Everything starts with the curriculum

We are starting to see policy makers and politicians engage with evidence bases and relatively recent discussions about research that are dominating the discourse between educators. In this article, Nuno Crato, former Minister of Education and Science in Portugal 2011–2015, describes his experience of leading education policy reform in a direction frequently characterised by how much it stresses recent ideas about curriculum, learning and assessment.

In June 2011, Portugal was coming to grips with the most serious financial crisis of its recent history. The state was broken and unable to adopt the common short- term solutions for monetarily independent countries. The country had joined the euro 12 years earlier and the state was unable to finance its debt. In May 2011, a bailout had been agreed with the IMF and the EC, and the government had fallen. Elections were held and a new prime minister had been appointed: the social democrat Pedro Passos Coelho. I was in Berlin at a stopover for a conference trip when I received a phone call and an invitation to join the government.

I am not a politician and did not join any party, but my strong educational convictions were well known by the new prime minister. I barely knew him, but he gave me total support for the reforms I had been preaching for years through books, opinion articles, and press interviews. These reforms are easy to enumerate: a strong, demanding, and well-structured knowledge-based curriculum, frequent student evaluation, rigorous initial teacher training, school autonomy, support for failing students, vocational paths, and results-based school incentives. In a practical way, they were a continuation and acceleration of Portugal’s progress in education. But in the discourse, they were a paradigm shift from a competences-based and a student-centred education, to a knowledge-based, more direct teaching approach.

Since 2000, our country had been progressively abandoning the romantic and failed ideas that dominated the school reforms of the ’80s and ’90s: loose curriculum, no students’ external evaluation, no memorisation, spurning high culture, emphasising popular culture, and so on. In 1995, the TIMSS results had been a wakeup call and then, step by step, different governments put in place a couple of reforms that went essentially in one direction: more attention to the results.

This was done by introducing some exams, discussing school results, setting up rules for teachers’ evaluation. But so far it had been done in a very inconsistent way. At the same time, the education apparatchiks were still preaching the benefits of a loose curriculum and trying to impose non-directive teaching methods.

By 2011, teachers were tired of this constant interference. For years, many new fads were imposed: competences instead of knowledge, learning in context, discovery learning – you name it. Paradoxically (or maybe not!) the ministry was controlling processes but resisting evaluating results.

The reforms we introduced in 2011 and in the subsequent years were greeted by teachers and parents as a welcome increase in quality and rigour. Unions and opposition political parties contained their resistance and only later became hostile. But I think the results speak for themselves.

From 2011 to 2015, Portugal not only continued to improve its educational system, but also accelerated that improvement.

Since the first cabinet meeting, it became clear to me that the governmental priorities in education were going to be dominated by the need to reduce expenditure. The agreement that had been signed with the troika (IMF, ECB and EC) had singled out education for a significant budget reduction. Teachers represented about one-third of civil servants in the country and salaries in schools, universities, our ministry services, and research centres represented about half of state salary budgets.

We clearly had to design a way out; ‘obtain more with less’ became the motto. To put this into practice without hurting education simply meant we had to concentrate our efforts on the essentials. And the essentials are not teachers’ salaries, school buildings, or computer equipment. The essentials are students’ learning, students’ skills development, and students’ ethical growth. In a word: students.

We would build upon previous progress. In my opinion, this progress was due essentially to one key factor: increased attention to results.

Changes started at the turn of the century. In 1996 and 1997, first-wave TIMSS results were released and revealed the appalling situation Portuguese students were in. In 2001, a fierce political and legal battle forced the ministry to disclose nationwide school grades, showing finally that some schools were able to raise their students to reasonable levels while others were unable to do the same. More interestingly, the school divide did not coincide with socioeconomic status of the students. This led to a national debate in which it become clear to parents that schools were different, and some were doing a better job than others. The ministry, school principals, and teachers were put under healthy pressure – they were challenged to do better.

In 2006, a new minister introduced exams at the end of compulsory education (at the time, 9th grade). In 2009, another minister introduced standards as a way of making the curriculum clearer and more detailed. The narrative was still relatively romantic: to encourage students to learn in a joyful environment, and so on. But the practical changes were clear.

2011: Everything starts with the curriculum

Portugal used to have a very centralised and rigid curriculum. In the school year 2011/12 we decided to assign more school time for reading and mathematics. We also gave more freedom to schools to reorganise the school timetable according to their needs.

