Tag Archives: curriculum

Poland: Reforming an improving school system

A recent scan of the education news in Europe highlights that new education reforms in Poland are making the headlines.  While Poland’s PISA scores are going up, there is still considerable controversy over the direction of further improvement initiatives. The current reforms have been positioned as occurring within a broader political struggle in the country.

The proposed new reforms would change the system from a three-tier school system (with elementary, middle, and high schools) to just two levels.  In the new system, students will attend an eight-year elementary school, and then they will spend four years in either a high school or a vocational school.

The protest against the Law and Justice (PiS) party's education reform proposal (pictured) (AFP Photo/Janek Skarzynski)

The protest against the Law and Justice (PiS) party’s education reform proposal (pictured) (AFP Photo/Janek Skarzynski)

Since a series of education reforms passed in 1998-1999, Polish students have attended 6-year elementary schools, three-year lower secondary (or, middle) schools, and three-year upper secondary schools. This approach had been a part of a broader school improvement effort that has contributed to Poland’s success on international measures of student achievement, such as the PISA exams. According to a 2011 OECD report, the structural changes of the 1998-1999 reform included the creation of a new type of school, called the lower secondary school “gymnasium,” which became a symbol of the reform. Vocational training was postponed by one year, allowing a greater number of students to be assessed. The reformers of the time argued that these improvements would allow Poland to raise the level of education by reaching more students in rural areas. Reformers also argued that these changes would allow teachers to use methods and curricula more suited to the needs of students, and that by linking the structural change with curricular reform, teachers would be encouraged to change what and how they teach.

Critics of the 1998-99 changes, like current Law and Justice MP Dariusz Piontkowski (and former teacher), however, complained that students were only being prepared to take tests. Piontkowski looks forward to curricular reforms that will come after the structural reforms:

“We are bringing back the teaching of history. We are bringing back patriotic education,” he declared. “It’s time that pupils understand what they are learning.”

Nonetheless, tens of thousands of people, mostly teachers, are reported to be protesting against the new reforms fearing dramatic loss in jobs and “chaos” in the schools. However, these protests are not focusing on schools alone; they are seen as part of a wave of concern about what is seen as the government’s broader populist, conservative agenda. Questions are being raised about restrictions placed on journalists and what is seen as new barriers to transparency in government, particularly as politicians were frustrated about the voting process that ushered in this new reform. Protestors reportedly chanted: “No to chaos,” and, “The death of Polish education.”

For more on educational reform in Poland see:

Eurydice: The System of Education in Poland in Brief

NCEE:  Poland Overview

OECD: Education at a Glance 2016, Poland Country Note

The Impact of the 1999 Reform in Poland

Deirdre Faughey

Life after levels: Is the new Year 6 Maths test changing the way teachers teach?

This week we share a blog post written by Melanie Ehren and Nick Wollaston. Originally published on the IOE London Blog, of University College London, this blog is part of a Nuffield foundation funded research project Dr. Ehren coordinates. The research looks at the Key Stage 2 test in mathematics in England and how the test affects teaching of primary mathematics. The test is administered in year 6 (end of Primary school) and is considered to be high stakes as schools performing below the floor standard are monitored by Ofsted (the Inspectorate of Education), face potential forced academization, and test outcomes are used in (teachers’ and head teacher’s) performance management reviews. The test has undergone changes this year to reflect the new national curriculum, and the researchers have asked teachers (after the administration of the new test) how they are changing their teaching in response to the changes in the test. More info on the project (and a broader introduction) is on the website: www.highstakestesting.co.uk

Here we share the blog post in full. To read the post on the IOE London Blog, click here.


Life after levels: is the new Year 6 maths test changing the way teachers teach?

Earlier this month (5 July), the Department for Education published the results of the Key Stage 2 test for 10 and 11-year-olds. The publication was awaited with more anxiety than usual as this year’s test was the first one on the new national curriculum. One of the major changes in the test is the removal of the ‘old’ national curriculum levels 3, 4 and 5, where children were expected to reach at least a level 4. The level 6 paper for the most able children has also gone and results are now reported as ‘scaled scores[1]’. Each pupil now has to achieve at least a score of 100 to reach the expected standard. It seems like a minor change with little impact on how teachers teach mathematics and prepare children for the test, but recent findings from our Nuffield-funded study suggest otherwise.

