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IMPROVING LOWER SECONDARY SCHOOLS IN NORWAY: OECD Report Offers Lessons for All Nations to Improve Student Performance in Middle Grades

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“This is typically a time when young people go through profound transitions in their social, physical, and intellectual development, as they leave childhood behind and prepare for adult responsibilities.”

A new report from the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) offers advice for improving student performance in the middle grades based on the challenges it observed in Norway and other countries. The report, Improving Lower Secondary Schools in Norway, focuses its recommendations on teacher quality, school success, student pathways, and on the process of effective policy implementation. It is a result of the OECD’s effort to support making reform happen across OECD and partner countries.

The report calls the middle grades a “critical point for maturation” as children’s roles in school and society change. “It is a key stage of basic education, in transition between primary and upper secondary. The first years of secondary education are the best chance to consolidate basic skills and to get the students at risk of academic failure back on track,” the report reads. “This is typically a time when young people go through profound transitions in their social, physical, and intellectual development, as they leave childhood behind and prepare for adult responsibilities.”

The report defines lower secondary education as the level that caters to early adolescents and starts between the ages of ten and thirteen and ends between the ages of thirteen and sixteen. It identifies two complementary objectives for lower secondary education: (1) to offer all students the opportunity to obtain a basic level of knowledge and skills considered necessary for adult life, and (2) to provide relevant education for all students as they choose either to continue their study in academic or a more vocation route or to enter the labor market.

Acknowledging that there is “much diversity” across countries, the report identifies three specific challenges faced by most countries. First, the middle grades fail to engage all students. According to the report, one-quarter of students in OECD countries are disengaged with school at age fifteen. It blames this disengagement on a gap—possibly caused because students did not acquire basic skills in elementary school—between what is taught and the practices that are most likely to engage students. To be more responsive to adolescent students’ needs, schools need to provide student-centered teaching and learning strategies; challenging and relevant curriculum; and support, the report finds. It argues that these practices “can have positive effects on engagement and potentially contribute to higher performance and lower dropout rates.”

Because some countries have difficulties ensuring high academic achievement among their students, many students fall behind at this stage and eventually drop out when they get to upper secondary schools (i.e., high school). Although the report notes that research on the middle grades is noticeably absent compared to research on elementary and high schools, it does find evidence that students lack motivation at this age and that the configuration and practices for schooling at this level may not adequately cater to students’ specific development needs. Specifically, the report says that students entering middle grades experience a gradual decline in academic motivation, self-perception, and school-related behaviors over their early adolescent years. However, classrooms during this time are characterized by greater emphasis on discipline and less on personal teacher-student relationships during a time when students’ desire for control over their own life is growing. “Teachers need to be prepared to deliver the curriculum effectively and are required to have solid content knowledge and teaching strategies that specifically cater to this age group,” the report notes.

The final challenge the report identifies is the transition from elementary to middle school and from middle to high school. It notes that there is often a decline in student engagement in the transition from elementary to middle school when students change schools, but implies that this decline is not present when the grades are offered together as part of a K–8 school. The report also finds that students who undergo two transitions (elementary to middle and middle to high school) have larger risks of falling behind than those who undergo one. The report argues that easing the negative impact of transitions is key to facilitating higher achievement and preventing students from falling behind and dropping out. Some transition strategies the report identifies include reducing the total size of a group of students, or cohort, and providing personalized support to students.

The rest of the report deals with circumstances specific to Norway. It identifies several strengths in Norway’s lower secondary education, including high scores on the Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) and its teachers’ strong motivation to teach. But it also notes challenges such as lower secondary grade teachers who are not sufficiently prepared to teach in their subject area and too many students entering lower secondary with weak basic skills.

The report offers four recommendations to bring together the four key policy levers—governance, teachers, schools, and students—to improve the quality of lower secondary education in Norway:

  • Align the different levels of governance and resources to ensure effective policy implementation.
  • Raise the status of teaching and improve teacher performance through better initial teacher education, professional development, standards, and incentives.
  • Ensure that every school has the capacity and is effective in meeting the learning requirements of all its lower secondary students.
  • Ensure that all primary school leavers are prepared to succeed in lower secondary, and that lower secondary students are prepared to succeed in further education and later in their professional lives.

The complete report is available at http://bit.ly/nzuZ6O.

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