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The Netherlands: Top-Performing School System Looking to Get Better

We got interested in the Netherlands when the first results came out for the 1995 administration of the Third International Mathematics and Science Study (TIMMS), the largest international comparative study of student achievement done up to that date. The Netherlands and Flemish Belgium were among the top European performers in the TIMSS league tables for mathematics.  We went to see how they did it.  The answer in both places seemed to be the same.  Despite some important differences between the two systems, what they had in common was a powerful math curriculum called Realistic Mathematics.  This curriculum, the work of Hans Freudenthal, a retired professor of mathematics at Utrecht University, was widely implemented in both countries. 

When the OECD PISA surveys were first administered in 2000, the Dutch sample was too small to enable the OECD staff to include them in the rankings, although, when we inquired, they told us that if the sample had been large enough and the raw scores had held up, Netherland's students would again have placed very high on Europe's mathematics league tables.  Since then, the sample has been sufficiently large and the Netherlands' combined PISA scores high enough to place the Dutch among the world's top performers.

For a good quarter of a century, students in the Netherlands have performed at a high level.  This performance is made all the more interesting, particularly from a U.S. perspective, as the Netherlands is a system based on parental choice and school autonomy.  The Dutch fund public and private schools equally, based on student enrollment, and families are free to enroll in the school of their choice. So, we decided to talk with Sander Dekker, the Netherlands' State Secretary for Education, Culture and Science, to bring us up to date on that country's education system as it stands today.  In many ways, the conversation painted a picture of the outlook, challenges and plans not only of the Netherlands, but more broadly of many of the top performers.

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What Dekker focused on first during our conversation was the very large effort his country is putting into reconfiguring its curriculum, from early childhood right through secondary school.  This is, in part, because of the enormous changes taking place in society and in the global economy and, therefore, in the nature of the knowledge and skills that will be demanded of today's students when they are in the workforce.  Like others, the Netherlands has concluded that these developments will raise the demand for deep mastery of the subjects that students study in school. However, Dekker was quick to point out that even more important are the demands for strong non-cognitive skills and strength of character that will matter greatly in a world in which intelligent agents will be doing a lot of the cognitive work that people now do.

While Dekker acknowledged that these changes in the wider context of education are an important reason to reconsider the curriculum, there was another driver that seemed to be at least as important to him.  While Dutch teachers have had much more freedom to determine the curriculum in their schools and classrooms than the teachers in most other countries, they nevertheless felt that they were being held accountable for their students' performance on a set of tests that greatly narrowed the curriculum they thought they should be teaching.  They had no sense of ownership of either the exams or the curriculum they felt they were constrained to teach.  Further, though the state did not prescribe a curriculum, the teachers' curriculum in practice was largely determined by the textbooks the teachers were expected to use, which laid out well-developed curriculum frameworks in which the topics to be taught, the content of each topic and the order in which the topics should be taught were clearly spelled out.

In Dekker's view, the solution was not to do away with any curriculum guidance, but rather to conduct a nation-wide discussion of curriculum in two stages.  In the first stage, a wide range of stakeholders would have an opportunity to contribute their views on the nature of the new and expected context for Dutch education and what that implied for what Dutch students should know and be able to do, spelled out in broad strokes.  Then, when the government had pulled all of that advice together and made the requisite choices, the professional educators, with teachers at the core, would be the key participants in a second stage devoted to turning those broad goals into a curriculum framework that would be used to guide the work of teachers all over the country. The teachers should be deeply involved in this stage of the work, so that the whole endeavor would result in a curriculum that teachers in the Netherlands would be eager to embrace, as they would have been the primary agents of its development.  The exams, instead of coming out of thin air, would be based on the curriculum that, in turn, was based on a national consensus on goals.

This, as I heard it, was a thoroughly modern idea about how to balance the need, in a democracy, for the public to determine the purposes of its mass education system with the need for the education professionals to build the tools they were going to use to enable the students to accomplish those goals and purposes. Predictably, there is a broad debate now taking place in the Netherlands as to how detailed the curriculum guidance should be and the form that it should take. 

