“The Future Will Turn Out Alright”: Hope, Opportunity, and Norwegian Vocational Schools

Posted on 07/30/2016 by

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What makes a good school?  A good school system?  A good society?  Recently, my wife and I traveled to Denmark, Norway, and Iceland, and I came back both heartened and saddened.  The more I learned about education in those countries—particularly in Norway—the more I got to thinking about our own system of education.  Of course, you start by making comparisons: we call them high schools, but they call them secondary schools! and so on.  You start thinking about what we have, what we lack, and where we can improve.  But the more we talked to people about the particulars of education in these countries—post-secondary pathways, job training, apprenticeships, etc.—the more I couldn’t help but think about how those just do not exist in my own school district.  Our students are denied so many opportunities.  And not just fluffy, happy, socialist things like free higher education.  I mean things like a guaranteed right to higher education, and ways to get trade certifications and job training.  I started to wonder why those don’t exist in my district.  And not just a ‘why’ about the mechanisms of education—I understand that schools work differently in Nordic countries than they do in the U.S., which itself is home to many different types of schools—but a why about the…feelings about education.  The mentalities, the mindsets, and the emotions behind something that I couldn’t put my finger on while I was there.

But I realized what it was when I got back.  In the countries we visited, what was there was hope.  Beyond anything else, people we spoke to seemed to have hope that the system would be OK, that it would all end of alright.  And not just a vague hope, not what Jeff Duncan-Andrade (2009) calls ‘Hokey’ or ‘Mythical’ hope, but a real, concrete hope in their futures: Andrade’s Material hope (a sense of control of one’s own destiny), Socratic hope (a capacity to question and recognize problems and have indignation towards injustice), and Audacious hope (a sense of being in a collective struggle).

I

Right now, I’m working on post-secondary readiness studies.  Particularly, I’m starting to ask not necessarily why our kids don’t graduate college, but why they don’t have options that let them be successful on their own terms.  Why they don’t feel that hope, and that faith in the system of education that I saw in Norway.

College graduation among students in my school district is unbelievably low, even as enrollment has risen dramatically.  This comes at a time when we are systematically cutting vocational programs, while investing heavily in college-readiness and advanced schools for ‘select’ (read: wealthy) students.  What happens when you cut vocational programs?  It appears that one effect is that many students are essentially excluded from post-graduate opportunities wholesale.  They are discouraged from pursuing careers that they are passionate about, and never learn about fields in which they could thrive.  This happens while simultaneously delivering another blow from the enormous debt accumulated in the course of trying to obtain a four-year degree that they may not really need or want.

The key dilemma here is of providing two things: access to the labor market, as well as education in a more traditional sense.  Vocational education covers both of these areas, and in looking at how Norway has addressed vocational education, I think we can take away some incredibly important lessons about how to run our own schools in the U.S.

II

OK, so first of all, when I refer to the Nordic model here, I am really talking about a whole lot of things.  Dølvik (2008) points out that ‘Nordic’ often refers to a constellation of things, like, “an emphasis on prudence, technological modernization and productivity on the one side and redistributive policies on the other hand,” all the way to, “a strong protestant ethic, the relative absence of feudalism, literacy and the early formation of universal public school systems…marked by cultures in which small social distances, autonomy and nationalism have been mixed with respect for skills and knowledge and broad international orientations.”  It encapsulates both a social/economic/political component and a more diffuse set of mentalities and historical experiences that are unique to the region.  So ‘Nordic’ is kind of a problematic word, but I’m going to use it anyway because it is short and convenient.  OK (for more, see here).

Anyway, you know, often times conversations about the American education system end up circling around an intractable problem.  We talk and talk and talk, but ultimately throw our hands up and say, “well, it all just comes down to X.”  This may be true.  So can we take away anything from the Nordic model?  Based on my brief experience in Norway and some research that has been coming out of that country, I think that we can.  Even if their solutions themselves are not reproducible in the U.S., however, the way that Norway has approached its own issues in education can also inform education policy.

Before we even go there, I want to anticipate some counter arguments that I think I bought into before doing some reading of my own.

First, some may argue that the Nordic countries have such radically different social structures and demographics than the U.S. so as to make a comparison irrelevant.  That has some merit, and I want to address it a little later. (As a side note, one thing to see, however, is how the Nordic countries, particularly Norway, deal with the massive influx of refugees, asylum seekers, and immigrants from North Africa and the Middle East.  How they respond—not just in the sort of services that are offered, but in the mentalities and rhetoric that surround those policies—I think will shed a light on how adaptable the Nordic system is.  And, by extension, how it could function in a highly diverse country like the U.S.)

