Clarifying the Latest “Reforms” from Finland

Although recent reports in Finland have made a number of specific recommendations for improving student learning, the focus outside Finland has centered on Finland’s interest in promoting more of a focus in schools on interdisciplinary topics.   Following an initial report from the Independent that the school subjects would be “scrapped” around the country, Pasi Sahlberg explained in The Conversation “Finnish schools will continue to teach mathematics, history, arts, music and other subjects in the future.” But he also outlined aspects of the new Core Curriculum and the extent of local authority that will affect how an interest in promoting more interdisciplinary approaches is playing out in Finland.

The Finnish National Board of Education (FNBE) has also responded to the reports and explained some of the changes in the new core curriculum that might have led to the misunderstandings:

“In order to meet the challenges of the future, the focus (in the core curriculum) is on transversal (generic) competences and work across school    subjects. Collaborative classroom practices, where pupils may work with several teachers simultaneously during periods of phenomenon-based project studies are emphasised.

The pupils should participate each year in at least one such multidisciplinary learning module. These modules are designed and implemented locally. The core curriculum also states that the pupils should be involved in the planning.”

Notably, a more radical version requiring much more of a focus on grouping subjects together though more generic competences was proposed earlier in the curriculum renewal process. However, that proposal was stalled by political debates, particularly objections by one of the six political parties that were involved in the coalition government at the time.

Irmeli Hallinen, Head of Curriculum Development at the FNBE and a key participant in the most recent renewal of the Finnish Core Curriculum, provides further clarity on the new emphases in latest curriculum renewal in a blog post (What’s going on in Finland – Currriculum Reform 2016). As she puts it:

“Developing schools as learning communities, and emphasizing the joy of learning and a collaborative atmosphere, as well as promoting student    autonomy in studying and in school life – these are some of our key aims in the reform. In order to meet the challenges of the future, there will be much focus on transversal (generic) competences and work across school subjects.”

Hallinen goes on to explain that the curriculum framework identifies learning goals in seven different competence areas, with local authorities able to consider their own ways of reaching those goals. Hallinen points out that the emphasis on the competences will be reflected in assessments as well:

“The competences will also be assessed as a part of subject assessment. In this way every school subject enhances the development of all seven         competence areas. This is a new way of combining competence-based and subject-based teaching and learning. Nevertheless, the traditional school            subjects will live on, though with less distinct borderlines and with more collaboration in practice between them.”

Thomas Hatch

The Latest Recommendations for Education Reform in Finland

Even in Finland, consistently a top performer on international tests, declines in recent national and international assessments have spawned tasks forces and calls for improvement. As Pasi Sahlberg tweeted last week, recently released reports in Finland have focused on creating a “Continuum of Teacher Development,” establishing “Tomorrow’s Comprehensive School,” and (most recently) exploring the future of higher education. While teacher preparation is often highlighted as a strength of the Finnish system, improving support for teachers figures prominently in many of the proposed recommendations. In fact, the report on creating a “Continuum of Teacher Development” is described as calling for an “overhaul” of teacher training. That report includes recommendations for Universities and teacher education colleges to develop an approach to mentoring and “induction” into the teaching profession that includes training and supporting mentors, developing a national network of mentors, and ensuring that graduating students have a personal development plan and support in the transition to “working life.”

“Tomorrow’s Comprehensive School” (with an accompanying brochure in English) was produced by a task force that included researchers, teacher educators, school principals and teachers. As Jari Lavonen, a task force member and Professor and Head of the Department Teacher Education at the University of Helsinki explained, their main charge from the Minister of Education was to assess the current situation, examine the reasons for the drop in learning outcomes in the PISA survey and other national assessments, and “find ways to make students feel more motivated and enjoy school.” The task force identified challenges to improvement at the national, municipal, and classroom level, as well in teacher preparation. In response to these challenges, the report highlights several key “themes” deemed central to improving learning attitudes and outcomes:

  • The structures and practices of basic education must strive to eliminate links between a pupil’s learning outcomes and his or her social background, living area or gender.
  • Allocation of resources adequate to guarantee a high standard of teaching in basic education must be ensured in the future.
  • Development of new pedagogical solutions that will support both communal and individual learning.
  • Developing the school as an ethical and a learning community where pupils have a voice and a choice, and also responsibility for their own learning.
  • Further development of research-based teacher education in cooperation with universities and municipalities to form a continuum of initial education and professional development of teachers
  • Support for teachers’ lifelong professional development.
  • Develop new models for teachers’ work and the use of their working time.
  • Enhancing principal’s preparation and establishing personal plans to support their professional development.