But this was only the first change. Throughout this first year we prepared the ground for the second one by restructuring the mandatory curriculum structure to give more class time to the fundamental subjects. To begin with this meant reading and mathematics, then history, geography, sciences, then English. This was made at the expense of vague and unstructured subjects/themes such as ‘learning in company’, the ‘project area’, ‘civic education’ and the sort. Although these topics may have corresponded to important activities and ethical development, they were not structured. Frequently they were just a source of vague politically correct indoctrination – or simply a waste of time. They were not grounded in any substantive subject knowledge.

In parallel, we set up new standards, and by that we meant detailed lists of learning outcomes. Those lists needed to be precise, well structured, and conducive to sequential learning. Moreover, the listed contents should be precise enough to convey unambiguously to students, teachers, parents, textbook authors, and examiners what the desired outcomes were. This definition stands in sharp contrast to the previously adopted ‘competences’ approach. In fact, one of our major criticisms (made in a series of documents(1)) of this French-Swiss-imported approach from Perrenoud(2) and other authors was that their learning outcomes were impossible to pinpoint and to evaluate. Another major criticism we made was the undervaluation of knowledge, which was considered important only when leading to practical competences.

When needed, we also adjusted the curricular programmes. In our tradition, a ‘programme’ is a reasoned general explanation of subject content for a given discipline at a given school year or cycle of years. The new standards complemented the programmes, but sometimes the programme itself had to be adjusted.

Underlying these reforms there was a firm belief in students’ capacity to learn more and to progress further. Consequently, the new curriculum was much more ambitious, much more demanding, and much more rigorous.

Evaluation helps students

To learn is one thing, but how do we learn that we have learnt? The second major area of progress we made was to generalise, improve, and increase the frequency of standardised tests. In 2015 we put in place standardised tests in the 4th, 6th, 8th, and 12th grades. These tests were closely aligned with the curricular standards. They were public, and schools’ average results were made public, and action was taken as a result. Failing and near- to-failing students received special help and schools received resource incentives whenever they were able to show that these resources were used to improve students results. We put in place a complex system of credits that would reward and encourage those who could simultaneously reduce retention and improve students’ results in standardised tests.

The educationalist apparatchiks abhorred these changes, but they were unable to rely on their well- rehearsed, fallacious arguments. Results were obviously improving, and not only for the elite students: the number of failing and near-to-failing students decreased, and drop-out rates decreased. Teachers predominantly saw end-of-cycle tests as a boon to their efforts to encourage students to learn.

Alternatives help students

One of the most propagated but false dilemmas in education is the so-called opposition between rigour and inclusion – the idea that we cannot sharply improve education for all. It is the argument that if we are demanding, then we are increasing students’ inequalities; and if we want to help all of them to progress, then we should be guided by the weakest students’ needs and learning pace.

This dilemma assumes many forms, but it’s a false dilemma. Can’t we aim at high standards for all and give extra help to struggling students? Of course we can – and that’s what we did in 2012. Through a series of legal dispositions, the ministry gave more freedom to schools, allowing and encouraging them to assign teacher hours for this type of extra support. Simultaneously, we allowed the creation of something akin to ‘temporary tracking’. Struggling kids were not pulled out of their regular classes, but had additional studying hours with dedicated teachers. For each student, this was temporary. It lasted for months and not for years. I’m convinced this type of measure helped everybody.

Vocational training for students willing to finish schooling with a professional certificate was the second most successful measure. Following various international experiences, we created two types of vocational paths. One regular, the other for students with special academic difficulties. This helped everybody.

2015: Things can change rapidly when we pay attention to the essentials

When PISA and TIMSS results came out in December 2016, many people were surprised by the dramatic progress of Portuguese students. For the first time in our history, we exceeded the OECD average for PISA, and we did so in all three PISA areas: mathematics, reading, and sciences. In TIMSS we outperformed many more- advanced countries, jumping from 475 points to 541 points in 4th grade maths. When we started, in 1995, only two countries were below us in the rankings. Now, we had 36 countries below us. And among these, Finland – which was no minor success for us.

In many countries, from Spain to the UK and Argentina, the press highlighted these results. On December the 6th, 2016, The Economist interviewed me and highlighted the importance of standards, testing and support to under-achieving students.

One of the most reassuring results emphasised by the PISA 2015 report was the fact that Portugal was one of the very few countries/regions able to simultaneously increase the number of top performers and reduce the number of low performers. I hope readers will forgive me for being proud of our students’ results.


1. See, for example, my Crato, N. (2006) Eduquês em discurso directo: uma crítica da pedagogia romântica e construtivista. Lisbon: Gradiva.

2. Perrenoud, P. (2011) Construire des dompetences dès l’école. Montrouge: ESF Éditeur