We interviewed 30 Year 6 teachers in schools performing both below and above the floor standard in Mathematics. Interviews took place prior to the changes in the test in May/June 2015, and again after the changes in the test in May/June 2016. In the interviews in 2015, levels were one of the key topics teachers talked about when we asked them about notable features of the test that would inform their teaching. They explained how each of the two written Maths test papers would start with easy level 3 questions, have level 4 questions in the middle and finish with the difficult level 5 items at the end. This order of questions according to difficulty level would allow the lower attaining children to access the test, according to these teachers, and would build their confidence in answering the questions and their motivation to do well on the test. Teachers tell us in the second round of interviews, how all the questions are now ‘at level 5’ and how some of their lower attaining children stared at them in horror when opening their test booklet, asking them where the easy questions had gone.

Not only does the abolition of levels seem to have an impact on children’s motivation and confidence in test taking, it also appears to have a profound impact on how teachers come to understand and teach mathematics. Prior to the introduction of scaled scores, teachers would talk about gradually building up the level of difficulty when teaching specific mathematical content areas, such as ‘number sense and calculation’, ‘data handling’ or ‘shape and space’. Level 3, 4 and 5 test items on past Key Stage 2 test papers would help them understand the hierarchical nature of mathematics and how to introduce children to, for example, increasingly more difficult calculations (e.g. moving from one step to multistep problems, or from adding and subtracting whole numbers to adding and subtracting decimals). Resources such as Test Base would allow them to access available questions according to content area and difficulty level and they could simply download relevant questions when teaching a specific skill. Now that the levels have been removed, some of the teachers tell us that they just focus on getting all students to perform at level 5 in number and calculation as this is where most of the marks on the test are given and some hardly teach shape and space at all. These teachers also talk about moving towards a more ‘mastery style’ of teaching where they ensure that all students master the basics before they move on to teach more complex skills or other (more complex) content domains, such as algebra or geometry.

It is too early to know how widespread these changes are and the effect they will have on children’s understanding of mathematics. Our study, however, indicates that we need to keep a close eye on the breadth and depth of what our children are learning as some of these changes may be masked by an average single test score.


[1] A pupil’s scaled score is based on their raw score. The raw score is the total number of marks a pupil scores in a test, based on the number of questions they answered correctly. The Standard and Testing Agency develops tests each year to the same specification, but because the questions must be different, the difficulty of tests may vary slightly each year. This means that the raw scores pupils get in the tests need to be converted into a scaled score to be able make accurate comparisons of pupil performance over time. Every scaled score will represent the same level of attainment for a pupil each year, so a pupil who scores 103, for example, in 2016 will have demonstrated the same attainment as a pupil who scores 103 in 2017. A scaled score of 100 will always represent the expected standard on the test. Pupils scoring 100 or more will have met the expected standard on the test. In 2016, panels of teachers set the raw score required to meet the expected standard on each test.

Curriculum and assessment in African countries

This week, we conducted a scan of education news published in the past month from countries in Africa. These articles highlight efforts to increase access and quality of education through the implementation of national curricula and assessments and through initiatives focused on teacher recruitment, salaries, and training.

South Sudan recently launched its first national curriculum. Gurtong.net quoted Jonathan Veitch, UNICEF Country Representative, as saying…

“For now the curriculum is complete, textbooks must be designed and published, teachers need to be trained to implement this curriculum, and school managers, inspectors and supervisors require training to provide the required management and oversight….”

Reports from South Africa (recently ranked “almost dead last in math and science” on this year’s World Economic Forum Global Competitiveness report, as News24 noted) show that even with curriculum and assessments in place, educators need to see their worth in order for them to be useful for instruction. The Daily Maverick recently reported that both the teachers’ union and the Department of Basic Education agree that the current national assessments are not effective, and some teachers’ unions have already promised to “opt-out” of administering the current assessments.

Tensions between teachers and the national government in Kenya also reflect something of a “Catch-22.” In a recent World Bank report, concern was expressed that the quality of education in the country was alarmingly inadequate. On the one hand, many critics of the government, including many teachers, argue that the reasons include the government’s failure to comply with a court order to increase teacher salaries by 50-60%. In response, teachers are engaged in a formal, long-term strike to protest inadequate salary, which they would like to see rise to the levels of other professions. On the other hand, supporters of the government suggest that the teacher strikes are contributing to the problems because they result in irregular access to classrooms for most students. In a stalemate, the Education Ministry ordered schools to close as of September 21st.

