Tuesday, September 10, 2013

Producing Teachers: Finland vs. United States

Amanda Ripley has written a wonderfully insightful book on education: The Smartest Kids in the World: And how They Got That Way. Ripley was concerned with the fact that kids from the US seemed to be locked into what might best be called mediocre performance levels on international tests of academic competence. She became aware that a number of countries had produced remarkable improvements in their students’ performance in a rather short period of time. If they could do that, why couldn’t the US?

Ripley was determined to discover what other countries had done in order to compare their approaches with what is happening in US education. She chose to attack the problem by tracking three exchange students who would compare their experiences in the schools of Finland, South Korea, and Poland with what they had encountered in their home high schools.

Ripley’s book contains a number of intriguing conclusions and suggestions about how education can be made better in this country. Here we will focus on what she learned from examining Finland and its dramatic improvement in educational performance.

We are shown Finnish education mainly through the experiences of a young high school student from Oklahoma named Kim. It is instructive to compare the educational background of the Finnish language teacher (Stara) that Kim encounters with one of her teachers (math: Scott) from back home in Oklahoma. While the focus on teacher education in Finland is well known among educators in this country, few bother to make the comparison that Ripley does, and few dare come to the same conclusion as her.

"Like Kim’s math teacher back in Oklahoma, Stara was a veteran teacher, approaching two decades in the profession. Both teachers had jobs that were protected by powerful unions, and neither could easily be dismissed. This pattern held true in most developed countries around the world. Teachers’ unions held a lot of power, and teachers rarely got fired anywhere."

In well performing countries and bad, teachers had considerable job security. That was not what differentiated the good from the bad.

We in the US let almost anyone become a teacher and once they become established we begin to grade them and demand that they be an excellent teacher. Finland had discarded this approach long ago and replaced it with one that actually made sense. Why not allow only the best students to study to become teachers, provide them rigorous education and training, and demand from them excellence before becoming teachers?

Stara wanted to become a Finnish language teacher. She knew early on that attaining that goal would require a lot of hard work.

"At the time, all of Finland’s teacher-training colleges had similarly high standards, making them about as selective as Georgetown or the University of California, Berkeley in the United States. Today, Finland’s education programs are even more selective, on the order of MIT."

Finland’s teachers embark on a rigorous six-year plan of study that is equivalent to attaining a master’s degree. This master’s required the equivalent of a degree in the subject to be taught plus extensive practice teaching, and evidence of the capability to do original research in their field of study.

"....Stara spent the first three years studying Finnish literature. She read intensely and wrote multiple twenty-page papers. She analyzed novels, poems, and short stories—something English trainee teachers do not generally do in the United States. At the same time she took other required courses, including statistics. In the fourth year....she began the teacher training program."

"For one full year of her master’s program, Stara got to train in one of the best public schools in the country. She had three teacher mentors there, and she watched their classes closely. When she taught her own classes, her mentors and fellow student teachers took notes. Afterward, she got feedback, some of it harsh, in much the way medical residents are critiqued in teaching hospitals."

"Like all Finnish teachers, Stara also had to do original research to get her degree, so she wrote a two-hundred-page thesis on the ways that teenagers’ spoken Finnish shaped their written Finnish."

Ripley compares the teaching profession in Finland to the medical profession in the US. This comparison is critical. In the US, teaching is an occupation. In Finland it is a profession with imposed standards. In a profession one must demonstrate competence before being accepted in, not afterwards. By undergoing education and training that is recognized as being rigorous, doctors and Finnish teachers show up for their first assignment already having earned the respect of patients or students.

"Getting into a teacher training program there [Finland] was as prestigious as getting into medical school in the United States."

Just as no brain surgeon would ever be told that this year he would have to switch to heart surgery, no person who teaches the Finnish language would be asked to switch to math. Each discipline is recognized as requiring a demonstrated expertise.

Contrast Stara’s path with that of Kim’s math teacher in Oklahoma.

"He’d decided to become a teacher mostly so that he could become a football coach. In America this made sense."

