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)
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.”
In this latest post in theLeading Futures Series, edited by Alma Harris and Michelle Jones,Zongyi Deng and S. Gopinathan shine a spotlight on the success of Singapore’s school system and argue that the country’s success comes from educational policies and practices that have helped to develop social cohesion, economic development, and nation building. As Deng and Gopinathan suggest, reforms that aim to borrow “best practices” must consider the social, cultural and institutional contexts of which they are a part.
Singapore has been widely recognised as one of the world’s top-performing systems. Its extraordinary record of students’ performance in international comparative studies of achievement includes: first in problem-solving, second in mathematics, and third in science and reading (PISA 2012); second in mathematics, fourth in science and fifth in reading (PISA 2009); first in science (both primary 4 and secondary 2 levels) and second in mathematics (primary 4 level), and third in mathematics (secondary 2 level) (TIMSS 2007); and fourth among 45 education systems (PIRLS 2006). What explains the top rankings in the current PISA tests? What lessons, if any, could Singapore offer other countries who want to improve on their educational performances?
As with other high-performing countries, answers to these two questions can be found in a body of literature (reports, books and articles) written by international organizations like the OECD and the World Bank, consultancy firms like McKinsey and Grattan, and educational spokesmen and scholars like Pasi Sahlberg and Pat Tee Ng. Singapore is said to have a high- quality teaching force ensured and enhanced by high standards of teacher recruitment, effective teacher preparation and professional development. The school system is run by high-quality school leadership developed through careful selection, leadership experiences and professional development programmes. In addition, the country sets high academic expectations and standards for its students and monitors the performance of schools against those expectations and standards. Furthermore, Singapore is noted to have implemented educational reform to promote student-centric and ICT-enhanced pedagogy that encourages deep learning, critical thinking and creativity.
Overall, this body of literature adopts the “best practice” approach to explaining the educational success of a high-performing system wherein a set of particular characteristics are identified and translated into best practices for borrowing worldwide. However, whether the identified characteristics are causally linked to the system’s superior performance in PISA is an open question, with little or no empirical evidence to justify the identification. In addition, lacking in such explanation are those factors beyond school—educational history, family aspirations, parental involvement, private tuition, etc.—that could play a part in PISA success, particularly in Asian countries.
In our latest article (Deng & Gopinathan, 2016), we provide an alternative explanation for Singapore’s education success and, in so doing, question such an approach to explaining the education success of a high-performing country. From a historical perspective, education has played a vital role in the success story of Singapore—the remarkable transformation from a fishing village to a first world country over four decades. Such a transformation has much to do with the effective implementation of a set of educational policies and reforms by a strong and competent government. Among these policies were the bilingual policy in the 1950s which encourages Singaporeans to be proficient in both the English language and in their respective ethnic mother tongues (Chinese Mandarin, Malay, and Tamil), and the streaming policy in the late 1970s which track primary and secondary students into various streams based on their examination results. The implementation of the bilingual policy entails a commitment to equality with respect to language rights of the three main ethic groups and a recognition of the necessity and value of English as an international language to Singapore. The streaming policy, modified and adjusted over the years, has reduced attrition and early school leaving. In addition, the government mandated and implemented a uniform and common curriculum (taught in English) centered on the study of mathematics, science and languages, with technical subjects as a supplement, and made a firm commitment to the principle of meritocracy. Universal free primary education and curriculum standardization were achieved by the late 1970s and early 1980s, respectively. In short, educational policy and practice in Singapore has functioned as a means for social cohesion, a vehicle for economic development, and for nation building.
While it has been sometimes fashionable to decry the significance of school education in the West, and indeed be skeptical about the role schools can play in social, civic, and even economic functions, in Singapore there are few such doubts (Gopinathan, 2007). This leads to our questioning of the employment of PISA results as the prime yardstick of the educational performance of an education system. The primary function of school education as conceived in PISA is economic—developing competencies for the economy in the 21st century. Such a conception entails a narrowing of the function of education, thus reducing the social and civic significance of an education system.
