Professional autonomy allows teachers in Finland to do what their peers in the U.S. can’t
Imagine this: You spend a day in a typical American public school cruising from one classroom to another observing what teachers do. Then you do the same in Finland. What would you expect to see? Many things would probably look similar. But, without a doubt, you would notice one big difference: Teachers in Finland would be much less concerned about whether all students have reached the grade level, met the homework standard, or feel prepared for the forthcoming standardized tests.
In my previous job at the Finnish Ministry of Education in Helsinki, I had an opportunity to host scores of education delegations from the United States. They often did what I asked you to imagine above. After spending a day or sometimes two in Finnish schools, they were puzzled. Among other things, they said: The atmosphere in schools is informal and relaxed; teachers have time in school to do other things than teach; and people trust each other. A common takeaway was that Finnish teachers seem to have much more professional autonomy than teachers in the United States. Or is this just an illusion?
We have surprisingly little internationally comparable evidence about what teachers do in their schools. Some studies, like the TIMSS Video Study in 1999, have shed light on how teachers teach mathematics and science in Australia, Hong Kong, the U.S. and four other countries. OECD’s TALIS survey in 2013 provides a more comprehensive picture of lower-secondary school teachers and principals across 30 countries. A new study by Professor Linda Darling-Hammond and her colleagues at Stanford University opens some new windows to better understand the teaching profession around the world.
But still, we have more anecdotal evidence than solid research for important questions, such as: Do teachers in Finland have more professional autonomy to decide important educational matters alone or with colleagues than the U.S. teachers?
Teaching and Learning International Survey (TALIS) in 2013 offers some insights into teachers’ working conditions. First, teachers in the U.S. work longer hours (45 hours/week) than their peers in Finland (32 hours/week). They also teach more weekly, 27 hours compared to 21 hours in Finland (though a study published by the Center for Benefit-Cost Studies of Education at Columbia University in January 2015 found the difference in actual teaching time to be much tighter). This means that American teachers, on average, have less time beyond their teaching duties to do something with their colleagues or alone than Finnish teachers or teachers in most other OECD countries.
Second, over half of American lower-secondary teachers report that they never teach jointly with other teachers in the same classroom, and 42% of U.S. teachers report never engaging in joint projects across classes or age groups. But teaching in isolation is not to say that teachers have professional autonomy to do what they please.
Another way to compare the professional autonomy in teaching is to listen to what teachers have to say about it. Around the International Teachers Day, we should pay closer attention to how teachers experience their work in school. So, what do I hear?
In Finland, teachers often say that they are professionals akin to doctors, architects, and lawyers. This means, they explain, that teachers are expected to perform in their workplaces like pros: use professional judgment, creativity, and autonomy to find the best ways to help their students to learn. In the absence of common teaching standards Finnish teachers together design their own school curricula steered by flexible national framework.
Most importantly, I hear Finnish teachers say that due to absence of high-stakes standardized tests, teachers can assess what students learn in schools as they think is most appropriate. The keyword is trust between teachers and authorities. Indeed, professional autonomy requires trust, and trust gives life to autonomy..
Many American visitors to Finland have told me about very different voices of their teachers. They have told me about teachers who must teach by predetermined scripts. I have seen teachers drilling students for standardized tests to make the mark. Teachers tell that they have no choice but to do that because the test results are part of their performance evaluations. I have received letters from teachers who have left teaching too early and for good.
The global educational reform movement has adopted school autonomy as the driver of excellence and improvement. This is evident in current school choice policies in Sweden, Chile, England, Australia, and in the U.S. The Grattan Institute in Australia concluded that “on autonomy, Australia and other countries have the wrong strategy.” School autonomy should not be mixed with the professional autonomy of teachers. Professor Andy Hargreaves has said that it is about the autonomy of the school owner and/or school principal to operate without due regard for the community or for local democratic control. School autonomy has often led to lessening teacher professionalism and autonomy for the benefit of greater profits for school owners.
I have argued that teachers in the U.S., typically, are no worse or better than teachers in Finland. In the U.S. and Finland, they decided to become teachers for the same reason: they want to make difference in children’s lives. This said, I don’t think that the problem in American education is the lack of teacher quality, and that the solution would be to find the best and the brightest to become teachers.
But I do believe that the quality of an education system can exceed the quality of its teachers. Teaching is team sport, not an individual race. This is perhaps the most powerful lesson from better performing education systems: What teachers need is greater collective professional autonomy, in other words, more freedom from bureaucracy. Let’s let them teach!
Published on The Conversation, 5 Oct 2015