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In Latvia, education minister looks to provoke changes



Tatjana Koke speaks with College of Education faculty and students during a policy forum.

Tatjana Koke, the minister of education and science of the eastern European nation of Latvia, discussed her country’s ascent from a communist nation to fledgling economic engine this past Wednesday at Lehigh.

A guest of the college’s new Comparative and International Education program, Koke gave an often personal account of a nation experiencing significant political, economic and social change. Latvia regained its independence from the former Soviet Union in 1991 and, since then, has aggressively pushed a package of economic reforms designed to expedite its integration into the European Union and NATO.

That rapid transformation has helped create a country—and a culture—of change, a mindset that not all Latvians have been quick to embrace.

“We have so much to do yet to strengthen our identity,” says Koke. “We’re putting a lot of effort into reorienting our people to become more structured and entrepreneurial, who can not only manage these changes, but provoke these changes. It’s the Latvian people who help stimulate our development.”

The freedom of choice

Koke has helped drive many of the nation’s reforms. Over the course of the past 17 years, Latvia made substantial gains in educational policy as the nation evolved away from the Soviet model of planned economy.

The movement towards a Western market economy now means additional demands on a workforce that is relatively small. Latvia appears to be up to the challenge, however. Over 99% of Latvia’s children are literate, among the highest in Europe. And in a competitive European Union where professionals have greater flexibility to transcend borders, Latvia has made special efforts to retain—and recruit—an educated workforce.

“What we understand by ‘freedom’ is being able to release ourselves from restrictions. Real freedom can only be reached by developing one’s own capacities. If we are knowledgeable, capable, open-minded, analytical thinking—these are what give you real freedom of choices,” she says. “And with that comes opportunity.”

That sense of opportunity is what drives educational reform throughout the former Soviet satellite republics and, in particular, Latvia. The upstart country ranks second in the world—Canada tops the list—in the percentage of its students enrolled in higher education institutions.

“Dr. Koke really understands how context matters, especially on issues like language barriers and Latvia’s ongoing integration with the EU community,” says Will Brehm, a graduate student in Lehigh’s comparative and international educational program. “She’s such an inspirational figure because she’s passionate about educational reform, and yet has approached Latvia’s transformation in a very practical and knowledgeable manner.”

Embracing the European Union

Latvia has helped reform financial aid, incentivizing students with a wider array of student and study loans. The government has raised the mandatory grade-level, restructured their regional universities, and placed a much emphasis on world-class science and technology specialty programs. Latvian universities heavily tout research in such areas as magnetohydrodynamics and biomaterials, for example.

Her intense interest in science education and globalization is shared by Lehigh President Alice P. Gast, who met with Koke during her visit to Bethlehem. Koke later joined faculty and students at the College of Education for a policy forum before addressing the greater Lehigh community Wednesday evening.
Koke spoke on the topic of transformation during her lecture, titled, “From the Soviet Union to the European Union: A Retrospective of 20 Years of Educational Reform.”

Although she currently serves in an official capacity as minister, Koke is also a professor at the University of Latvia. Previously, she served as president of the Soros Foundation Latvia’s education board, and has been a long-standing member of UNESCO’s International Bureau of Education Council.

Iveta Silova, assistant professor of comparative and international education at Lehigh, also has an intimate understanding of education reform in post-Soviet nations and, like Koke, has worked for non-governmental agencies (NGOs) in the region. She was instrumental in bringing Koke to Lehigh.

“What Latvia has been able to achieve in such a short amount of time is truly commendable,” says Silova, herself a native of Latvia. “Much of it wouldn’t have been possible without the dedication and passion of people like Dr. Koke, who has helped position Latvia as a strong example of what Western-style, educational reform can achieve.”

Along with her visit to Lehigh this past week, Koke participated in the 2008 Global Summit on Education for All: Inclusive Practices for Students with Disabilities in Washington, D.C. She also attended the White House Symposium on Advancing Global Literacy, an event hosted by First Lady Laura Bush, before addressing Columbia University’s Teachers College and Lehigh University.

--Tom Yencho


Posted on Friday, September 26, 2008

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