Slovenia Sharpens Academic Prowess

By Mary Ann Zehr — April 21, 2009 7 min read
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Slovenians have grabbed international attention with extraordinary physical feats. Martin Strel, a long-distance swimmer, has swum the length of the Amazon, Mississippi, Nile, and Yangtze rivers. In 2000, extreme skier Davo Karnicar became famous for being the first person to ski from the summit of Mount Everest to base camp. And Jure Robic won the title for solo men in the Race Across America cycling competition four times in a row.

But now, Slovenians are receiving world recognition for the use of their minds, not just their physical prowess. The Eastern European nation has a strong ranking on international tests—the Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study, or TIMSS, and the Program for International Student Assessment, or PISA.

“We have motivation to improve ourselves,” said Zvone Zigon, the Republic of Slovenia’s consul general in Cleveland, in explaining why students in his country might be doing well on those tests. “We are a small country. Nobody really knows Slovenia. So we try to show we exist and show we are good. This is back there somewhere in our subconscious.”

Education experts in Slovenia say that education reform, particularly changes in the country’s national curriculum over the past decade, has helped the country improve its performance on international tests.

Slovenia is one of 12 countries, including the United States, whose 8th graders scored above the international average among the 49 participating in math on TIMSS in 2007. It was one of 14 whose 8th graders did better than average in science on that same test.

In 2006, Slovenia scored above the average of 58 participating countries in science and math on PISA. Slovenia scored better than the United States in both subjects that year.

Curriculum for All

Slovenia, a country slightly smaller than Massachusetts with a population of 2 million, stands out in performance on those tests among European countries, according to John Macdonald, a spokesman for the European Commission, the executive branch of the European Union.

“We have Slovenia as a good performer on our core indicators,” he wrote in an e-mail. In the 2007 TIMSS, he said, “our conclusion is that Slovenia is among the best-performing European Union countries.” In addition, he noted, Slovenia’s performance is above average for European Union countries on PISA.


Total population: 2 million

Primary and secondary student population: 109,000

Public spending per pupil as % of GDP: 25.1 (primary), 32.0 (secondary)

Education governance: National curriculum with national compulsory tests in 9th grade

Sources: National data: United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization

Slovenia was once ruled by the Hapsburg monarchy. After the collapse of that Austrian empire, it became part of a kingdom with Croats and Serbs that in 1929 was named the Kingdom of Yugoslavia. In 1945, at the end of World War II, it became part of the Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia, under Communist rule. Slovenia gained independence in 1991, and has been a member of the European Union since 2004.

Slovenians’ reputation for precision is evident in their school curriculum. The country provides guidance on how much time teachers should spend on specific concepts at each grade level. Concepts are introduced at very early grades and then built on at each subsequent grade.

International Rankings

See where the United States and other countries, including Australia, Slovenia, and South Korea, rank on two prominent international mathematics and science exams, PISA and TIMSS. The two tests measure different skills for students in different grades and age groups.

Science Literacy, PISA
15-Year-Olds, 2006


Science, TIMSS
8th Grade, 2007


8th Grade, 2007


SOURCE: Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development; International Association for the Evaluation of Educational Achievement

“Overall, we think that our science and math curriculum are well designed. There is room for improvement,” said Mojca Straus, the coordinator for PISA in Slovenia. She and Barbara Japelj, the TIMSS coordinator for the country, said in a telephone conference call this month that the uniformity and prescriptiveness of the curriculum has helped lower-performing students catch up with their peers on the international tests.

“This curriculum requires that all teachers do the same for all students,” Ms. Japelj said. “The same curriculum taught to the lower-achieving students is one of the reasons for improvement.”

Ms. Straus added that Slovenia’s move in 1999 to incorporate standards into the national curriculum has also helped the nation improve its ranking on the tests. While the curriculum previously spelled out how much time should be spent on specific concepts in math, science, and other subjects, it did not specify what students should know and be able to do, Ms. Straus explained.

At the same time the standards were added, teachers were permitted for the first time to choose from more than one textbook for each subject, which added flexibility in how content is provided.

Having a uniform, prescriptive curriculum may well be key to Slovenia’s success on the international tests, said Jeremy Kilpatrick, a professor of math education at the University of Georgia, in Athens, who has studied TIMSS.

A uniform curriculum is common in many countries, unlike in the United States, he said.

“We don’t have a national curriculum, so we don’t mandate that a certain number of hours be spent on anything,” Mr. Kilpatrick said. Still, some textbooks publish teacher guides that suggest how much time to spend on particular lessons, he said.