One news item on the task force report focused particularly on proposals to increase extra-curricular activities and to make changes in the school schedule, quoting Aulis Pitkälä, Director General of the Finnish National Board of Education, as saying, “We more or less unanimously came to the conclusion that the school day should begin no earlier than nine in the morning.” (Notably, calls for reform in the United States often involve demands to increase class time, already substantially more than is required in Finland, though not as much as is often reported, as Sam Abrams sorted out in a recent post on teaching time in the U.S.)

Auli Toom, University lecturer in Higher Education at the University of Helsinki, highlighted that creating a more systemic approach to “in-service” support for teachers and connecting pre-service and in-service teacher education have been under discussion for over ten years, but she hoped that this report might finally lead to some changes. She was also encouraged by a task force recommendation to establish a national, longitudinal programme of research that would investigate the characteristics of the Finnish educational system and its impact on student learning, but it is not clear if that recommendation will be implemented.

Pasi Sahlberg, author with Andy Hargreaves of a new post about “saving” PISA, commented that the report was particularly welcome because it provides a much-needed look at Finland’s education system and its current challenges. “It takes a comprehensive look at not only cognitive aspects of education but also how to make teaching and learning more meaningful,” he added. “However, it remains silent about what many have said to be the most important shortcoming in Finland: What kind of comprehensive school do we need in 2030?” Without a clear vision Sahlberg worries that some will see the report as an effort to bring PISA results in Finland back to the top of the charts. “Making Finland the top PISA performer is the wrong vision.”

Thomas Hatch

 

 

Growth in national assessments?

With the implementation of new state tests (PARCC and Smarter Balanced) connected to the Common Core in the US, it has been hard to avoid concerns about the quality and extent of testing in the US in recent weeks (including in Delaware, Minnesota, Ohio, and California among others). At a recent seminar series from the Laboratory of International Assessment Studies, however, I also heard reports about the marked growth in the use of national assessments in many other countries. Although the new state tests in the US provide data on the performance of individual students and schools, the 2015 EFA Global Monitoring Report to be released in April, will include data on the number of national learning assessments (designed to provide information on system performance) conducted worldwide since 1990. As initially reported in “Improving, not over-hauling learning assessments post-2015,” that report will show that the number of countries administering national assessments has doubled in the last twenty-five years:

Before 2000, national tests were conducted in:

  • 49% of developed countries
  • 34% of developing countries
  • 6% of countries in transition

Between 2000-2013, national tests were conducted in:

  • 82% of developed countries
  • 65% of developing countries
  • 78% of countries in transition

The FHI 360 Education Policy and Data Center (EPDC) also released results of the National Learning Assessment Mapping Project (N-LAMP). As described in a blog post on the key findings, the project reviewed data on standardized exams and assessments administered at the national level from primary to upper secondary education in a sample of 125 countries from 6 regions of the world. They identified 403 national-level learning assessments from 105 countries. The majority of the assessments (55%) were low-stakes national large-scale student assessments (NLSA’s sample-based assessments used to monitor the performance of education systems like those documented in the Global Monitoring report). Most of the remaining assessments were high stakes exams (mandatory assessments required for completing a given level of schooling or gaining admission to the next level). Not surprisingly, the project found that almost all of the assessments focused on “Literacy & Communication” and “Numeracy & Maths,” with more than half also addressing “Science & Technology.” Nonetheless, other domains were represented with 73 assessments addressing “Social & Emotional” domains, 33 addressing “Physical Well-Being” and 11 addressing “Learning Approaches & Cognition.”

Also worth noting for those interested in international assessments, Teachers College Record has a new theme issue focusing on PISA, “Moving Beyond Country Rankings in International Assessments: The Case of PISA.”

Thomas Hatch

Interview with Rukmini Banerji

Dr. Rukmini Banerji

Dr. Rukmini Banerji

Rukmini Banerji is director of the Assessment Survey Evaluation Research (ASER) Center in New Delhi, India, and senior member of the national leadership of Pratham, an organization that reaches three million primary school age children in India every year.

In this interview, which is part of the Lead the Change Series of the American Educational Research Association Educational Change Special Interest Group, she describes her own work with educational change what she sees as the status of education in India today:

“Looking back at the last two decades and more, we can see the impressive progress that India has made in providing educational opportunities to children. Today we have more than 96% of children (in the age group 6-14) enrolled in school. There is a government primary school in almost every habitation in the country. Children get free meals in schools, in many states textbooks and uniforms are also free. In 2010, the India Parliament passed the Right to Education Act which guarantees free and compulsory education to all children ages 6-14. In terms of inputs and infrastructure, the Indian government has made huge strides in the provision of schooling. Now it is time to look at some of the outcomes of schooling and more specifically at the question: are our children learning?”