According to All Africa, Cameroon’s Education Ministry is taking steps to try to “professionalize” teaching by bringing in Dutch consultants to help refine teacher training, as well as curriculum. According to Roeland Monasch, the CEO of the Dutch NGO Aflatoun, the solution is simple: “He assured that once teachers are well trained, students will do well in class.”

Deirdre Faughey

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This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License.

Multicultural Education in South Korea

Over the past decade or so, South Korea (as well as Taiwan and Japan) has experienced a wave of immigration that has resulted in an increasingly ethnic and racially diverse population. The issue has received considerable attention—from the media, as well as from politicians—as the country works to find ways to address the needs of multicultural population, as well as a rising concerns about ethnic conflictsdiscrimination, and a general sense that South Korea is “not ready for multiculturalism.” However, South Korea is a country that been considering ways to “redefine multiculturalism,” such as with the concept of Tamunhwa (multiculturalism), which suggests that South Koreans need to learn as much as they can about the new immigrant population while finding ways to create a “new national identity not based on ethnicity.”

Dr. Jeehun Kim & Dr. Jang-ham Na

Dr. Jeehun Kim & Dr. Jang-ham Na

In order to learn more about how educators are addressing multiculturalism in the classroom, Eun-Kyoung Chung and Deirdre Faughey spoke with Dr. Jeehun Kim and Dr. Jang-ham Na, two visiting scholars at Teachers College, Columbia University, this semester. In this interview, posted on Esteem: Conversations Between Educators, the two scholars explain what they are learning about the multicultural classroom in South Korea. For example, while textbooks and the curriculum are centralized and the Ministry of Education has established guidelines for multicultural instruction, there is no mechanism for ensuring that these guidelines are followed by teachers and schools. This might be problematic for curricular reforms that aim to cater to multicultural populations that are geographically specific, as well as curricular reforms that aim to promote sensitivity to multiculturalism throughout the country.  The scholars also address the issue of teacher education, and the difficulties that sometimes arise when student teachers ask for strategies and methods that address the needs of a diverse student body. Since South Koreans have long considered their population homogenous, the issue of multiculturalism can become personal. As Jang-ham Na explains, “When it comes to multiculturalism, depending on what social background you have, sometimes you have some privilege compared with others. But the privilege will be gone in other places. So we have to be more critical.”

Esteem has also published recent interviews with scholars such as Luis Huerta, Christopher Emdin, Karen Hammerness, Maxine Greene, and Pedro Noguera.  To learn more please visit www.esteemjournal.org

News scan: Germany and Ireland

This week, a scan of the news coming from Europe led us to put several links on Twitter; however, over the past year we’ve noticed more than one report on related topics. Here is a brief description of news coming out of Germany and Ireland. Next week, we will take a closer look at reports coming out of Central and South American countries.


According to a new study, Germany will not be able to meet ambitious education goals the country set for itself in 2008. Angela Merkel aimed to cut the dropout rate from 8% to 4%, but as of 2013 the rate stood at 5.7%. The German government is also struggling to reduce the number of young people (aged 20-29) who were without any professional qualification.  Interestingly, another report pointed out that there has been an ongoing Twitter debate (in German) about the country’s educational system, sparked by one girl who tweeted, “I am almost 18 and have no idea about taxes, rent or insurance. But, I can analyze a poem. In 4 languages.” The debate is raging over the purpose of an education and whether or not schools should prepare students for “life.”



Teachers are protesting in Ireland because they disagree with government reforms that aim to move student evaluations away from standardized testing and towards a performance-based model, which would allow portfolios and other options. Teachers are concerned that the new assessments will force teachers to judge their own students, rather than advocate for them. They also object to the amount of time teachers will need to spend on the new assessments. Pasi Sahlsburg responded to the teachers’ plan to strike by saying that teachers need to take on more complex roles in order to boost the profession. In addition to seeing themselves differently, teachers need to see the students differently–and that’s what the alternative assessment model is all about. According to Sahlsburg, the situation in Ireland is “unique globally in many ways. Internationally it is more common that teachers are the ones that insist more freedom and autonomy in assessing and grading their students rather than the other way round.” In this case, an additional issue might be that teachers are wary of new, complex practices that they don’t have the capacity to carry out—practices that might seem unnecessary, particularly after Irish students just achieved test results that surpassed those the country set for the year 2020.