Fostering Creativity

Filip Fisteski works on a math assignment with Izabela Milanez, left, and Anna Golob Doneva in Majda Jurkovic’s 4th grade class at Toneta Cufarja Elementary School in Ljubljana, Slovenia. Using the Step by Step method, teachers often group students to do classwork.

But while Slovenia’s uniform curriculum may give students an advantage on international exams, the country is actually trying to back off from having the curriculum dictate what teachers do. The current wave of reform, say Ms. Straus and Ms. Japelj, stresses that teachers should use creative pedagogy, such as having students work more in groups or deciding when and at what pace to learn content.

Ms. Straus said she and other researchers have noticed that Slovenians don’t do as well as students in some other countries in demonstrating higher-order problem-solving on PISA. More-creative teaching methods may help 15-year-olds do better with that approach, she said.

The push to make teaching methods more student-centered started back in 1995 in Slovenia. It was part of an effort by the Open Society Institute to support teacher training in Central and Eastern Europe in what is called the Step by Step Program, according to Sarah Klaus, the director of the early-childhood program for the Open Society Foundation. Ms. Klaus says the Open Society Institute, which is financed by the Hungarian-born philanthropist George Soros, has invested more than $130 million since 1994 in the venture, with Slovenia receiving about $4 million.

Step by Step was developed by early-childhood education professors at Georgetown University, in Washington, and emphasizes student-centered teaching methods and parent involvement, said Ms. Klaus, who is based in London. It focuses on children from birth to 10. One of the goals, she said, is “making sure that education is individualized around students’ needs and interests.”

Elements of Step by Step were incorporated into the reform plan launched in 1999, Ms. Straus said.

Tatjana Hodnik Cadez, the vice dean at the faculty of education of the University of Ljubljana, said the country had to make teaching methods more child-friendly in part because Slovenia changed its system to require children to start school at age 6 rather than 7. At the same time, it made schooling compulsory for nine years instead of eight.

The policy was phased in from the 1999-2000 school year to the 2007-08 school year. Basically, the curriculum that 7-year-olds were taught in 1st grade was adapted for 6-year-olds, Ms. Cadez said.

About This Series

This is the fourth and final installment of a yearlong, occasional series examining the impact of the 1983 report A Nation at Risk.

View the complete index of stories in the A Nation at Risk series.

The first installment was published on April 23, 2008, as the 25th anniversary of the report was being marked. It explored concerns about global competition and efforts by policymakers and educators to benchmark American performance against that of students in competitor nations.

The second, published September 24, 2008, looked at U.S. progress toward finding more time for children’s learning.

The third installment, published February 25, 2009, focused on charter quality and came a quarter-century after A Nation at Risk declared that a “rising tide of mediocrity” was eroding U.S. education.

Majda Jurkovic, a 4th grade teacher at the Toneta Cufarja Elementary School in Ljubljana, has received the Step by Step training and other professional development in student-centered methods offered by the University of Ljubljana. At the 4th grade level, she said, teachers use some elements of Step by Step and a program called Reading and Writing for Critical Thinking—“to help students think reflectively, take ownership for their personal learning, understand the logic of arguments, listen attentively, debate confidently, and become independent, lifelong learners,” she wrote in an e-mail.

Ms. Jurkovic knows what she’s expected to teach 4th graders and for how much time. In math, for example, the curriculum says she should teach one 45-minute period each day. Of the 175 periods of math she is expected to teach each year, 100 should be spent on arithmetic and algebra.

While Slovenia improved significantly from 2003 to 2007 on TIMSS, the country, in fact, did well in 1995, too, according to Slavko Gaber, the education minister during 1992-99 and 2002-04. He said Slovenia’s 8th graders placed seventh in science among participating countries in 1995. The country’s scores dipped in 2003, largely because a younger set of students were taking TIMSS than previously—the result of the school-start-age policy change, Mr. Gaber said. Moreover, the country was in the middle of education reform in 2003, which is “the worst time to measure things,” he said. “Three years later, we were stabilized.”

As part of the reform initiative, Mr. Gaber said, experts in his country compared Slovenia’s curriculum with that of the “competitive European countries,” and changed it to be in better alignment with Belgium, Finland, and Sweden. Slovenia is poised to continue to improve students’ academic achievement, Mr. Gaber said, because it recently increased teacher-preparation requirements. Now, all teachers must graduate from four-year universities; previously, some only graduated from two- or three-year programs, he said.

“We do expect we’ll have even better results on the TIMSS,” Mr. Gaber said.

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Special coverage marking the 25th anniversary of the landmark report A Nation at Risk is supported in part by a grant from the Broad Foundation.
A version of this article appeared in the April 22, 2009 edition of Education Week as Slovenia Sharpens Academic Prowess


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