There is another pervasive argument that I have seen that goes something like this: Nordic countries practice a form of ‘cuddly’ capitalism (Acemoglu et al., 2012) which, while nice and democratic, is too comfortable, sucking away the incentive to innovate—while countries like the U.S., which practice a cutthroat capitalism, are forced to innovate.  Nordic countries thus simply ride on the coattails of U.S. innovation.  I think this is a stereotype that is as pervasive as it is incorrect.

As Maliranta et al. (2012) suggest:

Despite a higher overall tax burden and more generous safety nets, the Nordics have generated at least as much — if not more — innovation than the US. So far, ‘cut-throat’ capitalism has not been the only road to an innovative economy.

The authors suggest that:

[Nordics may be] better in mobilising human resources. While hours per capita are higher in the US, a larger share of the working age population is employed in the Nordics owing to more inclusive educational, social and employment policies.

Additionally,

…economic incentives for innovation in the Nordics, while weaker than in the US, are not miserable after all, at least not across the board. For instance, all Nordic countries have introduced dual income taxation, according to which capital incomes are taxed at a flat rate. This helps in motivating entrepreneurs, despite quite progressive taxes on earned income…[similarly,] A well-designed safety net may also work to promote risk-taking.

Their work, among others, points to the idea that you can have your cake and eat it too—or rather, maybe providing a high standard of living isn’t necessarily at odds with technological innovation.  Once you take a step back and think about it, and then experience a slice of life in a Nordic country, it starts to look like they may be on to something with this argument.

At one point during our trip, I was talking with a guide in Norway, and I found myself kind of defending American laissez-faire capitalism.  As I was talking, though, I started thinking “hey, wait…it kind of makes sense that stable employment, free higher education, and a good safety net might actually be better for risk-taking and innovation.  What am I even arguing against?”  To me, the argument against the applicability to the U.S. of a Nordic-style economic system is more related to history, politics, and social norms in the U.S., not the actual system itself.  It is a straw man argument, because no institution is going to be exactly the same in two different places.

But, you know, you get to thinking, and I started to wonder: why not?  If we have established that the Nordic economic system is not terrible (in fact it seems pretty nice), and the education system has successfully created graduates who can participate in that system, why not consider, for a moment, how we can take a Nordic approach to vocational education in the U.S.?  So here we go.

III

First of all, I think it is important to take into account the social and political history that shaped the Norwegian model of vocational training.  Education as a whole needs to be considered in the context of the nation-building process of the early 20th century.

Throughout the 1800’s, interest groups surrounding various professions were formed in Norway, representing both employers and employees.  The Norwegian Federation of Labor was formed in 1899, with about 5,000 members; by 1920 it had increased to 141,000. The Norwegian Association of Employer, formed at around the same time, was a counter to the labor organization, but in stark contrast to U.S. history at this time (union busting, anti-strike laws, etc.) it quickly became an institution used to create more durable relations between employers and workers, among employees, and simply as a place to hand social questions more generally.

It is in this context of collaboration that we should look at vocational education.  Although training in reading was made mandatory for all children in the mid 1700’s, in practice Norway was still a highly agrarian country and literacy rates remained low.  The mid 1800’s saw the introduction of a folkeskole (people’s school), which functioned as a primary school, which was replaced in the 1970’s with a grunnskole (foundation school).  Early efforts at vocational schools were quite hilariously doomed to failure: the earliest attempts, beginning in 1877 with drawing schools which were held in the evening, had nearly 100% dropout rates, while daytime schools, which eventually gained more traction among both employee and employer unions, still had the problem of contending with informal apprenticeships and the lack of a public education system more broadly.  Yet with the advent of the liberal centralized state in the early 1900s, trade schools became more popular.  More types of vocational programs emerged throughout the 20th century, and in the 1990s, a significant change took place in terms of the nature and perception of Norwegian public education.