"....he’d always been pretty good at math. So he figured the best way to become a coach was to become a math teacher. [He] was one of several coaches that Kim had as teachers over the years, a hybrid job that would be considered bizarre in Finland and many other countries where sports lay beyond the central mission of schools."

"In Oklahoma alone, [he] could choose from nearly two dozen teacher training programs—almost three times as many as in all of Finland, a much bigger place. Oklahoma, like most states, educated far more teachers than it needed. At most U.S. colleges, education was known as one of the easiest majors. Education departments usually welcomed almost anyone who claimed to like children. Once students got there, they were rewarded with high grades and relatively easy work. Instead of taking the more rigorous mathematics classes offered to other students, for example, education majors tended to take special math classes designed for students who did not like math."

Kim’s math teacher attended a respected school that produced more teacher graduates than any other institution in the state.

"However, it also has a 75 percent acceptance rate, which means that it admits, on average, students with much weaker math, reading, and science skills than Finnish education schools. The university’s typical ACT score is lower than the national average for ACT-takers—a pattern that holds true for many teacher-training programs all over America."

When he applied to enter an education degree program in his sophomore year, he

"....had to have a grade-point average of just 2.5 or higher (out of 4)....To be a teacher, he also had to have at least a C grade in freshman English and a C in speech or a class called the fundamentals of oral communication"

A score of at least 19 on the ACT test was also required at a time when the national average was 20.6. This was, in effect, announcing that teachers didn’t have to have been very interested in their own education, or even be very smart in order to be given responsibility for teaching our children.

A master’s degree is not required of teachers in the US, but a bump in salary is often available for those who have one.

"But since the typical education college had low standards and little rigor, an advanced degree did not mean much. In many states, teachers were not required to get degrees in their subject area, so they got a master’s in teaching instead. A master’s degree did not make American teachers better at their jobs, generally speaking, and some research suggested it made them worse."

Ripley adds this opinion of the current state of affairs.

"The combination of low standards and high supply plagued education systems around the world, dumbing down the entire teaching profession."

Finland now scores near the top on the international tests, much higher than the US. However, it once had a system like that of the US and much lower performance.

"Interestingly, Finland’s landscape used to be littered with small teaching colleges of varying quality, just like the United States."

"In the 1970s, Finnish teachers had to keep diaries recording what they taught each hour. National school inspectors made regular visits to make sure teachers were following an exhaustive, seven-hundred-page centralized curriculum. Central authorities approved textbooks. Teachers could not be trusted to make their own decisions."

The Finns realized that if they were ever to get to a stage where they could compete in the modern, globalized world they would have to get there via education. They made the bold decision to upgrade their system by providing their students with the best teachers in the world. This involved consolidating teacher education in their major universities so that it would be treated like any other academic discipline. The eventual result was the highly selective, rigorous process that Stara endured before entering the teaching profession.

Once the Finns upgraded their teacher education approach they discovered that the education system worked better if they allowed these highly qualified teachers a great degree of autonomy. Teachers and schools were free to create their own lesson plans and to experiment with different approaches.

"Finland’s top-down, No-Child-Left-Behind-style mandates became unnecessary. More than that, they were a burden, preventing teachers and schools from reaching a higher level of excellence."

"The government abolished school inspections. It didn’t need them anymore."

Providing excellent teachers is a necessary step in upgrading a school system, but it is only one step. Ripley describes the No Child Left Behind and Race to the Top efforts in our country as attempts to keep children from falling below some floor in achievement. She explains that the schools that successfully turned around their educational systems did it by trying to "raise the ceiling."

Teachers can teach, but it is the students who must do the learning. Children, parents, industry, and government must all buy into the notion that education is important—critically so. That is what happened in Finland, South Korea, and Poland. Each at one point felt in economic peril and each decided that education would provide the solution to their difficulties. Their children now show up at school not only ready to learn, but determined to learn.

Upgrading our teacher education process would be a necessary first step for us as well. Unfortunately, our problems are much deeper and more insidious.

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