Today, the government's whole curriculum guidance for elementary school is only two pages long.  But the curriculum guidance provided by the leading textbook companies is much more detailed and school administrators and parents expect teachers to follow it. They also expect their teachers to prepare the students for the all-important exams.  So the question arises, if the teachers are allowed to depart more than in the past from the textbooks, should the government do more? And, if so, what and how much?  It is clear that a new balance will be struck between the need in a mass education system for curriculum structure, on the one hand, and for professional autonomy on the other.  We will have to wait to see how that balance is struck in the Netherlands.

NCEE has, for years, reported that the top-performing countries have been devoting a lot of attention to the improvement of the quality of their teachers.  That is certainly true in the Netherlands, too.  Dekker told us that this work began in earnest less than ten years ago.  It began, he said, when the Dutch were shocked by a research study showing that their teacher candidates were scoring far lower than expected on tests of both basic literacy and mathematics, especially the latter.  They realized that the pool from which their teachers were being drawn was from the lower end of the spectrum of high school graduates.

Ironically, it was these findings about teachers that produced more detailed government guidance on the math and language curriculum and the decision to test elementary school students' command of basic language and mathematics literacy.  These are the very tests that the teachers now point to as narrowing the elementary school curriculum they are responsible for teaching and introducing a culture of teaching to the test.

The other result of the shock from these research findings on teachers' command of language and mathematics was the introduction of tests of these skills administered to candidates for admission to teachers colleges in the Netherlands.  The pass points for these tests were calibrated to the level of knowledge and skill in these arenas that the Dutch had decided would be required of the students these prospective teachers were going to teach.

Dekker reported that the introduction of these government-required admissions tests in basic skills resulted in a "drastic" reduction in the volume of young people admitted to teacher education programs in the Netherlands.  And that, he said, provoked a lot of debate.  The Dutch had actually created a teacher shortage in their desire to raise teacher quality.  But the government, Dekker told us, has refused to compromise on quality.  He believes that this move will, in the end, give the occupation of teaching much higher status and will therefore eventually attract much higher-quality high school graduates to teaching, in ever-larger numbers.  This is, obviously, a very important bet, but there is evidence from other countries' experiences to suggest that it is a smart one.

I asked Dekker whether the government, in its effort to improve teacher quality, had raised teachers' compensation.  They had not, he said.  But it was not because they did not think they needed to.  It was because these policy decisions were being made as the Great Recession was gathering steam and government revenues were falling like a rock.  They simply did not have the money. 

They decided that the small amount of money they did have to invest should go into teachers' professional development and the development of the beginnings of a new system for structuring teachers' careers.  Like many other leaders of top-performing systems, Dekker saw that getting teachers from the upper ranges of graduating high school classes would depend not just on improving teachers' compensation, but also on restructuring teachers' careers so that they look more like the careers of high-status professionals.  He wants the Netherlands' schools to provide a ladder of career advancement for teachers, so that as they get better and better at the work, they can take on leadership roles, curriculum development roles, research roles and so on, enabling them to advance and grow in their careers without leaving teaching.

The Netherlands has, in recent years, made great strides in improving the achievement of students from immigrant backgrounds.  I asked Dekker how they had done this.  More money was part of the answer.  But they did not fund immigrant children as such.  They provided an increase to the school budget for each student whose parents had very little education themselves.  That certainly included many immigrant children, but it also included native Dutch students who were just as much in need of that extra assistance.  The extra funds provided to the school actually more than doubled the amount that would otherwise have been provided for each student.  The money is used to provide additional special courses, more time in school for these students, smaller classes, tutoring when they need it and more.  I might point out that this system is very different from a system that provides extra money for schools that are performing poorly.  In such a system, a school that is performing poorly stands to lose its special funds if its students begin to perform well. A school that is funded on the basis of how much education the parents have does not have to fear the results of improving the performance of its students.

Keep an eye on the Netherlands.  It is no accident that they have been among the world's top education performers for a quarter of a century.  They did not get there by standing still.

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