First, the early 90’s was a time of a massive loss of confidence in the unitary school (enhetsskolen). Research was showing that the public education system was not making a more egalitarian society, but was instead creating more social inequity.  People were worried, and disappointed.  Deregulation and decentralization of the labor markets was causing widespread concern.  A large political turnover in the early 90’s culminated in a massive reform movement in 1994 (known as Reform ’94), which, among other things, provided all 16-19 year olds with a statutory right to three years of upper secondary education.  Further reforms provided 10 years of compulsory lower education.  The education system became, in a matter of years, a model for the rest of the world.  Through close collaboration between different stakeholders—namely employers, employees, municipal governments, students, and schools—policies started to emerge that would benefit everyone involved.  This is what many refer to as the ‘Nordic’ model for problem solving: get together and work together.  Collaborate to solve problems for the good of the whole society.  Relevant to this post, though, is the structure of vocational education.

IV

The goal of these reforms was to provide a certain amount of general education to what was before highly specialized upper education.  Students would be ‘stuck’ on one track from an early age and would be unable to switch between vocational tracks.  The Kunnskapsløftet (Knowledge Promotion or Knowledge Promise) reform in 2006 created a bifurcated system with a college-bound studiespesialisering (general studies) and a vocational program (yrkesfag).  What Norway ended up doing is creating a “2+2 system,” with two years of training and internship and two years of apprenticeship in government or industry, with education at school and training at a company work in a sequential, structured series.

What is so unique is that apprenticeships and training are based almost entirely off of voluntary participation of firms.  Unions work with students and firms to provide apprenticeships at the municipal level, and in the end, everyone benefits—firms get dedicated labor, and students get a paid education with a virtual guarantee of a job upon graduation.  Again, this is all based around a practice of collaborative decision making, with an eye on the greater good of society as a whole.  These reforms were made with the notion, expressed explicitly in the 2005-2013 era of a Socialist Left/Labor/Center Party Coalition, where the rhetoric turned on the notion that everyone can benefit, if everyone works together.

Anyway, what came if this is that, more specifically, at the upper secondary level, the Norwegian educational system is separated in two types:

-3 programs that are more general, providing access to higher education
-9 vocational education programs, providing routes to trade certificates or journeyman’s certificates

There are even more specializations within this structure:

Vocational Programs Specializations Apprenticeship Trades
Technical and industrial production 16 59
Building and construction 9 22
Electricity and electronics 5 20
Restaurant and food processing 2 12
Services and transport 4 8
Design, arts and crafts 15 51
Healthcare, childhood and youth development 6 9
Agriculture, fishery and forestry 7 10
Media and communication 1 3

The content in vocational programs are divided into a Common Core of 588 hours, and a Common Program Subject (both theory and practice) of 954 hours, with an in-depth study project taking place in the actual workplace of 421 hours.  That is a lot of time spent devoted to vocational education.

Again, this is actually quite unique.  Many other countries, including most Nordic countries, have a parallel structure, where students go to school and have work training at the same time, but not necessarily with any structured connections between the two.  The provision of 3 years of upper secondary education in 1994 was not just a handout, but a wholescale reform towards the idea that students should be learning and working in the same environment and in a sequential manner.  While there is no compulsory apprenticeship system, there is a pervasive attitude of volunteering among companies in Norway, with high rates of reported participation in training and apprenticeship programs even in the absence of statutory requirements to do so.  Companies want to have students work and learn with them.

History matters here.  The timing and sequencing of the Norwegian education system has some interesting features. Most broadly, compared to Sweden, democratization came before industrialization.  For a long time Norway was an agrarian country, and big businesses were more dependent on the state than in other countries.  As such, there has long been a close collaboration with the education system and business sectors.

In the past, vocational and apprentice-based training were essentially two completely different systems, and although with more recent reforms, vocation education continues to be a more structured affair, with apprenticeships working almost autonomously, they are now much more closely related to the formal public education system.

Despite this, apprenticeships are common in Norway, in large part, it seems, because there is a union (or council) for virtually every trade, which helps students and firms collaborate to have a robust apprenticeship program.  These unions work at the municipal level to coordinate with firms (again, notice that Nordic model of problem solving, also known as ‘working together’).  In fact, today, traditional models of vocational training are actually seeing a slight decline in participation, while apprenticeship models are gaining increased traction across a number of industries.

V

There are problems, however.  Of course.

European countries overall, including Norway, have seen a tendency for students to attend institutions of higher education.  This is definitely a good thing.  However, in the Norwegian system, access to post-secondary education is quite divergent between different vocational programs: in some, mainly technical, trades, well-established and transparent, commonly-understood pathways to post-secondary education exist. However, among other vocational pathways there are no opportunities for post-secondary education at all.  Students who have a trade certificate are forced to go back to their upper secondary school for another year in order to qualify, a function some community colleges in the U.S. serve.  Vocational training and apprenticeships are sometimes viewed in Norway as a ‘detour’ from higher education.  OK, no big deal, really.