Deirdre Faughey

The Finnish Core Curriculum Renewal

While we’ve been in Finland these past two weeks, we’ve been learning about the “renewal” of the Finnish Core Curriculum. In a recent post for Diane Ravitch, Pasi Sahlberg gave a Finnish perspective on some of the similarities and differences between this core curriculum and that of the Common Core in the US. As U.S. educators who have been studying teacher education and school improvement efforts in a number of countries including Finland, we are finding several other aspects of the renewal process particularly interesting.

The “Core Curriculum” is not really a curriculum

As others have noted, the Finnish core curriculum for basic education (grades 1-9) is better understood as a kind of ‘framework’ that guides curriculum and instruction—rather than a strict and specific scope and sequence of topics and skills that must be taught. Less well known perhaps is the fact that the demands of the core curriculum go far beyond specifying the objectives in school subjects. In fact, the core curriculum requires (among other things) that the curriculum developed by municipalities and schools reflects the underlying values of Finnish basic education (“human rights, equality, democracy, natural diversity, preservation of environmental viability, and the endorsement of multiculturalism”); describes the main features of a school’s “working culture”; specifies criteria for grading and for final exams in ninth grade (the end of Finnish basic education); establishes objectives for pupil behavior; dictates that parents’ and guardians should be able to have an influence on local education objectives; and requires the drafting of the local curriculum in collaboration with those involved in municipal social and health services.

The Finnish core curriculum has evolved over time

While we were initially told that the core curriculum is revised or “renewed” every 10 years, we’ve found that there is no hard and fast rule about this (in contrast to Singapore, for example, where the curriculum for each subject is revisited on a regular schedule). However, periodic debates about education have initiated revisions in the curriculum in 1985, 1994, in 2004, and today. Each time the process and outcomes have been somewhat different, calibrated it seems to provide tighter control at some points and more flexibility in others (see Karl Weick and others on tight and loose coupling).

Diptic-2In the 1970’s for example, the entire nation was engaged in the development of the Finnish basic education system and a Finnish national curriculum specifying what was to be taught in each subject and at each level was created. (In fact, the accompanying picture of the original curriculum of the 1970’s only includes the first section, a thicker volume includes the curriculum for each subject). Almost immediately, however, discussions about the need for local flexibility began, and the first revision in 1985 created the first “core curriculum.” The core curriculum was somewhat thinner, providing guidelines, objectives, and content for school subjects, and granting municipalities primary responsibility for developing their own curricula. In the 1990’s, in an era of decentralization, the core curriculum became even thinner as guidelines were reduced further and power to draw up local curricula in many municipalities was delegated to schools. But by the early 2000’s (notably just before the first PISA results were released), there were concerns in Finland about a lack of consistency across schools and about a lack of support and specificity from some municipalities (particularly smaller municipalities that had very limited staff to work on the curriculum). Those concerns contributed to an expansion of the national guidelines in 2004 that specified some of the criteria that teachers and schools had to use to assess students’ performance. In the current renewal, some the initial discussions of changes have focused on the kind of teaching teachers can do to promote learning and on broadening the conception of good teaching beyond ‘traditional’ desk learning to include a variety of active, constructivist and research-based strategies; but whether the core curriculum will be thinner or thicker, “tighter” or “looser,” remains to be seen.

The process for developing the core curriculum may be as important as the outcome

Although the process for developing the core curriculum has evolved over time, particularly in the last two renewal cycles there has been extensive involvement of key education stakeholders from the very beginning of the discussions. Thus, numerous “curriculum groups” have been at work developing the guidelines and objectives in each subject and aspect of the core curriculum. Teachers are at the center of these committees, though the committees also include school leaders, municipal administrators, teacher educators, and researchers among others (and many of those other representatives have themselves been teachers at some point in time). In addition, an advisory board overseeing the whole process includes a cross-section of representatives of teachers, school leaders, parents, students, textbook publishers, researchers, teacher educators, ethnic groups (for instance representatives of the Sami people), and municipalities.

