Good schools: How to do it. It’s the teachers, stupid!

June 11, 2008 at 6:29 am 3 comments

Worth a read: Our friends in the north, a thought-provoking article in the Economist that explores the policies and philosophies that make the education system in Finland “the best in the world.”

Finnish schools are compared to schools in Sweden and it’s interesting to read about the successes and struggles of a national voucher model, market-based school systems, personalized curricula, segregated versus mainstream special education policies, and differing beliefs about the purpose of a public education system.

But of most interest to me, and the reason Finnish schools are so good: Teacher recruitment and quality of instruction. As noted by a professor of pedagogy at Helsinki’s teacher-training facility, “The root of the Finnish education system’s success is its extraordinary ability to attract the very best young people into teaching: Only around 10% of applicants are accepted for teacher training.”

At the National Board of Education, I ask Irmeli Halinen what other countries should learn from Finland. The most important lesson, she says, is to develop excellent initial training for teachers. Second, start education late and gently—Finnish children are seven before they start formal school. And she offers a third lesson: “We don’t waste energy or money or time on inspections or national testing.”

The ministry of education is “obsessed” with maintaining and improving the status of educators as an elite and respected group in Finnish society. Says its minster, “We will do anything possible to keep the profession attractive.”

I’d love to hear the same commitment from U.S. representatives, legislators, and policy makers. But even if we increased teacher recruitment and retention efforts, drawing teachers and administrators from a select pool of the smartest and highest-achieving college graduates, how much more would students learn? Teacher quality, while a necessary (and even if the most important) input for a public school, is just one piece of the dynamic and complicated education puzzle. Students and their families have to buy into and believe in the system… They have to believe that education will empower them to achieve their own best promises.

Do our schools help to lift-up the children of low-income families? It’s a complicated question that the concept of “inter-generational income elasticity” makes a bit more messy. This is “the technical term for the correlation between people’s income and that of their parents.”

In the United States, parental income is a major influence on earning. It is difficult for children to move among — especially up — economic classes. In Finland, inter-generational income elasticity is low, meaning, “Finns trust teachers and schools… and for a reason.” A strong education system makes economic ladder climbing easy. “What Finnish schools do is genuinely effective.”

How is this possible? High standards of success from all students:

“Between-student” variation in Finland is extremely low, meaning a narrow gap between the scores of the most able and least able groups. This trick is easy to pull off if standards are uniformly low, but Finland’s average is the world’s highest, meaning it does almost unbelievably well by its weakest students.

How are high standards achieved? Not by mandated national or state testing. But by getting the best and brightest people to work in education.

Finland’s secret is simple: its teachers are so highly regarded that the very best young people compete for this coveted job. The successful few study for at least five years and are actually taught how to teach (you would be surprised how rare this is on teacher-training courses). And then, once they start work, their students pay attention and work hard (when I asked Finns whether there were some families who despised education and resented schools, they seemed puzzled by the question).

I have seen what works. But I don’t know how my country—where anti-intellectualism is rife, and where, sadly, all too often those who can’t do, teach—could replicate it.

Hat tip to MH for the link.

Play, think…
J.R. Atwood

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3 Comments Add your own

  • 1. educatorblog  |  June 11, 2008 at 6:46 am

    The Economist has been obsessed with Finland’s education model for quite some time – I remember reading a few articles about it in the Charlemagne section last year.

    I think that we can learn a lot from Finland, especially about their professional teaching force, commitment to school quality, and high levels of education funding.

    But I have to ask myself: How is the United States different from Finland? For one, Finland has a much more homogeneous population. The United States suffers from horizontal inequalities and prejudice based on region, race, culture, gender, immigrant status, etc – Finland has less of those barriers. I think that the social and economic organization of the US is one of the underlying factors of problems in our education system. Also, the needs of students vary by all of those same factors. We also have to think about sheer numbers. We’re about to enroll just under 50 million students in our education system next year (Finland has a population of 5.2 million). Can we put the Finland model into place on such a large scale?

    I agree with you about teacher education. We def. need to change the way we recruit and train teachers. I’m lucky to be enrolled in a teacher ed program with a very strong model and institutional support.

    Reply
  • 2. jeanett666  |  June 11, 2008 at 8:43 am

    I love finnish teachers, we had one at a visit atour school for a week.. best week ever!
    another thing that is different in Finland is that beeing a teacher is a good thing and you will be respected, in other country, let’s say Norway(I live there ;) it’s not beeing seen as anything special, respectful or anything. almost no one wants to be a teacher, it’s one of the most hated thing to be. therefore tha state almsot throws the teachers jobs after people, going down on their knees begging
    “please, please, become a teacher! don’t worry about yuor grades wwe will just lower the limit, you will get a bigger paychek, I promise(..never happens)”
    how we raise children(yes I am 17, but I got eyes, a moth and ears, it seems that most people let the school raise their children, and that ain’t right. to many students goes intop school without repsect for the teachers, how to behave in a classroom or with other students and respect rules. and as I have learned Finns sets respect much higher!
    I am not saying this to be a know it all, but I say from my point of view behind the my desk at school and how I see my sister at school.

    at middle school two of my teachers quited because they couldn’t handle our class, yes we were wild, buit the problem was that we were so mixed out of oder, we needed some one to look up to and lead us and teach us, they deffently couldn’t! their reaction if anything happesn was to yesll, scream, pull their hair and cry infron of us. the last year we got our saver, he was old school(and elder, but whatever) he hadn’t got hid job thrown at him, he had wanted it and had a good techer education. just his pressent was strong and just by beeing close to him u knew he wanteed respect and would respect u too. in difference from out other teachers, he dat rules, but you still felt free(common logic) did u beak them u would get trhown out if that was what he had said, he always did as he said, you couldn’t taslk him out or away from things(one of the students favorite thing to do with a teacher) and he sat goals for what we wanted from us(also individual)we always knew what he wanted(and it was never too much, just something to reach for)

    yeah that was a little bit off topic, but my point is that he made me have respect for “real” teachers. they have to be really mentally strong and be able to handle world war 3. I wish I could clone him and lett every sdudent have a pice. teachers is importan they shape your education and future.
    the schools can have the best of everything(pc, books etc.) but if the teachers isn’t good enough, it means nothing

    Reply
  • 3. A new teaching taxonomy « playthink  |  March 11, 2010 at 5:06 am

    […] Related: Finding, making, and evaluating great teachers; Good schools: It’s the teachers, stupid! […]

    Reply

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Jason R. Atwood

I'm an avid trail runner and doctoral student at U.C. Berkeley who studies motivation and the relationship between the mind and body. This blog is a forum to share research, news, and musings about these topics of interest. More

Play is the beginning of knowledge.

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