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.”


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