The historical perspective also brings to light two basic features of the system that may better help explain Singapore’s high rankings in PISA:
First, the national curriculum stresses the development of students’ competences in mathematics, science and languages – the three subjects tested in PISA. Second, a commitment to academic rigour and standards, underpinned by the principle of meritocracy and enforced by a system of national high-stakes examinations (PSLE [Primary School Leaving Examination], ‘O’ and ‘A’ levels), has lifted the floor under the quality of teaching and learning for all student groups throughout the school years (Deng & Gopinathan, 2016).
However, the national curriculum, together with the high-stakes examination system, has steered classroom practice towards a kind that is still largely traditional and didactic in nature, directed towards the transmission of curriculum content and examination performance. Since the mid-1980s the government has attempted to alter such a traditional practice through educational reform. The most progressive and radical reform came in 1997 when then Prime Minister Goh introduced the framework of Thinking Schools, Learning Nation (TSLN). Subsequently, a plethora of reform initiatives have been rolled out in schools, which aim at producing pedagogical changes characterized by: (1) more opportunities for constructing knowledge, higher-order thinking, and innovation; (2) more meaningful use of ICT for teaching and learning; (3) more time on interdisciplinary learning and a greater emphasis on knowledge application.
Notwithstanding multiple reform initiatives to encourage the TSLN’s pedagogical vision, pedagogical practice in Singapore’s classrooms has remained largely traditional, directed towards curriculum content delivery and examination performance. There is very little evidence of sustained teaching for higher order thinking, meaningful use of ICT, students’ constructing knowledge, and interdisciplinary learning (Deng & Gopinathan, 2016)
This finding, in fact, is consistent with what is found in the international literature about the inability of reform to alter conventional classroom practice.
It is therefore questionable that the success of Singapore in PISA can be attributable to the government’s implementation of educational reforms aimed at transforming classroom pedagogy. In fact, if TSLN’s reform initiatives had an impact on classroom practice, it would probably have led to a fall in students’ performance in PISA. There is empirical evidence in Finland and Canada (Quebec) confirming that when the traditional and teacher-centred pedagogy is replaced by a student-centric, constructivist one, the PISA results of a system decline (Sahlgren, 2015).
The CRPP’s empirical findings reveal a distinct kind of ‘hybrid pedagogy’ that serves to explain in part Singaporean students’ success in PISA:
Classroom teaching is largely driven by content coverage and preparing students for semester-end and high-stakes examinations, with the primary focus on the transmission of knowledge and skills contained in the national curriculum (represented by teaching and examination syllabi).
Accordingly, classroom teachers tend, to a large degree, to rely on whole-class forms of lesson organisation, with whole-class lectures and question-and-answer sequences (IRE) as the dominant methods. They also depend heavily on textbooks and instructional materials and provide students with a significant amount of worksheets and homework, with a special focus on their mastery of specific procedures and problem-solving skills.
When teachers do make limited use of constructivist pedagogical methods – such as checking prior knowledge, monitoring understanding and providing formative feedback – they largely do so for the purpose of getting students to know the correct answers rather than developing their conceptual understanding and higher order thinking. Classroom talk, largely dominated by teachers and used mostly for checking content mastery, does not lead to extended conversation and critical thinking on the part of the students (Deng & Gopinathan, 2006; also see Hogan, 2014).
And, this pedagogy is regulated and shaped by a centralized education system, with a national curriculum that prescribes what is to be learnt and taught. It is also powerfully driven by high stakes examinations which stream students into various school types and curriculum tracks based on their examination performances.
In view of such pedagogy and its underpinning cultural and institutional arrangements, Singapore’s superior performance in PISA no longer appears to be a miracle. Here comes a paradox. Singapore’s pedagogy is still largely conservative, directed toward the transmission of predetermined content and examination performance. Yet PISA is strongly forward-looking and future-oriented, with the ambition of testing skill in authentic contexts deemed essential for the 21st century. If this is true, then Singapore’s pedagogy must be seen as functioning well in preparing students for the 21st century. However, it has been widely recognized that such pedagogy is ineffective in developing individual talents, critical and innovative thinkers for the knowledge-based economy.
