Finland’s elusive teacher quality recipe: How can we replicate it here?

In his talk at the APS March Meeting on Tuesday, AAAS Deputy Director George de Boer pointed out that Finland’s student achievement success in math and science – and in other subjects – is not the result of the same strategies that the US is implementing such as specificity in standards and rigorous standardized assessments.  Instead, the Finnish system is built almost entirely on the remarkable quality of its teaching force, and the nation’s teachers are given “considerable freedom to interpret the broad goals of the national curriculum.”

Can the attractiveness and prestige of the teaching profession be replicated in the US?

Consider this discussion of Finland’s teaching corps from the National Center on Education and the Economy:

High quality teachers are the hallmark of Finland’s education system.  Teaching is Finland’s “most respected” profession, and primary school teaching is the most sought-after career. As is the case with other top-performing countries, observers often dismiss the Finnish example because they see the status of teachers as a cultural characteristic that cannot be altered by policy and therefore as not replicable.  But, as in other cases among the top performers, the status of teachers on closer examination appears to be in large measure the result of the implementation of specific policies and practices, detailed elsewhere on this web site, that are quite replicable.  While this can also be said of other countries, including a number of East and Southeast Asian countries, there is a Finnish model that is quite different from the various Asian models.

Why is a teaching career the number one choice of Finland’s best and brightest students?

Pay is not the answer.  Teacher pay in Finland is reasonably competitive but no more attractive than in many other European countries. In fact, the range of salaries among professionals in Finland is very small, compared to most other advanced industrial countries, which means that differences in compensation in Finland generally have less of an influence on career choice than in other countries.

The answer certainly has something to do with the age-old respect for teachers in Finland, but much more to do with the selection process, the work itself and the working conditions.  Because Finland has very high standards that must be met to enter teacher preparation programs, getting in confers prestige on the successful applicant.  The fact that  Finland has moved teacher education into the universities also confers prestige on young people who go into teaching, because they are getting professional training in the same institutions providing training to the highest prestige professions.  Because Finland has developed a deeply thoughtful curriculum and then provided teachers ever more autonomy with respect to how they approach that curriculum, they have both a curriculum worth teaching to and the kind of autonomy in how they approach it that is characteristic only of the high status professions.  Because Finland is at the frontiers of curriculum design to support creativity and innovation, teachers have a job that has many of the attractions of the professions that involve research, development and design.  They are pushing their intellectual and creative boundaries. Because Finland is understandably satisfied with the job its teachers are doing, it is willing to trust them and their professional judgments to a degree that is rare among the nations of the world (a sign of which is the fact that there are no tests given to all Finnish students at any level of the system that would allow supervisors to make judgments about the comparative worth of individual teachers or school faculties.)  This high level of trust, the intellectual challenges of a curriculum that aims high and involves a regimen of constant invention, the satisfaction of knowing that you have been admitted to a profession that is very hard to get into, the knowledge that you will be working with others who have the same attainments and the professional autonomy usually associated only with the highest status professions — all this makes for a very attractive job.  It should be no surprise that Finland has a very high retention rate for teachers, with about 90% of trained teachers remaining in the profession for the duration of their careers.

Can we replicate that level of prestige here in the US?  I’m not talking about recruiting temporary teachers who see, for example, a Teach for America assignment as a springboard to getting admitted to a better law school.  I’m talking about strong students who decide to make a long-term professional commitment to teaching.

A key element in Finland seems to be the self-perpetuating prestige born of the selectivity of the teaching profession:  It’s tough to get into a teacher preparation program; therefore, the teaching profession gains prestige, attracting more candidates, so the admissions process gets tougher, making the profession more prestigious…and so on.

How could we trigger that cycle of prestige and quality here in the US and Florida?

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