Finnish Envy

Americans have a bad case of Finnish envy, at least in the world of education. It’s hard to find a more poorly calibrated basis of comparison, but that doesn’t stop us. Finland has an ethnically homogeneous population (80% of Finns are Nordic Lutherans) with a total public school enrollment of less than 700,000 students. America, on the other hand, is an ethnically diverse country with a total public school enrollment of 55 million kids.

But lots of people think there’s much to learn there. In fact, even the truest defenders of the status quo find common ground with ardent reformers when studying the potency of the Finnish education system, specifically its ability to attract and retain great instructors.

Yesterday, for instance, union Momma Bear Diane Ravitch kvelled about the respect accorded Finnish public school teachers:
Teachers have extensive responsibility for designing curriculum and pedagogy in their school. They have a large degree of autonomy, because they are professionals.

Admission to teacher education programs at the end of high school is highly competitive; only one in 10—or even fewer—qualify for teacher preparation programs. All Finnish teachers spend five years in a rigorous program of study, research, and practice, and all of them finish with a masters' degree. Teachers are prepared for all eventualities, including students with disabilities, students with language difficulties, and students with other kinds of learning issues.
Dr. Ravtich seems to suggest that we should set a higher bar for aspiring teachers in education schools, much along the lines of recommendations from those of the ed reform persuasion. There's certainly room for us to grow there: for example, in Finland (and in Singapore and South Korea) 100% of educators come from the top third of their college classes. In the U.S. only 23% of teachers come from the top third of their class and 47% come from the bottom third.

Her comments jibe with Public Impact’s Byran and Emily Hassel’s views regarding the recommendations released by Democrats for Education Reform (and a long list of other ed reformists) for reauthorization of ESEA, the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (nee NCLB). According to the Hassels, the only way for us to improve our nation’s schools is
to put excellent teachers, the top 20 to 25 percent who achieve well over today’s “year of learning progress,” in charge of every child’s learning—consistently. With today’s merely solid teachers, those who achieve a full year of progress, students who start behind stay behind, and those in the middle do not leap ahead. Moreover, the current teacher pool feeds the anemic principal pipeline, meaning excellent teachers are regularly pulled from instruction—or forced to work under inadequate leaders.
Therefore, they posit, a newly-authorized ESEA should:
• Require states to identify excellent teachers immediately (even if full-blown evaluation systems take longer to develop);
• Require reporting of the percentage of students reached by teachers at each effectiveness level, not just the percentage of teachers at different effectiveness levels—rewarding places that increase the productivity of excellent teachers; and
• Make federal funding contingent on clearing barriers that keep excellent teachers from reaching more students, such as limits on their pay, class sizes, and non-teaching staff who could monitor digital instruction.
Bad basis for comparison or not, our Finnish envy helps us find common ground, at least in the realm of teacher quality.