The paradox exists because of the uncritical acceptance of PISA by many politicians and policy-makers. PISA tests, framed by the test taking situation and in the form of paper-and pencil items, do not live up to its promise of testing real-life skills and competencies in authentic contexts. Furthermore, the claim that PISA measures the competencies needed for 21st century, Stefan Hopmann argues, is unwarranted and questionable; OECD provides neither sufficient justifications nor systemic research evidence for it.
In conclusion, the social, cultural and institutional contexts of schools in Singapore, and the kind of pedagogy regulated, supported, and constrained in such contexts, are vital in understanding Singapore’s top rankings in the current PISA tests. It is therefore questionable that one can borrow “best practices” from a system without a careful consideration of the social, cultural and institutional contexts of which they are a part. Furthermore, the OECD’s claims that PISA results provide the prime indicator of the educational performance of a country and that PISA measures skills needed for life in the 21st century are questionable and contested.
Notes on Authors
Zongyi Deng is an associate professor at National Institute of Education, Nanyang Technological University.
S. Gopinathan is an adjunct professor at the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy, National University of Singapore.
In 2003, the Ontario government began to focus on issues of educational improvement. The government instituted a series of reforms that have proven incredibly successful, with elementary achievement results rising from 54% in 2003 to 72% in 2014, and high school graduation rates rising from 68% to 84% in the same amount of time. This past summer I spoke with Mary Jean Gallagher, Ontario’s Chief Student Achievement Officer and Assistant Deputy Minister of the Student Achievement Division, and Richard Franz, Ontario’s Director of Research, Evaluation & Capacity Building, to learn more about their experiences with this reform effort thus far, and their plans for the future. As this conversation was so informative, we have decided to post it in two parts. In part one we focused on aspects of the reform that have been key to its success thus far. Here, in part two, we explore Ontario’s approach to moving forward with an expanded reform agenda.
Planning the Future:
In 2013, Ontario’s Ministry of Education (MOE) set a renewed vision for the education system. This process allowed them to identify critical information about what they have achieved, and share this information with parents, business leaders, community members, teachers and students. As Gallagher explained, as a result of Ontario’s success over the past decade, “we have a newfound respect for our ability to set goals and measure progress and achieve them, so we are more careful about goals we set.” By engaging in a broadly based, 7-month collaborative consultation process, they engaged both qualitative and quantitative research methods to determine their next steps.
This process culminated in the production of their “Achieving Excellence” report. This report identifies four new, interconnecting goals for the education system. As they are described in the report:
Achieving Excellence: Children and students of all ages will achieve high levels of academic performance, acquire valuable skills and demonstrate good citizenship. Educators will be supported in learning continuously and will be recognized as among the best in the world.
Ensuring Equity: All children and students will be inspired to reach their full potential, with access to rich learning experiences that begin at birth and continue into adulthood.
Promoting Well-Being: All children and students will develop enhanced mental and physical health, a positive sense of self and belonging, and the skills to make positive choices.
Enhancing Public Confidence: Ontarians will continue to have confidence in a publicly funded education system that helps develop new generations of confident, capable and caring citizens.
As Gallagher and Franz explained, the process of determining these goals helped them to understand that in the future they need to “heighten the relevance of what people are learning, increase experiential learning, and use the community more broadly.” By engaging community members in the process they were able to learn that those members felt they had valuable information and experiences to offer the educational system, and were being underutilized. As a result, the MOE is now thinking of better ways to reach out.
Another key aspect that emerged is the importance of student voice. Since the consultation process included school-age students, the MOE was able to learn more about what the students felt needed to be changed about their own education. The MOE, for example, developed a program called “Students as Researchers,” which invites students to formulate questions about how to make their schools better places and trains them in research skills and ethics so that they can design and implement their own research projects, which are then shared with the MOE.
Challenges of new goals:
Looking ahead, Gallagher and Franz explained that there is some tension around the notion that good teaching and learning must be measured. New challenges include thinking about ways in which the system might be able to broaden the measures of success, and what counts as success, so that the emphasis is not only on test scores. This is particularly relevant since one of their new goals is to improve student well-being. In setting the goal, the MOE also must consider how to measure something that has no history of measurement or policy focus.
