to motivate them to put more effort in it.  

AK:  Can you outline 3 main factors (or more, if you wish), which led to your country’s success in education? To which extent are they unique to Estonia, i.e. related to the country's traditions (value of education), national character /mentality, or its political situation?

GT: There are many factors that contribute to the success in education. One of the most fundamentals is the attitude of the families or society towards education. Estonians believe in education, and this belief has been essential for centuries. Also, after the regaining of independence in 1991, Estonia made many decisions that have proved to have positive impact. Even before the break off from the Soviet Union, Estonians had already made a new curriculum which was free from the Soviet ideology. Estonia learned a lot from Finland, as Finland is close geographically and the language spoken in both countries is easy to learn, as they are both Finno-Ugric languages and have similarities. We looked at the Finnish education system, their textbooks, teaching styles and considered those when reforming the systemEstonians believe that it could always be better in everything they do. I think the eagerness to learn and to improve has led us to the current situation.

AK:  Are there any original know-hows or other specifics in Estonian education system, of which the country is especially proud?

GT: Estonia is very proud of its digital achievements on the country level and also in education. Introduction of digital technology that would support learning has been important for both teachers and students. Teachers use more and more tests and tools that would help to detect the knowledge of students, and students use e-Schoolbag [e-Schoolbag is a portal of digital learning materials, see more information hereCaucasian Journal] and other applications that would assist more effective learning.

AK:  In many post-Soviet states people think that  “best schools” = “private schools”. However, if a school is expensive that does not guarantee that it is good. What’s the situation with public vs. private schools in Estonia? What’s the people’s perception about “prestigious” education? Do the kids from rich families go to same schools as the poor?

GT: In Estonia the education system is based on public schools. There are slightly more than 10% of schools, which are private, but in general people trust their public-school system. Estonian parents should not worry where their child goes to school, good public education should be available everywhere. Of course, there are schools, especially in Tallinn and Tartu, that are more popular and more parents want their children to go there, but those are also public schools. Some of these more popular schools select their children with aptitude tests, but the acceptance to school is not connected with the social status of the parent, but rather from the test results. In general children from mixed socio-economic backgrounds go to the same schools.

AK: And by the way, is it correct that all Estonian schools offer free lunch and even free transportation to and from school (something that is offered only be private schools in our region)? 

GT: This is true. Estonian school system is based on the principle of equity. Schools should provide the best learning conditions to all children, assist them if they need help. All children get free hot lunch and free textbooks. School transportation is provided by the municipality, and if the parents pay taxes to that municipality, the school transport is free. There are also many after school activities provided by schools that are free, and many students from poorer families can join and develop their talents.

 All children get free hot lunch and free textbooks. School transport is free. There are also many after school activities that are free, and many students from poorer families can join and develop their talents.
AK:  Another typical problem is the “old-school” teachers - people who were trained in the old Soviet system. How was this issue addressed in Estonia?

GT: We have many old school teachers. According to the TALIS (OECD survey for teachers), the average age of Estonian teacher is 49 years. There are many teachers that are close to retirement age and this is an issue that Estonian system has to deal with very seriously.

In Estonia we believe in lifelong learning. That means that in order to make progress everybody has to learn all the time. Schools usually spend 1% of their budget on teacher training, and there are many trainings and courses that are available for free. The expenses of many teacher trainings are covered by the state, or European Union assistance money. Data shows that basically all teachers participate in different courses and seminars during the academic year. Teachers might be more traditional, but they are very much aware of the new and more modern ideas in education, and they apply a good mix of both in their work.

AK:  Let’s talk more about the teachers. How prestigious is this profession in today’s Estonia? What’s the teacher’s salary like? Is it lower or higher than the country’s average salary?

GT: As already mentioned, we are aware of the fact that teachers are aging and there are not enough new generation teachers. There is a lack of science teachers, math teachers and others. The teaching profession could be more popular among young people. There are many initiatives from the state to promote teacher profession and show its attractiveness. Every year we organize an event where schools are invited to nominate their best teachers, and then the best of the best are selected and awarded at the gala ceremony. This usually takes place in October, which is traditionally teachers day. The event is broadcasted live on public television and draws a huge audience.

Teachers’ salaries are higher than the average salary of Estonia.

Teachers salaries have been a high priority over the recent years. They have been constantly increased, and are higher than the average salary of Estonia. The state has tried to assist new teachers with startup money; schools should provide them with mentoring for at least the first year of their work.

AK:  In post-Soviet countries including Estonia as well as South Caucasian states some schools use Russian language of instruction. Is it correct that the performance of students from “Russian” schools is worse in PISA results? How is the number of Russian schools regulated in Estonia?

GT: There are 1.3 million inhabitants in Estonia, and the Russian population comprises of about 25% of the population. There are schools with Russian language of instruction, and 25% of students took the PISA test in Russian. The results of the Russian-speaking students are at the level of the OECD average, which is a very good result. At the same time the results of Estonian students are much higher. The difference is 42 points in reading and science, and 29 points in mathematics. In PISA we say that during one school year students can make progress of 39 points. According to that, Estonian students are a year ahead of their peers in Russian speaking schools. The reasons for this difference are hard to explain. All schools are treated the same way, all get similar funding and requirements. At the same time schools in Estonia are very autonomous and they can decide themselves on their teaching methods and textbooks. Apparently, the teaching styles in schools with Russian language of instruction differ from the Estonian ones.  There are no specific regulations regarding numbers of Russian schools. If someone decides to make a new school and can get accreditation and students, they are allowed to do that. This principle is valid for all schools, regardless of the language of instruction.

Estonian students are a year ahead of their peers in Russian speaking schools. The reasons for this difference are hard to explain.

