One comparison education reformers like to make is the comparison between the U.S. and Finland (Finland does better than the U.S. as a whole on international comparisons). I’ve discussed some of the problems with that comparison before. Nonetheless, it gets interesting when you ask an actual Finnish educator what makes teachers successful (boldface mine):
First, standardization should focus more on teacher education and less on teaching and learning in schools. Singapore, Canada and Finland all set high standards for their teacher-preparation programs in academic universities. There is no Teach for Finland or other alternative pathways into teaching that wouldn’t include thoroughly studying theories of pedagogy and undergo clinical practice. These countries set the priority to have strict quality control before anybody will be allowed to teach – or even study teaching! This is why in these countries teacher effectiveness and teacher evaluation are not such controversial topics as they are in the U.S. today.
Second, the toxic use of accountability for schools should be abandoned. Current practices in many countries that judge the quality of teachers by counting their students’ measured achievement only is in many ways inaccurate and unfair. It is inaccurate because most schools’ goals are broader than good performance in a few academic subjects. It is unfair because most of the variation of student achievement in standardized tests can be explained by out-of-school factors. Most teachers understand that what students learn in school is because the whole school has made an effort, not just some individual teachers. In the education systems that are high in international rankings, teachers feel that they are empowered by their leaders and their fellow teachers. In Finland, half of surveyed teachers responded that they would consider leaving their job if their performance would be determined by their student’s standardized test results.
Third, other school policies must be changed before teaching becomes attractive to more young talents. In many countries where teachers fight for their rights, their main demand is not more money but better working conditions in schools. Again, experiences from those countries that do well in international rankings suggest that teachers should have autonomy in planning their work, freedom to run their lessons the way that leads to best results, and authority to influence the assessment of the outcomes of their work. Schools should also be trusted in these key areas of the teaching profession.
Finally, here’s a thought experiment–what would happen if we moved some (highly regarded) Finnish teachers to the U.S.?:
We transport highly trained Finnish teachers to work in, say, Indiana in the United States… After five years—assuming that the Finnish teachers showed up fluent in English and that education policies in Indiana would continue as planned—we would check whether these teachers have been able to improve test scores in state-mandated student assessments.
I argue that if there were any gains in student achievement they would be marginal. Why? Education policies in Indiana and many other states in the United States create a context for teaching that limits (Finnish) teachers to use their skills, wisdom and shared knowledge for the good of their students’ learning. Actually, I have met some experienced Finnish-trained teachers in the United States who confirm this hypothesis. Based on what I have heard from them, it is also probable that many of those transported Finnish teachers would be already doing something else than teach by the end of their fifth year – quite like their American peers.
Or we could bust teachers unions. After all, it’s only the cognitive development of children. Though improving working conditions and entry standards (meaning teachers would have to be paid more) is expensive. So testing it is…