This Lead the Change interview appears as part of a series that features experts from around the globe, highlights promising research and practice, and offers expert insight on small- and large-scale educational change. Recently, Lead the Change has also published interviews with Diane Ravitch, and the contributors to Leading Educational Change: Global Issues, Challenges, and Lessons on Whole-System Reform (Teachers College Press, 2013) edited by Helen Janc Malone, have participated in a series of blogs from Education Week.

 

What’s new? OECD Report: Gender Equality in Education

The most recent OECD report, titled “The ABC of Gender Equality in Education: Aptitude, Behavior, Confidence,” shows that the wage gaps between men and women worldwide might have more to do with career decisions that are being made by students much earlier than we think.

Confidence gap

The results of this survey show that at the age of fifteen, girls are typically ahead of boys in reading, boys are only slightly ahead of girls in math, and there is barely any difference between the two in science. The report found that when they looked at attitude, behavior, and confidence, boys are more confident than girls even when they underperform, whereas girls tend to be more anxious about math, even when they perform well in the subject.

Career aspiration gap

Despite the fact that girls tend to outperform boys in STEM subject areas, it is the boys who expect to have careers in engineering or technology. In the U.S., for example, 15% of boys expect careers in engineering or computing, compared with only 2.5% of girls (despite the fact that boys and girls perform similarly in STEM subject areas); girls are more likely to aspire to careers in health services.

Teachers and parents

What does this gender gap tell us about parent and teacher attitudes, work life, and society? The report found that parents are more likely to expect their sons to enter careers in STEM fields, except in East Asian countries where both boys and girls are expected to enter careers in STEM fields, and where boys and girls both outperform almost every other country. They also looked at how boys and girls spend their time outside of school and found that boys spend more time playing video games, while girls spend more time on homework. Another difference they found is that when boys read, they are more likely to read comic books, whereas girls are more likely to read fiction. Finally, girls are more likely to get higher grades in school than boys. The report suggests that this might have more to do with compliance than achievement, a result that might actually push boys to work harder, and to expect to work harder throughout their careers.

What’s new?

While much of this information might not seem new to many readers (boys like video games and comic books; girls lack confidence in math), the implications present some interesting ideas for parents and teachers. For example, the report suggests that students might benefit from greater choice in what they read at school. The report also suggested that there is some evidence that single-player video games might promote problem solving and math skills. Finally, educators need to think about the relationship between curriculum and instruction, gender, and student performance. For example, girls tend to perform better in math when they are allowed to solve problems independently. (Note: These topics have all been addressed by education researchers, such as those who study literacy, technology, and gender.)

As Michael Reiss noted in a post on the IOE London blog this morning, while teacher education used to focus on issues of inequality and teacher assumptions, teacher training courses today might be less likely to go in-depth into these issues. According to Reiss, “We need to get back to realising that how school students see themselves and their subjects is important. If we don’t, too many young people, especially girls, will continue to believe that science is not for them and that they aren’t really that good at it – and then they won’t be.”

Deirdre Faughey

For more on the OECD report released today (IEN will be retweeting posts as they come out during the day):

A closer look at gender gaps in education and beyond | OECD Insights Blog http://buff.ly/1M8GPt6

Obsessing over differences between boys and girls at school won’t fix anything http://buff.ly/1M8GWoy

Why are girls in the UK doing so much less well than boys in school science? | IOE LONDON BLOG http://buff.ly/1Nknl8a

Playing video games can boost exam performance, OECD claims http://buff.ly/17UQoi3

Neues Gender-Pisa: Mathe ist „männlich“, gute Schulleistungen „weiblich“ – Wissen – Tagesspiegel http://buff.ly/1BKUDsK

Students aren’t being taught maths correctly, creating a ‘huge’ learning gap – National – NZ Herald News http://buff.ly/1CB0IcB

 

Early childhood education and the economy

A scan of online news reports published in countries around the world over the past month found that current reports on the topic of early childhood education show a range of economic concerns. While the news in some countries focuses on early childhood education as it relates to childcare, others focus on the connection between education in the early years and economic development. For example, reports from China focus on education as one aspect of whole child development, and similarly, reports from Thailand, India, and Australia, emphasized that early childhood education can be a crucial factor in lifting individuals out of poverty. Other reports focus on the ways in which early childhood education can be an overall investment in a country’s future.