AK:  As a PISA professional, can you talk a bit about general global or European trends, for example, are Chinese/Asian students strongly outperforming the Europeans, and why?

GT: In overall, the trends are not positive. Since the beginnings of PISA, there are very few countries that have improved their results, many show a negative trend, which means that the results have been declining. European Union is very concerned about low performing students. As students with low skills will have difficulties in their future, it is particularly important to pay attention to them. As I mentioned earlier, the low performers are students who score below second level of proficiency. European Union has set a benchmark to have at least 15% of students in this lower share, but there are only four countries that have reached this goal: Estonia, Ireland, Finland and Poland. In general, 21.7% of European Union students show very poor results. 

I attached the results table for reading skills (see illustration), so you can see what I am talking about.

In Asian countries the shares of low performing students are low, less than 10%, they pay attention to their students so they would not stay behind in their knowledge and skills.

Click to enlarge
The shares of low-performing students in Azerbaijan and Georgia are around 60%. The share of students below level 2 (which is the baseline level) is around 60 % in Azerbaijan and even more in Georgia.  Those students are low performers. This could be the prime goal for the education system - to decrease the numbers of students who perform really poorly. They need more help to get the basic skills needed for their future education and workI think this is a serious problem that should be addressed.

The shares of low-performing students in Azerbaijan and Georgia are around 60%. This could be the prime goal for the education system - to decrease the numbers of students who perform really poorly. 
They need more help to get the basic skills needed for their future education and work. I think this is a serious problem that should be addressed.

AK:  Are the children’s reading skills generally getting better or worse over time? Are today’s 15-year olds reading less than some time ago? Is the average 15-year old student better educated than 10 years ago?

GT:  Children read differently today than ten years ago. This can be said about the grown-ups as well. The classical paper reading has been substituted with online or digital reading. Ideally, it should not matter, as paper or computer is just the medium for obtaining information, but in reality, it does. Different skills are needed to find information online, make a distinction about the validity of the information. For example, students in the PISA test had to decide if the provided information is a fact or opinion, and it was quite a difficult task for many of them. They had to navigate between different sources to find the answer to the test questions. Navigating seemed to be easy for our students.

In general, students have the skills to operate in the digital world, but it is more difficult for them to reflect and evaluate the information that they have found. From Estonian data we cannot say that students read less; girls read more and with better results. There are still students who read for pleasure, and those have the best scores. We can see that the ways students communicate have changed, they do not write emails anymore (only to their teachers), they do not read paper newspapers, but do that online, etc. This should suggest the education systems around the world to adapt to the fact that computers are here to stay, and students are so attracted to them. We need to use the digital world more efficiently in the learning process, make it interesting and challenging. I would not say that students are less educated than 10 years ago. We need to find the reasons for underperforming of students, and digital technology is a good tool to do that.

AK:  A question about PISA’s feedback and interactivity: How Estonia is using the PISA results for adjusting its education system? Is there any mechanism in place? And vice versa, is there any way for you to make any improvements to PISA’s future evaluations?

GT: PISA does not say why something is the way it is, it just shows the picture. We learned from PISA that students from Russian medium schools have lower results than their peers from Estonian schools. We have tried to investigate the reasons, have some ideas, but have not managed to fix it. This has also created a lot of discussion in the society, also among the politicians.

Similarly, in the early PISA years (Estonia joined PISA in 2006) we decided that there could be more top performing students, we became aware of the issue and many schools decided to pay more attention to their smarter students. Now we see that the share of top performing students in reading has doubled since 2009. PISA for us is more of an instrument that points out which areas of our education could be improved; we do not do things to be better in PISA. We also give feedback to schools that have participated in the survey. The information is only about the individual school and they like to get an indication as to how they are doing.

As to the future of PISA - it is popular, more and more countries want to join it. The issue for its organizers is to manage all the countries and maintain the quality and comparability. The survey draws a lot of public attention, but in the end, PISA is mostly needed for in each participating county individually. Each education system has its own cultural and historical background and that should be given to the new generation. We try our best, but why is that the same age students can solve the same problem much better in one system than in the other? If the future is getting more and more global, then students from any country should have similar skills to tackle the global problems and be allowed to apply for jobs available anywhere in the world. The education systems from around the world should be there to assist their students.

AK:  Lastly, not a question, but a comment. Recently Caucasian Journal spoke about the World Bank's Human Capital Index (CPI) with WB’s regional director. CPI has one interesting parameter called Learning Gap: Years of schooling adjusted for quality of learning. We made our own table based on WB’s data. Within the South Caucasus, the best result belongs to Azerbaijan; Armenia is second, and Georgia is the third. But the level of Estonia is significantly higher. Therefore, WB data basically confirms PISA’s results. Does PISA/OECD cooperate with World Bank or other international organizations?

GT: I know that OECD cooperates with many organizations, they have done it with the European Union and many others. UNESCO, World Bank and others use PISA for their indicators and consider when setting the future goals and objectives.

AK: If there is anything else you want to comment upon, and send a message to our readers, the floor is yours.

GT: Education is the topic that touches everybody, we all want the best for our children now and in the future. At the same time it is difficult to decide what this “best” means. Therefore, it is good that we have PISA that helps us detect what are the things we do right and what needs to be improved. Every child is able to achieve high results with the right support and attitude. I wish all the readers to take active interest in the education of their children, support them and guide them on their way to achieve their dreams and goals.

AK: Thank you for very interesting answers!

Caucasian Journal appreciates kind support of Estonian Embassy in Tbilisi in preparation of this interview.

Read the Georgian language version here.

This article was re-published by :
ICC Georgia republished Caucasian Journal's interview with Gunda Tire  in its newsletter;

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