For many critics of contemporary American public education, Finland is the ideal model. It performs at the top on international tests and has a highly respected teaching corps, yet it doesn’t rely on policies like test-based accountability and school choice that are the cornerstones of U.S. reform. So, the critics argue, let’s change course and follow Finland.
It’s facile, at best, to look to a small, largely homogenous, country, with a very different educational pedigree as a model for a nation like ours. Still, the “go- Finland” crowd is onto something: Finland long ago decided to professionalize its teaching force to the point where teaching is now viewed on a par with other highly respected, learned professions like medicine and law. Today, only the best and brightest can and do become teachers: Just one in every 10 applicants are accepted to teacher preparation programs, which culminate in both an undergraduate degree and subject-specific Master’s degree. Even after such selective admissions and competitive training, if there are graduates who are not deemed ready for the classroom, they will not get appointed to the system.
Like law and medical schools, education schools shouldn’t be able to survive if fewer than half their students can pass a rigorous professional exam.
Contrast that with America, where virtually anyone who graduates from college can become a teacher, and where job security, not teacher excellence, defines the workforce culture. According to the consulting firm McKinsey, “The U.S. attracts most of its teachers from the bottom two-thirds of college classes, with nearly half coming from the bottom third.” And, today, more than a third of math teachers in the U.S. don’t have an undergraduate degree in math, let alone a Master’s degree. Yet, even with this remarkably low threshold for entry, once someone becomes a teacher in the U.S., it’s virtually impossible to remove him or her for poor performance.
What explains this cross-national difference? It does not seem to be teacher pay. Although teacher salaries in Finland are slightly higher than the average salary there, they are comparable to teacher salaries in other European countries. And when adjusted for national price indices, they’re lower than teacher salaries in the U.S.
Instead, the difference seems to be rooted directly in the relative professionalization of the position. In addition to setting high standards of entry and providing high-quality professional education, Finland has established a culture that motivates teachers to excel at school and then innovate in the classroom. As a result, teaching holds an appeal comparable to that of other high-status careers in Finland.
Wisconsin has taken a baby step toward teacher content knowledge requirements via the adoption of MTEL.