So let’s get to another issue: dropout rates.  There is about a 50-50 split among students who elect to do general education vs. vocational education.  About 50% of the general education students complete their training with a university certificate.  However, only 25% of vocational students complete their studies with a trade certificate (Støren et al. 2007).

A large survey conducted between 2002 to 2007 shows that of all students that started in vocational programs, only 28 % completed with their certificates, 26 % completed with the general study admission certificate, 23 % did not complete successfully, and 24 % dropped out.

These numbers may appear abnormally high to an American audience—they certainly jumped out to me.  However, they should be taken in the context as to what exactly these programs are.  They should be seen more as community college/high school hybrids, rather than high schools.  No, Norwegian high schools do not have 50-70% dropout rates.  Rather, a 20-50% slice of students (depending on who you ask) are graduating a sort of post-secondary program with a vocational certification.  They may still go on to do a more traditional college route.  They may enter the workforce.  They may go back to a secondary school to become eligible for more post-secondary opportunities.  In other words, there are options.  It is not an end-of-the-road situation.  In this sense, graduation rates are pretty high—U.S. community college completion rates in Texas for some certification areas hover far below 20%.

The real challenge to vocational education in the Nordic countries gets to the crux of the argument that this system could not be replicated in the U.S.  Particularly in construction, the use of foreign contract workers has increased by such a large extent that students use the (rather xenophobic) term the “Polish sector.”  It is thus perceived of as lower in prestige, and fewer employers are committed to apprenticeships in this area.  As immigration increases in Norway, it waits to be seen if the system—which, again, is heavily reliant on volunteerism among firms—can support students who do not fit the Norwegian ‘norm.’

VI

Despite these issues, surveys also reveal something quite striking.  What is really interesting is the mindsets and attitudes of students in vocational training.

As a comprehensive review of Norwegian vocational education noted,

Most [vocational] students are uncertain of what specific programme they will choose, but on the other hand they do feel quite certain that they do not want to choose a general study programme. Typically they motivate their decision by the wish to learn “something practical”. They don’t want so much “theory”.

This sounds pretty familiar to any teacher.  The authors continue:

Their disappointment is all the stronger when meeting a rather large amount of classroom teaching and “theoretical” subjects in their first year.

Yup.  That sounds about right.  But let’s keep going:

However, if some present themselves as “fed up with school” or “not so good at theory” – which are typical self-descriptions for many – this does not mean that they in general see themselves as “school losers”. Generally students of [vocational programs] seem happy with their educational choice and the experiences they get during the first years, many develop elements of occupational pride on the basis of practical experience in the first few years, and those who find out that “this is not for me” and want to change track often express an attitude of confidence that their future steps will turn out right (also see Olsen & Reegård, 2013)

Hmmmm.  So students are optimistic about their future, even if they don’t see themselves as ‘good’ at school?  This part, for any educator at least, should seem mind blowing.  After looking at all of these policies and statutes, the history, institutions, and economics, after looking at all of this, it seems like what is most missing in our schools, and maybe what is most difficult to replicate is hope.  It is the attitudes towards education and towards one’s role in society as a whole, and the mindsets that students carry, these things are shaped by a culture.

I don’t want to conclude by saying that reforms towards better vocational education in the U.S. are impossible.  And honestly, that is not what this post is about.  I began by writing that the problem I see is that students don’t have options that let them be successful on their own terms.  But this is just the ‘institutions’ part.  Students also lack something else: hope that the system will allow them to be successful.

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Critical hope (a rose in concrete), in the middle of the sidewalk, from Oslo

Let’s get real for a moment here: when I am talking about our high-poverty school districts in the U.S., I am talking about a student population that is actively being held back.  I’m not talking about Norwegian students, with some options more limited than others.  I’m talking about students who have not just been let down by the opportunities provided to them in school, they have been let down by our entire social structure, and not just for them, but for multiple generations, stretching back to the founding of our nation, to a Constitution written with the blood of slaves and on the backs of the poor, the oppressed, and the…well, let’s be honest, anyone who wasn’t a wealthy white male.

