The Finnish Not-So-Secret Weapon for Top Notch Schools: Better Teachers

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."


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I just happened to be looking for information on education reform, especially results of Finland's reforms and came upon this site. I have found it very interesting, entertaining, and informative about attitudes toward educational reform. I've been teaching since the 70's and have no plans to quit. I'm good at what I do and love it!

Some of your writers would be surprised to find that I am very conservative, as are many of my fellow teachers. I am not afraid of losing tenure, but I do believe that any worker in any job should not be able to be terminated without just cause! My husband was a principal for many years and terminated a number of teachers over the years with very little trouble because he kept very good documentation. Many administrators are much less careful or determined to do the right thing.

I am not afraid of charter schools or any other innovations they want to try. Some may work, but many won't. I still remember the disaster called "the open classroom" of the 70's. Some type of merit pay will be more difficult to institute fairly, but let the powers that be try!

None of you has mentioned that Finland pays completely for the college training of its teachers. U.S. teachers often start their careers with $100,000 in student loans, the cost of a small house. Why would anyone today want to start in the hole for a job that won't ever average more than half that amount in a year? And in the U.S. they want to take away the health benefits as well! In ten years or less there will be a dramatic shortage of teachers, but by then I'll be retired or dead.
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I am an Educational Consultant. One of my areas of expertise is School Reviews. The largest problem is that teachers can no longer focus on the 'art of teaching' in America. Education used to begin in the home. Now, parents seem to fell like learning is a spectator sport. That being said, with so many students at so many levels of performance, the average classroom teacher is focused on the 'middle'. The high functioning students are not challenged and the low performers fall through the cracks. Even though reserach shows smaller class size lends to better academic gains, we increase the class sizes and wonder why the achievement gap is widening. Even the charter school model of management consulting (get them young, straight out of school, masters in their content area, not in child development or teaching methodology, work them to death-an average of 2 years, and then recuit the next batch) gets results in the middle grades, but because we fail to teach children how to think critically, the end result is still low performance. For a field that collects more data than the IRS, we don't pay attention to the data in terms of modifying out approach to instruction. My first quesion to all teachers is: what is the impact of your teaching on learning; my second is always...'how do you know'? What is the evidence? It can be as simple as showing students how to add double digits, asking them to practice, giving a problem, giving the answer and asking for a show of hands about how many got it correct and how many can explain how they arrived at the answer. Hopefully, they can all explain how even if in different ways and support their logic. If less than 50% get it correct, you re-teach; you don't go on to the next subject because it is going to be on the standardized test!!!
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If you bother to google "Finnish teacher's union" you'll find that 95% of the teachers are members of the same union. This is much the same as in the rest of the Scandinavian countries.

Having a union means that the union can set standards, it can discuss directly with "management" (e.g. the government), make sure that the teachers can get the resources they need, and it is important in handling any problems which might happen. The collective bargaining part is important, but only a tiny part of what a union does.

It is only in the US and 3rd world countries that you expect teachers to buy paper and pens for the pupils from his or her income.
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Anothertim, I'm talking about job security not physical security. The scenario I am envisioning is more like I make a parent mad they complain I get fired because without a union my career is just in the hands of one principle. I know you want to say "well thats the way most jobs are" but teaching shouldn't be that way. Teachers serve a community not a customer base so we might be unpopular sometimes but that doesn't mean we aren't doing our job correctly.
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Andrewwolf--Yes, you will be teaching some "hot button" topics, but I am still unclear on how the union is going to protect you. Are they going to provide bodyguards? Are they going to stake out your house to make sure noone tries to damage it? How exactly will they protect you?

And I agree, you should live where ever you want to--I was just pointing out that some of my teachers decided to live in another district. Of those that lived in town, a couple of them were my Mom's friends and a few went to the same church I did.

I also agree that kids need to be responsible citizens and be able to think and reason on their own--but you have an uphill battle as other commenters like Jeffos points out. I am not sure how useful collective bargaining is since only about 5% of the US population are union members, though.
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