If you ask anyone why kids do better in school in Finland than other countries, you will probably hear one answer more often anything else: They have great teachers. It is true that Finnish teachers are well prepared, widely respected and commonly trusted professionals. But are education systems successful just because of great teachers? Many would emphatically say “yes.” I would say, however, “not so fast!”
Many of us are delighted that teachers are now recognized as key players in efforts to improve the quality of education systems. The International Summit on Teaching Profession, an annually organized gathering of education ministers and union leaders around the world, is just one of the new forums where teachers are at the center of attention. We now know more and understand better teachers’ lives and their work as a result of increased academic research and global surveys done by international organizations such as the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) and Education International (EI). However, the extent that teachers can make a difference in student learning in school remains a question with different answers.
In Finland, entry into teacher education is one of the most competitive among any field in higher education. Since all teachers must hold advanced academic degrees and they are therefore relatively well-paid and protected professionals, teaching is an attractive career choice among young Finns. And yes, teachers in Finland also have good working conditions in schools and a moderate teaching load by international standards. According to the recent Teaching and Learning International Survey (TALIS) by the OECD, middle school teachers in Finland teach, on average, 21 hours and work 32 hours a week.
A frequently cited claim is that the best-performing education systems recruit their teachers from the pool of brightest graduates. Whatever that means, it’s a myth not supported by evidence. The logic is that the smarter the person entering the teaching profession, the better teacher she or he will become. Getting the best and the brightest into teaching has therefore become a policy mantra repeated in education policies and reforms around the world.
There are those who argue that fast-track teacher preparation models, like Teach For America and its sister organizations in many countries, are justified by referring to more successful education systems like Finland. They say that just as Finland selects its teacher candidates from the best available young people, these alternative teacher preparation programs recruit only the best to become teachers in demanding schools with a notable proportion of disadvantaged children.
Then there are those who go even further, claiming that there are many similarities between the Finnish and TFA conception of teaching. I would argue that these two could not be further apart from one another. Here are three reasons why.
Teacher education vs. short-course preparation. All teachers in Finland must hold a master’s degree either in education (primary school teachers) or in subjects that they teach (lower- and upper-secondary school teachers). Primary school teachers in Finland go through rigorous academic education that normally lasts five to six years and can only be done in one of the research universities that offer teacher education degrees. This advanced academic program includes modules on pedagogy, psychology, neuroscience, curriculum theories, assessment methods, research methods and clinical practical training in teacher training school attached to the university. Subject teachers complete advanced academic studies in their field and combine that with an additional year of an educational program. This approach differs dramatically from the one employed by TFA, requiring only five or six weeks of summer training for college graduates, with limited clinical training in the practice of teaching.
Life-time career vs. short-term experience. Teaching is a competitive career choice in Finland and therefore very popular among upper-secondary school graduates. According to a recent study on the teaching profession in Finland, four out of five teachers are satisfied with their work and just about 9 percent of teachers have left the teaching profession for some other job. In 2012, a Finnish teacher’s career lasted approximately 40 years, while a typical teacher has about 16 years of teaching experience. During their work in school, most teachers – in fact, over 95 percent – are members of the Trade Union of Education in Finland(OAJ), an association of all educators, which belongs to the Confederation of Unions for Academic Professionals in Finland (AKAVA). This is strikingly different from TFA corps members who only commit to teach for two years and normally have loose connections to professional communities of teachers. In 2012, a study on teachers in America shows, the typical teacher in the United States was someone in his or her fifth year. By contrast, 20 years ago, the typical teacher in the United States was in his or her sixteenth year.
Social capital vs. human capital in the teaching profession. In Finland, teaching is regarded as a team sport built on teacher collaboration. Teachers are members of professional teams that share the same goals and purposes. Most schools in Finland have both physical space and time for teachers to work together within every school day. School improvement and professional development focus on enhancing personal work and organizational performance and they normally have strong emphasis on teamwork, collaboration with teachers and schools, and shared leadership. Enhancing social capital is as important as improving human capital in Finnish schools. This differs from the logic of the fast-track teacher preparation programs that build on human capital and often undermine the role of social capital, such as professional learning communities and teacher networks, as the critical element of high-quality teaching and learning in school.
It is true that only about 10 percent of those who send an application to primary school teacher education programs in Finnish research universities will be accepted each year. But that doesn’t mean that Finland recruits teacher candidates from the top 10 percent of upper-secondary school graduates. The admission system is designed in a way that it gives all students interested in becoming a teacher an equal starting point. The students that are recruited to academic teacher education programs each year at the University of Helsinki, for example, have surprisingly diverse academic profiles. The typical freshman teacher education student is one who had slightly above average grades as an upper-secondary student and slightly above average scores on the matriculation exam.
Finnish teacher educators don’t think that superior academic performance would necessarily correspond with being a great teacher. Selection to teacher education in Finland focuses on finding those individuals who have the right personality, advanced interpersonal skills, and the right moral purpose to become lifelong educators. TFA is for many a stepping-stone to prestigious careers in law, banking, business, and public policy while in Finland teaching is a lifetime commitment.
And because Finns think of teaching as a high-status profession akin to medicine, law, or engineering, there is no room for Teach For Finland, just as there’s no room for Cure for Finland or any other short cut to trusted professions.
Published in Washington Post, 12 February 2015