It seems like every day we're reminded how American kids are falling behind in science and math (we're ranked 24 out of 34 countries that participated in the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development).
China, the top-ranking country in math, relies on long hours in school (and after school) to teach their students - so it's natural to think that the key to improving US schools is to turn them into dens of Tiger Mothers.
But is there a better way? Turns out, Finland, who ranked second in the list has a very different - and some say better - approach. The key? Better teachers.
Finland's sweeping success is largely due to one big, not-so-secret weapon: its teachers. "It's the quality of the teaching that is driving Finland's results," says the OECD's Schleicher. "The U.S. has an industrial model where teachers are the means for conveying a prefabricated product. In Finland, the teachers are the standard."
That's one reason so many Finns want to become teachers, which provides a rich talent pool that Finland filters very selectively. In 2008, the latest year for which figures are available, 1,258 undergrads applied for training to become elementary-school teachers. Only 123, or 9.8%, were accepted into the five-year teaching program. That's typical. There's another thing: in Finland, every teacher is required to have a master's degree. (The Finns call this a master's in kasvatus, which is the same word they use for a mother bringing up her child.) Annual salaries range from about $40,000 to $60,000, and teachers work 190 days a year.
"It's very expensive to educate all of our teachers in five-year programs, but it helps make our teachers highly respected and appreciated," says Jari Lavonen, head of the department of teacher education at the University of Helsinki. Outsiders spot this quickly. "Their teachers are much better prepared to teach physics than we are, and then the Finns get out of the way. You don't buy a dog and bark for it," says Dan MacIsaac, a specialist in physics-teacher education at the State University of New York at Buffalo who visited Finland for two months. "In the U.S., they treat teachers like pizza delivery boys and then do efficiency studies on how well they deliver the pizza."