In a recent article, titled “Household income and preschool attendance in China,” Xin Gong, Di Xu, and Wen-Jui Ham, found a positive association between household income and preschool attendance in both rural and urban settings. By showing that household income is influential in determining which children access early childhood education, this article relates with findings presented in a recent report on early childhood development by UNICEF. The UNICEF report points out that “millions of children, especially the most marginalized, are excluded from school,” and finds that international funding for education is on the decline. Yet, according to an article in Want China TimesChina has increased spending on early childhood education, budgeting 50 billion yuan ($8 billion) for a three-year project to provide access to quality education.

Singapore presents the example of a country that, according to the World Bank, placed “education at the core of the nation’s development.” Yet, as an article in The Huffington Post explained, “early-childhood education is one of the few spots where Singapore is not yet a world leader.” However, in response to the 2012 Economist Intelligence Unit, which ranked Singapore’s early childhood education system 29th in the world, the government has “announced funding initiatives for subsidies for parents and childcare centers, new sources of scholarship money for teachers, and the creation of new preschools and kindergartens.”

In Australia, a Productivity Report on Childcare and Early Childhood Learning, released on February 20th, received a critical reception in the press because it did not recommend an increase in funding. Instead, the report recommended the simplification of a complicated system with the introduction of a single early learning subsidy. Geraldine Neylon, writing for The Conversation, called this a “missed opportunity” to build upon prior reforms that focused on teacher quality. In another commentary, published in The Sydney Morning Herald, Matt Wade emphasized that while the current system is due for an overhaul, an investment in early education would lead to greater economic gains for the entire country. Meanwhile, Prime Minister Abbott has suggested policy reforms that would (similar to the report’s recommendations) make childcare more affordable and less regulated, noting in particular that such a move would potentially enable more women to join the workforce. As John Cherry, advocacy manager with the non-profit Goodstart Early Learning, explained in an article in the Sydney Morning Herald: “The number one reform objective is to make childcare more accessible and more affordable for low and middle income families….The number two objective is to continue to raise the quality of care so that children have a better start to their school education. The number three one is to make sure that vulnerable children are getting the support that they need. That costs money.”

Deirdre Faughey

Improving teacher education in Norway

In 2013, Karen Hammerness and Kirsti Klette reported on the efforts to improve teacher education in Norway. In this post, following recent conversations with members of the Ministry of Education in Norway, Hammerness puts the work on teacher education in historical perspective and describes some of the latest developments.

Norway is a particularly interesting country to follow in terms of teacher education policy. Questions about the quality of education came to the forefront in 2000, with the publication of the first PISA results (what some Norwegians refer to as “the PISA-shock”). Those results showed that Norwegian students had not performed as well as many had hoped or expected. In fact, along with students in the United States, Norwegian students’ outcomes, were slightly lower than the average of the OECD countries measured. Concerns continued to mount when the second round of PISA revealed Norwegian students’ performance declining further.

A weak system of teacher education was considered to be one of the key problems. Policy makers and educators pointed to several key challenges. First, teacher preparation was organized around a ‘generalist’ conception of teaching. At the time, the Norwegian system of teacher certification allowed teachers to teach all subjects at all grade levels—a conception captured by the term allmenlærer—roughly translated as “teacher of all.” Next, the quality—and size—of teacher preparation programs varied considerably throughout the country. Furthermore, teacher education coursework in the programs seemed disconnected from teaching practice and was not tightly tied to current research on teaching and learning. Finally, reports suggested a steady decline in applications to teacher education institutions, amplifying concerns about a lack of qualified teachers in the near future.

Teacher education reforms

In response, over the last five years, Norway has invested heavily in funding for work on teacher education and teaching and made a number of important policy changes. In 2010, building upon a white paper that had summarized key concerns about preparation of teachers, Norway transformed their system of certification and established two ‘lines’ or ‘streams’ of certification—a stream that prepares teachers for grades 1-7 (somewhat similar to a primary school certification in the US), and another that prepares teachers to teach grades 5-10 (when lower secondary school ends in Norway). A new national curriculum framework for teacher education was also developed and came into effect in 2010. The framework required more coursework on pedagogy and learner knowledge, including an emphasis upon research-based subject-specific methods, learners’ development, and classroom management. The new framework also created new graduation requirements including the completion of a bachelors’ thesis, related to teaching and learning. In addition, new regulations stipulated that teacher education programs would need to increase the percentage of faculty who have completed doctoral studies—ultimately, requiring programs to ensure that 50% of faculty have PhDs.

