"A child's learning is the function more of the characteristics of his classmates than those of the teacher." James Coleman, 1972

Monday, November 22, 2010

U. S. Education Reformers' Cartoon Version of Finland's Teacher Education System

Friedman's "Teaching for America" (as in Teach for America) in the Times on Nov. 20 highlights the schizophrenia of the corporate ed reformers' approach to having their cake, eating their cake, and not paying their cake all at the same time.  As the media mouthpiece for Gates, Broad, Walmart, and Arne Duncan, Friedman encapsulates in his little op-ed an approach to reform based on syrupy rhetoric, arrogance, ignorance, and deception.

If Friedman knows anything about Finland's education system or their teacher education process, it doesn't show.  The closest he comes to advocating an American model based on what the Finns have done can be found in his advocacy for recruiting the best and the brightest into teaching.  And that's where similarity with the Finns ends.  The Finns do not take their best and brightest, indoctrinate them for 5 weeks, and dump them into the most challenging classrooms to learn to teach on poor people's children (see Teach for America).

Instead, the Finns put an "intensive investment in teacher education--all teachers receive 2 to 3 years of high-quality graduate-level preparation completely at state expense--plus a major overhaul of the curriculum and assessment system designed to ensure access to a 'thinking curriculum' for all students" (Darling-Hammond, The Flat World and Education, 2010, p. 167).

Nor do the Finns place teachers in little corporate charters run by CEOs, who may be humane and generous or tyrannical and sadistic without anyone knowing.  Nor do the Finns base hiring, salary increases, and firing on state test scores, nor do they demonize the teachers' union to which 95% of Finnish teachers belong.  And guess what: "there are no external standardized tests used to rank students or schools in Finland" (, p. 169). Nor have there been for almost 30 years!

Here is clip from a piece written for Adviser Perspectives by Charlie Curnow, sent to me by one of my students, which points out some other facts that Friedman should know before his next commissioned piece from Bill Gates:
In Finland, the country that ranked first in the world in math, reading and science on the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development's most recent Program for International Student Assessment (PISA) exams, and which Guggenheim holds up as a model for a successful education system, teacher training programs recruit from the top 10 percent of high school graduates each year. Moreover, places for new teaching trainees are strictly limited by the government to match school demand, making competition for seats fierce. In the U.S., by contrast, only 23 percent of new teachers come from the top third of their class, including just 14 percent of new teachers in high-poverty schools,
according to another McKinsey report released in September. The number of places in U.S. undergraduate education programs is left up entirely to the universities. In stark contrast to the Finns, who filter their recruits up front, U.S. schools tend to wait until the hiring stage to filter out new teaching recruits, leading to an uneven and frequently flooded labor market.

Teacher qualification standards are also often higher in top-performing countries than in the U.S. All new Finnish teachers, for example, must hold a master's degree in education or in the subject they wish to teach, and must also pass two rounds of exams for literacy, numeracy, problem solving and communications skills before entering training. After all of that, there's still a third round of tests conducted after they graduate college by the individual schools at which they apply to work. Compare that to the U.S. system, where just 52 percent of traditional public school teachers and 36 percent of charter school instructors hold a master's degree or higher, according to the National Center for
Education Statistics. Many charter schools don't even require their instructors to pass state licensing exams, a minimum qualification for starting teachers at traditional public schools.

This marked difference between the teaching qualification standards of U.S. charter schools and traditional public schools may help explain much of the performance gap between them. Furthermore, this gap illustrates one reason why a unionized teaching profession actually makes sense. While trade unions in any industry can indeed flatten wages for workers with disparate performance levels, they also help enforce uniform qualification and training standards. Ninety-five percent of Finland's teachers belong to labor unions, and those teachers tend to enjoy many of the same rights and privileges (including "tenure") that unionized teachers in the U.S. do. Furthermore, the suggestion that union contracts shield teachers from any negative consequences is absurd — "rubber rooms" and other aberrations aside, even long-time teachers in the U.S. are subject to regular observation and performance reviews by administrators, and can, in fact, be fired after due process hearings.

But what about merit pay? Surely the top school systems must place heavy emphasis on material incentives to reward their best instructors and punish the laggards? Not necessarily, says the McKinsey report. Separate independent studies of schools in Denver, Texas and North Carolina all found no substantial gains in student performance after the institution of merit pay systems.

The more important incentives for teachers, according to McKinsey, are non-financial: high expectations, a shared sense of purpose, and a collective belief in their ability to make a difference in the educations of the students they serve. Also essential are regular check-ups to bring specific methodological weaknesses to light and the constant sharing of specific best practices, spread through their demonstration in actual classrooms.

Finland's system once again sets a good example in this regard. Instead of breeding a culture of cutthroat competition, Finland encourages its teachers to work together, and it gives instructors one free afternoon per week to plan lessons jointly, observe each other's classes, and help one another improve. . . .

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