In past revision cycles, there were opportunities available to give feedback to the draft curriculum before it was formally adopted. However, this particular revision has been the most “open” of all. Surveys have been sent to all the municipalities so that they can share their responses to initial drafts; municipalities and schools have been encouraged to share and discuss the initial proposals with parents and students; and initial drafts of the curriculum have been made available online so that anyone who wants to can provide feedback. That feedback has already come from numerous individuals as from more than 200 different organizations representing many aspects of Finnish society. Members of the committees are looking at that feedback as they make revisions. The feedback addresses the broad objectives as well as the specific language used. (For example, the use of the word “tolerance” in an early draft’s discussion of diversity and culture was changed because of feedback that it conveyed a limited sense of acceptance, rather than mutual respect and understanding.) Interestingly, those we talked to who have been involved in the process also report that there are widespread concerns about financing and the ability of schools and municipalities to adopt the new guidelines. In turn, these concerns are contributing to calls from some in the field for more detailed guidance from the national authorities. In the end, the curriculum groups will make the proposals for the new guidelines and the leaders of the National Board of Education will make the final decision.

The process builds shared understanding and collective responsibility

Of course, such an open process can be unwieldy, but the wide engagement of teachers, leaders, teacher educators, textbook publishers, researchers, parents, students and others in the process creates social connections that facilitate the sharing of information and knowledge about the changes long before those changes are actually made. In fact, the working committees and feedback process has been going on since about 2012, well before the new core curriculum is scheduled to be adopted this year and long before the required development of new local curriculum in 2016. That means that those who are involved in supporting the work of teachers and students—like teacher educators and textbook publishers—are already getting a sense of where the revisions are heading and what kinds of changes they will need to make so that the whole system is “ready” at the introduction of the new local curriculum.

More than a mere adjustment to ensure the system is “aligned”, however, the curriculum renewal process can also be seen as an extension of the crucial, collective, nation-building effort that Finland launched in the 1970’s to create the basic education system. Curriculum renewal in Finland provides an opportunity for those all across the country to re-commit themselves to a national enterprise and to develop the shared responsibility for carrying it out.

— Tom Hatch & Karen Hammerness



Ruairí Quinn calls for “inclusive debate” on education in Ireland

Donal Walsh, SchoolDays.ie (December 18, 2012)

Ireland: Google Images

In response to the recently released TIMSS and PIRLS scores, Ruairí Quinn, Ireland’s Education Minister, wants to reassess the amount of time students spend studying each subject. While Irish students performed at an above average level, the students of Northern Ireland achieved better results in mathematics. Quinn believes that the solution is to ensure a higher standard of knowledge amongst primary school teachers, and to increase the amount of time the students spend studying math and science. He said: “I have asked the National Council for Curriculum and Assessment to review the recommended time allocations for all subjects in the primary school.”

For more information:

What will happen in education in 2013?


Education reform puts Spain, Catalonia on collision course

The Hurriyet Daily News (December 7, 2012)

Irene Rigau EFE

Irene Rigau EFE

Education reforms and austerity measures in Spain have caused tension and separatist sentiments in the Catalonian region. At issue is the issue of teaching the Catalan language in schools. Jose Ignacio Wert (Spain’s National Education Minister) proposed that all schools focus on teaching the Spanish language in all regions, effectively removing the requirement that students in Catalonia speak Catalan in university. He also proposed that the region should fund Spanish-language private schooling for families that demanded it. Defenders of the current system, such as Irene Rigau (Catalonia regional education counselor) view the plan as an assault on cultural identity, while Wert insisted “there is no part of the reform that undervalues the importance of Catalan.”

For more information:

La Generalitat cree que las palabras de Wert responden a una “visión preconstitucional de España”

Catalans protest ‘return to Franco’ as schools are told to teach more Spanish

Barcelona soccer club defends use, teaching of Catalan language at politically sensitive time


Education takes a dramatic new course
Hall, B.  The Age (10 July 2012)

The Australian Curriculum, Assessment and Reporting Authority (ACARA) announced that all schools would be required to enroll in dance, drama, media arts, music and the visual arts until year 10 under a draft new national curriculum released yesterday.  However, schools would have some discretion as to how they teach them.  In conjunction with the announcement, the Education Minister, Peter Garrett, said “making the arts a key part of the new national curriculum would have ‘huge’ positive impacts for students.”  For instance, teaching such subjects inspires creativity, encourages young people to think critically, boosts self-esteem, aids the development of their sense of identity and can provide great benefits for learning in other core areas.