America’s schools have begun to fall behind the international competition, with American students ranking 24th in the world in reading, 28th in science, and an especially disappointing 36th in math according to the most recent data from the Program for International Student Assessment (PISA). In recent years, education reformers and political leaders from both political parties have enthusiastically called for standardized evaluations of teacher performance in the classroom as a solution to America’s education problem. However, while a great deal of attention has been paid to teacher and student performance in the classroom, there has been much less focus on what happens outside the classroom. The key to improving K-12 instruction may not be standardized testing or performance evaluations—it may be that the United States needs to give teachers the education, respect, and support they need to be effective educators, while also mitigating the inequalities that keep far too many students from realizing their potential.
Few countries have had as much success reforming their education system as Finland: Finnish students once struggled to compete, but today they rank 12th in the world in mathematics, sixth in reading, and fifth in science, making Finland the only western nation to break into the top five in any subject area on the 2012 PISA exam. The teaching profession is so desirable in Finland that only 10 percent of applicants are accepted into education programs at Finnish universities, an admissions rate comparable to that of many highly selective universities in the United States. Once they make it into an education program, every Finnish primary and secondary school teacher must acquire a master’s degree before they can enter the classroom. A holistic application process consisting of essays, interviews, and classroom simulations ensures that even average applicants can gain entry based upon vital but unquantifiable personal qualities. The Finns don’t just recruit “the best and brightest” into the teaching profession; rather, they carefully select applicants who are most likely to become good teachers.
However, better teacher training is far from a cure-all for America’s education problems. Pasi Sahlberg, a visiting professor at the Harvard Graduate School of Education and the author of Finnish Lessons, a bestselling book on Finland’s education reforms, told the HPR that the way teachers are treated in America must change. “You cannot conclude that the quality of teachers would be only the outcome of training,” Sahlberg said. “The big difference between teachers here in the United States and teachers in Finland is not the training; the big difference is how they are allowed to do what they are trained to do in schools … There is much more professional autonomy in Finland when it comes to teaching.” The Finnish don’t try to motivate their teachers with the sort of carrot-and-stick performance evaluations that have become common practice in the United States. As Sahlberg points out, “When I go around the schools here in America I increasingly talk to teachers who say they have to teach according to the ‘script.’”
This is in sharp contrast to the Finnish system, where teachers are required to evaluate and report the progress of their students, but the teachers within each school are largely free to work together to design their own curricula and student progress evaluations. This might seem irresponsible to many education reformers in the United States, but Finland’s teacher education program ensures that teachers are ready to responsibly and effectively use this freedom once they get into the classroom. In Finland, according to Sahlberg, “we prepare our teachers to plan well with other teachers, we prepare them to think like educators, and we prepare them to understand and evaluate how students learn.”
There is no clear and rigorous pathway into the teaching profession in the United States. American K-12 teachers are usually expected to complete a four-year college education and pass a state teacher certification exam. However, there is a vast disparity in the quality of education programs between universities in the United States. At many American universities, it is possible for an education major to reach their senior year of college before they are ever asked to step into a classroom. In many states, the teacher certification process is extremely complicated and often embarrassingly undemanding. According to a report from the nonpartisan think tank Third Way, most states have set the cut-off point on their teacher certification exams at the 16th percentile or lower, meaning that a prospective teacher in most states in the U.S. would pass their state’s teacher certification exam even if their score was the 17th-worst out of 100. And in contrast to the Finnish system, at no point is there a holistic analysis of personal qualities to determine whether an applicant should become a teacher in the first place.
To make matters worse, students’ standardized test scores usually arrive too late for teachers to make use of the results. For instance, the Florida Standards Assessment is a test given to most Florida K-12 students in March, April, and May, but the results aren’t available until October, by which point it’s too late for Florida teachers to use the test scores—by that point, they’re already teaching an entirely different group of students. The result is poor performance, low morale, and a massive turnover rate: a third of new teachers leave the profession within five years, and the average teacher in the U.S. has only five years of experience. In contrast, Finnish teachers are trained and treated like professionals, and are held in the same esteem as doctors and lawyers in Finnish society. As a result, 91 percent of Finnish teachers express satisfaction with their jobs, the average teacher in Finland has 16 years of experience, and the average Finnish teaching career will last about 40 years. This is in spite of the fact that the average salary for a Finnish teacher is only $1,350 higher than the average salary for an American teacher.
Lessons and Limits
Interestingly, the Finnish practice of treating teaching with the same respect as other professions is not unprecedented in the American experience. In fact, American teachers were once treated with a similar degree of respect as doctors and lawyers—they were considered professionals, true experts in their field. “America looked a lot like Finland in this respect [as recently as] the 1980s,” Sahlberg said. “If you look at almost any country 50 years ago, medical professionals, legal professionals, police, and teachers all enjoyed the same sort of professional respect. American teachers had respect, and were trusted.” At a time in American history when high-stakes standardized was largely nonexistent, teachers had more time to teach, and students had more time to learn. However, as the American education system began to falter in the 1980s and 1990s, many American education reformers began to look at alternative models. Because math, science, and literacy skills were expected to be vital in the twenty-first century, American education reformers created universal standards and mandated standardized testing to ensure that teachers delivered on those standards, rewarding the teachers and schools that succeeded and punishing those that did not.
This carrot-and-stick approach to education in America has unfortunately ignored the massive, underlying problem in American education: poverty. The United States has one of the highest levels of income inequality in the developed world, and this disparity in income has led to disparity in educational achievement. Most American states distribute per-pupil block funding grants to public schools, but unlike in most other countries, these grants aren’t progressive—every district receives the same per-pupil grant regardless of the economic circumstances in the surrounding community. This is a fatal error, because American public schools also receive funding from local property taxes, in addition to the state per-pupil block grant. This means that a school district in an affluent suburban community can often enjoy much more per-pupil funding than a district in a poor inner-city neighborhood or a small, working-class rural community.
Finland does not have the same problems as the United States when it comes to income inequality, poverty, and school funding—this is one of the things American cannot learn from the “Finnish miracle.” However, there is a glimmer of hope. Many of the countries that excel in K-12 education today were struggling as recently as the 1980s, and were only able to improve their performance by instituting sweeping educational reforms that were largely inspired by the way the American education system worked at the time. “All the solutions to improve education in America already exist here,” Sahlberg said. “We know exactly what the problem is, and we also know the solutions. The United States should critically see what other countries are already doing with American ideas, and ask ‘Why on Earth are we not doing the same?’”
America is facing a crisis in K-12 education, but it is not an unsolvable one. Currently, policymakers spend an enormous amount of time, money, and manpower on teacher evaluation, while ignoring glaring problems with teacher education, the lack of professional autonomy, and inequitable school funding. If education reformers at the local, state, and federal level continue to sweep the real solutions to America’s deficiencies in education under the rug, there is no reason to believe that America’s students will ever catch up with their counterparts in countries like Finland. The “Finnish miracle” only happened when failure was no longer an option—the crippling recession that followed the collapse of the Soviet bloc in Eastern Europe forced Finland to reevaluate their entire strategy, and regard education as not merely another social issue, but a vital component of national prosperity. It seems very likely United States will one day reform its educational system and reap the resulting economic and social benefits; the problem is that we may not choose the right path until it is the only one left untraveled.
Image credits: Flickr/Chicago 2016