Another concern is the additional demands of the bureaucracy that might be added once new goals, and new measurement systems for those goals, are implemented. As Gallagher and Franz noted, one of the reasons for the success of the education reforms so far has been attributed to the narrow focus on a small number of goals. With a focus on the renewed four goals, how can they be incorporated into a successful system without overburdening it? As Franz explained, the new tension is about how to do it all is such a way that gets you the insight and information needed to guide the practices of all involved in the system in addressing the new goals, while continuing to build coherence such that actions in the name of one goal also support achievement of the other goals.
In 2003, the Ontario government began to focus on issues of educational improvement. The government instituted a series of reforms that have proven incredibly successful, with elementary achievement results rising from 54% in 2003 to 72% of elementary students performing at or above the provincial standard in in reading, writing and mathematics in 2014, and high school graduation rates rising from 68% to 84% in the same amount of time. This past summer I spoke with Mary Jean Gallagher, Ontario’s Chief Student Achievement Officer and Assistant Deputy Minister of the Student Achievement Division, and Richard Franz, Director of Research, Evaluation & Capacity Building, for the Student Achievement Division, to learn more about their experiences with this reform effort thus far, and their plans for the future. As this conversation was so informative, we have decided to post it in two parts. Here, in part one, Gallagher and Franz share some of their thinking on aspects of the Ontario reform effort that have been essential to its success.
Bringing educators into policymaking realm
In 2008, Gallagher was the leader (Director of Education) of Canada’s southernmost school district when she was selected for her new position at the Ontario Ministry of Education (MOE). This position – Chief Student Achievement Officer and Assistant Deputy Minister of the Student Achievement Division– was envisioned as an innovation. While MOE officials were typically promoted from public service positions, Gallagher’s experience was in schools, as a teacher, a principal, superintendent, and Director of one of Ontario’s 72 school districts. With the creation of this Division and position, and the hiring of Gallagher, the MOE demonstrated that it valued the expertise of educators. This went along with the MOE’s renewed emphasis on valuing the work of educators, particularly in positions that focused on student achievement. At that time, the MOE wanted to ensure that all of their work was based on valuing educators—seeing improved learning as a result of improved teaching.
With this new effort to bring educators into the policymaking realm, the MOE also made sure that approximately two-thirds of staff within the Student Achievement Division was comprised of practicing educators who had already proved themselves to be strong instructional leaders. In order to do this they created new positions in which practitioners, such as teachers and school leaders, could work for up to three years with the MOE. The theory behind this model was that working closely with “front-line” educators would build the capacity of both those who worked in the field, as well as those who worked in the central offices. Franz pointed out that working with educators on the creation of new policy helps the MOE officials by providing perspective on how such policy might “land” in schools. Additionally, once those educators complete their temporary positions in the MOE offices and return to their schools, they arrive with more knowledge and understanding of how such policies were developed and created. This new “blended” model builds appreciation in both spheres. As Gallagher and Franz explained, this effort helps create alignment between goals, priorities, methodologies and implementation, and over the past 13 years it has proven a “formula for wonderful results.”
Maintaining a limited number of goals
Gallagher and Franz also attributed Ontario’s success to the MOE’s narrow focus on a limited number of educational goals, specifically increasing student achievement, closing educational gaps, and increasing confidence in public education. As Gallagher and Franz explained, these are the goals that everyone working in the Ontario education system can recite, as well as the targets associated with them. By focusing closely on a limited number of goals they have seen a huge difference in their ability to keep focused on what is important.
In addition to knowing these goals, educators have become increasingly aware of the ways in which they can measure improvement and identify success as they work to achieve them. This allows teachers to develop an understanding of their own efficacy and agency, which, as Gallagher and Franz noted, excites and motivates educators. Ontario’s focus on province-wide testing standards in literacy and numeracy, and a set curriculum, has promoted clarity about what students are expected to know, understand, and be able to do.