A proposal was also made to address some larger ‘structural’ issues that affected the quality of higher education. In particular, in 2008, the government released a report calling for a reduction in programs in higher education, including teacher education. Correspondingly, some policymakers expected that the new requirements might lead to significant restructuring, particularly among smaller and more remote teacher education programs. Conceivably, such programs might decide to focus upon one degree; they might start to share students, collaborate or even merge with other local institutions; or the programs might determine that they could not meet the new demands and might voluntarily choose to close.

Responses to the reforms

These moves to streamline programs are not easy in a country like Norway. Teacher preparation has been central to the identity of many of the smaller institutions throughout the country—reflecting a social policy that has been supportive of small institutions in a country in which the population has been somewhat ‘spread out’ across a wide geographical area. The existence of such small, local academic institutions (and teacher preparation programs) reflects a national investment and policy support for the deeply held value of living and working locally. This support for living in in widely-dispersed regions throughout the country in fact has been a historical Norwegian value–and it seems understandable, given that Norway spans about 2,500 miles from north to south (and, with 25,000 miles of rugged coastline, it is among the ten countries with the longest coastlines).

Norwegian educators point out that teacher education programs have been central to supporting and financially maintaining smaller regional institutions of higher education. As Øyvind Johnson, a Senior Advisor at the Ministry, noted, “Teacher education is the pillar of many of these small institutions.” Many of these institutions prepare only a very few teachers every year (although of course, they also are intended to prepare teachers who are committed to remaining local). For instance, reflective of the small scale of some of these institutions: a recent report found that of the twenty programs in Norway that prepare teachers for teaching in grades 1-7, as many as twelve institutions have fewer than 50 student-teachers, and two have as few as nine students.

The new requirements have put considerable strain on some of the smaller institutions throughout Norway to redesign, develop new curriculum, and to change program expectations. However, Ministry representatives reported that none of the programs thus far had chosen to focus only upon one certification ‘stream’ nor had any programs voluntarily closed entirely. At one point, the Ministry considered requiring programs to have a minimum of twenty students in order to remain open, but never put such a requirement in place. As Johnson noted, “If programs had under twenty applicants, what would you do?” In short, policymakers have been trying to develop policies that both strengthen programs and continue to provide support for small, local institutions (and local communities) all the while, maximizing flexibility and equity of participation. Not surprisingly, under these conditions, the number of teacher education programs that offered the allmenlærer degree has not changed since the reform: there were twenty programs prior to the latest reforms, and twenty remain.

What’s Next: A continued focus on “existing programs”

In considering future steps to continue to improve teacher education, the ministry has also just released a new strategy, Lærerløftet (or, raising teachers), which has set forth a set of key themes for continued improvement of teacher education. Top among them is the requirement that teachers in both streams will have to obtain a master’s degree. By 2017, all teacher education programs must be structured as 5-year programs. Senior advisors from the Ministry reported that several reasons underlay that decision: the desire to ensure that teachers are substantially well-prepared and the belief that an additional year beyond a Bachelor’s degree provides more depth of training; more support for teachers to use research in their teaching and to draw upon scientific knowledge in their work; and an opportunity for teachers to develop an understanding of the research base of teaching and learning through their work on a Master’s thesis. As Dalen Tennøe explained, “We looked to Finland, that teacher education should be research-based.” The latest strategy also calls for tightening requirements for entry into teacher education—Norwegian students are graded on a scale of 1-6 (1 being lowest and 6 highest), and currently the requirement has been that to enter teacher preparation one needed a three average in mathematics and Norwegian. Now, prospective teachers will need at least a four in mathematics to enter teacher education. Illustrating the challenges however, at the same time that the policy makers use the example of Finland to support the strengthening of these requirements, a recent newspaper article with the headline “Yrket som falt fra statustoppen” (the profession fallen from high status), shows that critics of these policies also use Finland as an example to argue that teachers should be granted greater autonomy without policy makers’ intrusions.

However the debate develops, Norwegian policymakers are not considering the development of alternative routes into teaching as a policy lever for improving teacher preparation. (For a related argument on why policy makers might not consider alternative pathways into teacher education, see Pasi Sahlberg’s post on why there is no Teach for Finland.) Senior Advisors in Norway were quite clear that the focus of policy was improvement of current programs, not on adding new or alternative pathways. Although Norway does have a “Teach First” program, it is the only alternative program in the country—it is offered at the University of Oslo and has only 20 students. As Fredrik Dalen Tennøe, Deputy Director General, Norwegian Ministry of Education and Research, noted, “The main focus has been improving the teacher education programs which are there already, not introducing new [pathways] into the schools.”