If Reformers Really Cared About Teaching, They Would Listen to Finland

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…

This entry was posted in Education. Bookmark the permalink.

6 Responses to If Reformers Really Cared About Teaching, They Would Listen to Finland

  1. Felicis says:

    Not that testing is cheap… It’s just that the money goes to a corporation instead of to the little people.

  2. Min says:

    “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.”

    Sorry to be a school marm, but does this sentence say what its author or authors intended? Perhaps “teachers to use” should be “teachers’ use of”.

  3. Min says:

    Oh, yes. If reformers really cared about teaching, they would propose doubling teachers’ pay. 🙂

    • anthrosciguy says:

      That method only works for CEOs and consultants.

    • dr2chase says:

      Yeah, don’t you love how the economists pretend that it’s all elegant mathematics, but the instance someone proposes to raise productivity by increasing pay (math, it works in both directions! I learned that in school! ), that is ludicrous and unpossible.

  4. techno says:

    I once had a book published in Finland. So while I haven’t spent time in Finnish schools and know little about their educational debates, I do know quite a few of those highly educated Finns.

    1) Based on the outcomes, those schools must be fantastic. The folks I know are superbly educated! I spend a week getting prepped before I will talk to my editor or translator so I can keep up.

    2) They do not embrace petty testing but they do have the one big killer test at the end where students are expected to demonstrate what they have been taught. They study for months (school lets out for seniors in January so they can study for the June test.) The large majority of testing in Finland is essay tests so there is very little chance to pretend you know something you do not. And unlike a bar exam, there are no do-overs.

    3) Because everyone who graduates high school has been required to proved they actually learned something, the culture is awash in people who expect learned conversations including a basic understanding of the world. So that’s what the children of Finland grow up expecting to become.

    4) I wince whenever I hear public officials in USA speak because they will almost certainly demonstrate their historical illiteracy. Obama was elected in 2008 even after he claimed his uncles helped liberate Auschwitz. Since the camp was liberated by the Red Army and his uncles were from Kansas, this was impossible. But this howler was excused because probably at least 70% of USA actually believes the US Army liberated Auschwitz. Hard to be a good president being that historically illiterate, however. And so Obama staggers from one foreign policy disaster to another because no one bothered to teach him history and he probably wouldn’t have been interested anyway. This does not happen in Finland where cab drivers and doormen are more historically informed than senior members of the US government.

Comments are closed.