Using data and assessments to test the system, not individuals
Starting in the mid-1990s, Ontario’s government began implementing a set of tests based on Ontario’s Curriculum Expectations and Standard of Achievement for grades 3 and 6 in reading, writing, and math, as well as in grades 9 (math) & 10 (literacy). As Gallagher explained, Ontario holds very high standards for their students. Student work is identified as level 1, 2, 3, 4, and the provincial standard of success is level 3 (the equivalent of a letter grade of B), which is higher than what is expected on the Program for International Student Assessment (PISA).
Ontario’s assessment organization is an arms-length organization of the government, funded by the MOE but separate from it with its own board of directors. This organization has become, over time—an opportunity for professional learning as well, as teams of educators are assembled to devise test items and mark assessments over the summer months. As a result, teachers become well versed in the standards and measurement of performance and thereby build their own assessment literacy.
Gallagher and Franz note that these assessments are not standardized, and are not proprietary. Instead, they are criterion referenced assessments of the curriculum. The tests are used to gather information about the degree to which the students are able to demonstrate what they have learned from the curriculum. As a result, Ontario’s teachers feel less pressure to “teach to the test”; instead, the teachers are teaching to a curriculum they approve of and which teachers have had a hand in developing. The overall sense is that the tests are used to assess the entire educational system, rather than individual teachers and students. This collective focus also encourages teachers to work collaboratively and use assessment for learning for student achievement efforts.
Ontario has also moved to a common data system across the province as well. Starting in the late 1990s, the government created a tracking system in which all students were assigned an ID number. This allows the MOE to track individual school’s assessments of student performance, and compare those results to province-wide results. The ID number is also now being used to track students from early childhood education through to college (or apprenticeships). As Gallagher and Franz noted, this ID number is not linked to student names, but is used to analyze trends and patterns to understand what is happening system-wide.
Teachers in Ontario regularly work together to analyze student work and plan new instructional strategies. These practices are articulated in an assessment policy called “Growing Success” and have been put into practice through a collaborative inquiry model of professional learning. Professional learning through collaborative inquiry has been so successful that it has replaced the old model of professional learning in which teachers were corralled in “banquet hall style” training sessions, where experts presented and teachers broke out into workshops. As Franz explained, “We assume that teachers come now with a certain level of skill, and we work with teachers on how to use a collaborative inquiry approach to examine student work, thinking about how to move students, and making that the object of their inquiry.”
How have classrooms changed?
As Gallagher explained, one of the things that everyone has learned is that the ideal classroom is less about teaching strategies and more about teacher thinking and behavior. This process starts in the assessment domain, with deep teacher knowledge of the students, the curriculum, and the learning goals. Then, the teachers can utilize any of the strategies they might have in their “backpack,” to help the students progress. Generally, in an ideal classroom one might see high levels of engagement, individual and group work, and differentiation; however, there is no particular reliance on any specific strategies or programs throughout the period. The aim is to allow teachers the space to try out their own strategies, and to develop their ideas through collaborative discussion with other teachers. This way, teachers feel accountable to one another and the classroom becomes a “de-privatized” place.
What Gallagher and Franz have noticed is that there is a trend of more inquiry-based learning in classroom. While there are some concerns about how much curricular content there is to learn, there is an increase in student-led learning, focusing on problem solving and creative work. In the following audio excerpt, Gallagher describes a recent visit to a kindergarten classroom where the teachers allowed students to lead an extended study of trees:
Be on the look-out for part two of this post, in which we focus on how Ontario plans to move ahead with an expanded reform agenda.
Pak Tee Ng is Associate Dean of Leadership Learning and Head of the Policy and Leadership Studies Academic Group at the National Institute of Education (NIE), Nanyang Technological University (NTU) in Singapore.
“I would like to see that teachers will believe, even more strongly, that they are not merely doing a job in school but they are, as a whole teaching fraternity, contributing to nation- building and the long-term well- being of Singapore. Teachers will also change their mindsets towards teaching and learning, so that we will succeed in teaching less, so that children may actually learn more.”
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 Times, China 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 Postexplained, “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.”
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.”