Understanding national educational improvement with Professor Nuno Crato

by The Assessment Network, 25 January 2021
Screenshot of seminar

In November 2020, Cambridge Assessment Network hosted Professor Nuno Crato, who served as Portugal’s Minister of Education and Science from 2011- 2015, to speak at their first online thought leadership seminar.

Portugal has been highlighted as a particular success story in curriculum and educational reform. This success can be seen in the country’s leap in PISA scores. But for a sound understanding in public policy we need to be clear about what caused which improvement, and when. Tracing progress back to specific policy measures Professor Crato described recent periods of Portuguese education changes and discussed how improving national results needs a good and clear curriculum, school autonomy, regular assessment, support to all, vocational paths, and flexibility.

In this blog he answers some of the audience questions which we didn’t have time to cover during the live talk. You can watch the full recorded session on our YouTube channel.

Tim Oates mentioned issues with time lag which probably led to mistaken policy decisions in Finland. Can you point to more information on this, and is there a pattern of governments overlooking this time lag?

Nuno Crato - speaker headshot

I can point out a similar issue in we faced in Portugal. Up to 2015, our international results have improved both in PISA and TIMSS. I believe this is due to an increasing attention to education outcomes for at least a dozen years. From 2003 to 2015, various governments coming from different political parties made the curriculum more demanding, increased students’ evaluation frequency, and improved standards.

Unfortunately, I have to say that policies changed dramatically in 2016, relaxing the students’ evaluation and watering down the curriculum and the general standards. The first results of these new policies appeared in PISA 2018, in which the improvements in Reading and Mathematics stalled, and were reverted in the Sciences. Now, with TIMSS 2019 we have just seen a dramatic decrease in grade 4 mathematics results. 

Would an effective curriculum allow a modicum of interdisciplinarity?

I believe so, but interdisciplinarity needs disciplinarity… Students need to have a structured and subject-based curriculum. Then, they can relate content from different disciplines. But it is essential to have an appreciation for the structure of each discipline.  For example mathematics is not just a bunch of applications and tricks; the same way history is not a collection of facts.

Shouldn't we go for project based assessment rather than traditional ones?

No! Definitely not! I believe it is exactly what I have said before: learning must be structured and organised, and students need to have an understanding and an appreciation for the structure of each discipline. Let me repeat: mathematics is not just a bunch of tricks and applications; the same way history is not a collection of facts.

Having said this, I think we should welcome projects and some moderate project-based assessment, but this should not be the essential in education.

Project-based learning theories are more than 100 years old. They were advanced by W.H. Kilpatrick in 1918. The theory is not new and has never worked well.

Evaluation as an incentive? Can you discuss your meaning here, in terms of seeing it within the context of being an incentive?

Absolutely. Student’s assessment is an integral part of learning. When we know we have goals, we then work better. When teachers know that their students are going to be assessed externally, they then feel support for their efforts.

Assessment works at many levels. Individual testing – what cognitive psychologists call knowledge retrieval – is an important way to reinforce learning. Internal testing – done by teachers at class level – is a support for knowledge deficit correction. External assessment – organized at regional or national level – is a way of providing an incentive for students to attain required levels, and a way for a nation to better know what can be improved.

Was the improvement programme coupled with a large financial investment in the state education system?

No. It was the opposite. We were able to improve education under severe budget cuts, simply because we paid attention to the essentials: curriculum, evaluation, support to struggling students without relaxing the requirements.

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