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The following OECD assessment and recommendations summarise chapter 4 of the Economic survey of Norway published on 20 August 2008.
Poor performance in school education is a cause for concern
In the long run, and as in all countries, improving the quality of the supply of labour – creating human capital – is an important function of the education system. Of course, it is not the only one and there is room to differ on the relative importance that should be attached to economically “productive” aspects of education on the one hand and the social aspects of education that are particularly important in Norway, on the other. The special chapter in this Survey devoted to the compulsory education system presents strong evidence that this part of the Norwegian education system could do much better in developing human capital than it does, and that its relative performance may have been getting worse for pupils in lower–secondary education in recent years. This diagnosis may not hold for the education system as a whole, since it focuses on compulsory schooling and does not cover upper–secondary and tertiary education. However, given that the evidence for schoolchildren covers the only internationally comparable information available on education performance at the moment, and that this information focuses on competences and problem–solving ability rather than simple memory–based learning, it cannot be ignored.
Comparative PISA Scores
Resources in education need to be spent more effectively
Compulsory education in Norway is not cost–efficient regarding pupils’ achievement in reading, mathematics and science. Although there are different ways to compare costs per unit output across countries, it is clear that schools in Norway deliver below average results on the OECD’s international student assessment (PISA) scores, for expenditure per student which may be as much as 40% higher than average. Although per student costs have been growing more slowly in Norway than elsewhere, this is not much consolation since relative PISA performance seems to have declined between 2000 and 2006. Cost–efficiency can, in an abstract sense, be improved either by reducing expenditure for given results or improving results for given expenditure. This is a somewhat artificial separation since resources saved by cutting inefficient expenditure can, in principle, be used elsewhere to give improved results (unless there are strongly diminishing returns to resource use, which some international comparisons suggest may in fact be the case). However, the government’s already stated intention to increase spending on education will produce disappointing results and even make future reforms more difficult if it is not accompanied by strong steps to improve the efficiency of resource use.
Some sources of cost–inefficiency are quite clear: a large number of small schools and a low pupil–teacher ratio. Gaps in teachers’ competences are also apparent, and the number of hours that teachers are actually required to teach is low, as is the number of instruction hours that children receive. Other sources of inefficiency are more subtle, for example little use is made of mechanisms that give either teachers or schools any external incentive to improve performance; more fundamentally, there is also a lack of information on which such assessments can be based, although this situation is improving. There is evidence that some aspects of teaching practices are particularly ineffective too: in many cases this may be illustrative of lack of feedback on results. All of these points are taken up below.
Small schools increase the cost of education, partly reflecting regional policy
In view of poor cost–efficiency, the government could consider measures to close or merge small and medium sized schools. However, the government has few instruments to directly affect this, because decisions on school closures are entirely delegated to local municipalities and central government funding is largely supplied through block grants, not earmarked for education. Nevertheless, block grants do take into account factors such as population density and geography deemed to be out of the control of local government, as part of the general policy of maintaining a larger population in rural and remote areas than would otherwise be the case. Central and local government should review all mechanisms that may directly or indirectly encourage the underutilisation of economies of scale in education.
Improving teaching quality is the priority
Improved outcomes will only be achieved with improved teaching in classrooms. The analysis in this Survey is not designed to recommend detailed changes in teaching practice. Nevertheless, it highlights some explanations for the poor performance, notably gaps in teachers’ competencies, the low number of teaching and instruction hours, the use of experimental teaching methods, which studies have found to be largely ineffective, and the apparently low standards that seem to be expected of children. Hence, teachers should be encouraged to strengthen and update their competences, both in subjects taught and in teaching methods. Recent efforts to improve training programmes are on the right lines, but a shift towards training that leads to formal accreditation is necessary. In the new White paper presented in June 2008 measures are proposed to put more weight on formal training programmes for both teachers and principals. Since increased instruction hours would also improve learning outcomes, municipalities and schools should be encouraged to consider this among their options for improving performance.
Provision of better information would improve performance, and could also be used to improve incentives
Local government of course responds to the wishes of local electorates, but these need to be well–informed, which implies knowledge of the relative performance of different schools; municipalities have the power to publish this information, but few outside Oslo do so. The government should consider publishing the results of national assessment tests school–by–school, provided steps are taken to adjust the scores for known exogenous influences on results, such as social background, (i.e. to publish the results in “value added” form) and to protect the identities of the children involved. These assessment tests, only recently introduced, are intended to play an important role in giving schools and parents’ information on the educational needs of individual children. But the results are not used systematically to give feedback to teachers on how well they have performed. It should be part of school principals’ duties to provide this information to teachers.
Institutional accountability indicators for Norway
A more radical change would be to use this information to provide direct monetary incentives for school teachers. The county and municipality of Oslo have already taken this step and the Oslo administration is convinced that it has had beneficial effects on both results and cost–efficiency. In a country with Norway’s traditions this might be too radical a reform to impose centrally, given the legitimate doubts about how such incentives really work. However, the example of Oslo should be studied closely with a view to adopting some of its practices elsewhere if they prove to be beneficial. The idea is less controversial for school principals or leaders, however; school–wide results, including measures of cost–efficiency, should be used as part of the assessment and reward system for school leaders, as is again already the case in Oslo.
How to obtain this publication
The Policy Brief (pdf format) can be downloaded in English. It contains the OECD assessment and recommendations.The complete edition of the Economic survey of Norway 2008 is available from:
For further information please contact the Norway Desk at the OECD Economics Department at firstname.lastname@example.org. The OECD Secretariat's report was prepared by Paul O’Brien and Romina Boarini under the supervision of Patrick Lenain. Research assistance was provided by Ane-Kathrine Christensen, Elke Lüdemann and Thai-Thanh Dang.