VII

It is not a matter of ‘good’ schools.  It is a matter of a ‘good’ society.  Anyone arguing that this not reproducible in the U.S. is missing the point—of course, we cannot reproduce a Norwegian institution, because it is unique to a particular social, geographic, demographic, etc. context—but we can create a society where students can “express an attitude of confidence that their future steps will turn out right.”  This sentence was both one of the most uplifting and saddest parts of my research.  I stopped and I thought: which of my students could honestly say the same?  50%?  10%?  None?

This is why when we talk about importing education systems of emulating best practices, we need to be careful.  We need to be careful because so often these conversations turn on the specifics of a curriculum, or of a training model, but not on the implications of that system for its participants.  Which practices, models, and curricula create hope?  Which create an attitude of confidence in the future?  We need to make this the first question we ask before initiating a conversation about education reform (instead of the last, if at all).  We need material hope in student’s own capacities, we need Socratic hope in student’s own ability to question the system, and we need Audacious hope in student’s collective struggle to improve the system.

We know there are models that work: just look at the Norwegian survey results.  Maybe a Nordic model is better, or maybe not, but this is almost besides the point. But we must ask why they work and who they work for.  In the U.S. education system, would vocational schools work?  I’m not sure, but at the moment, who is our education system working for (it is definitely not for my students), and why?

In Norway, research indicates that most students believe it is working for them (the who), and it is working because of a collective sense of responsibility to improve society (the why).  This is even true among students who drop out.

This may at first have appeared to be a post about Norwegian vocational education.  But if you have gotten to this point, I hope you can see that it is really about critical hope.  It is about the myth of egalitarianism and the myth of a justice society.  The problems we face with American post-secondary readiness go beyond the elimination of those vocational programs, beyond the difficulty of implementing apprenticeship programs.  That is merely a symptom of the underlying disease.  What lies beneath is a disease of racism, sexism, and xenophobia, a disease of classist attitudes that prevail within the political class, the policies that support these attitudes, and the pervasive institutions of oppression, from education to our justice system, that serve to undermine a young person’s hope that the future will ‘turn out all right.’  If we ever want to have a Nordic style vocational education system in the U.S., we need for our attitudes, our beliefs, and our mindsets to change—the expenditures, policies, statutes, and so on, those come later.  Otherwise, we risk not just our economic future, or our political stability, but something far more precious: we risk losing the hope of young people.  And that is a commodity we cannot risk squandering.

Works Cited

Acemoglu, D, Robinson, J, and Verdier, T (2012). Choosing your own capitalism in a globalised world? VoxEU.org.

Dølvik, J.E. (2008). The negotiated Nordic labour markets. From bust to boom. Center for European Studies. Working Paper series 162. Harvard University.

Duncan-Andrade, J. (2009). Note to Educators: Hope Required When Growing Roses in Concrete. Harvard Educational Review 79(2): 181-194.

Maliranta, M., Määttänen, N, and Vihriälä, V. (2012). Are the Nordic countries really less innovative than the US? VoxEU.org.

Nyen, T., A. Skålholt & A. H. Tønder (2013) Overgangen fra fagopplæring til arbeidsmarkedet og videre utdanning. I Høst, H. (red.) Kvalitet i fag- og yrkesopplæringen. Fokus på skoleopplæringen. Rapport 2 Forskning på kvalitet i fag- og yrkesopplæringen. NIFU-rapport 21/2013/ Fafo-rapport 2013:23, pp 159-202.

Olsen, O.J., Høst, H, and Tønder, A.H. (2014). Key challenges for Norwegian VET: the state of play. Nord-VET – The future of VET in the Nordic Countries.

Olsen, O.J. & Reegård, K. (2013) Læringsmiljø og gjennomføring i lærer- og elevperspektiv i tre yrkesfaglige opplæringsløp. In Håkon Høst (red.) Kvalitet i fag- og yrkesopplæringen Fokus på skoleopplæringen: Rapport 2 Forskning på kvalitet i fag- og yrkesopplæringen. NIFU, FAFO, Høgskolen i Oslo og Akershus, Universitetet i Bergen (s. 17-72).

Olsen, O.J. (2013) Læring og sosialisering i yrkesutdanningen – praksisansatsens standhaftighet. Sosiologisk Årbok 2013 (1) s. 41-75

Støren, Liva A, Håvard Helland og Jens B. Grøgaard (2007): Og hvem stod igjen? Sluttrapport fra prosjektet Gjennomstrømning i videregående opplæring blant elever som startet i videregåen- de opplæring i årene 1999-2001. Oslo. NIFU STEP

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