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Finland's Secret Sauce: Its Teachers

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By Joan Richardson, Editor-in-Chief of Kappan magazine (PDK International)

In the 1980s, educators and policymakers swarmed across Germany to examine its two-tier education system that separated college-bound students from vocational ed students, all in an effort to boost the national economy. In the 1990s, Japan and its unique lesson study model attracted American attention.

Along came the 2000s, and Finland has the starring role. A country that once didn't warrant much attention, Finland has zipped to the top in international measures of education, and American educators in particular want to know its secret.

"It was a surprise to us that we were so high on the PISA in 2000," said Leo Pahkin, councellor of education at the Finnish National Board of Education who spoke to a group of American educators visiting Finland last fall in a trip sponsored by PDK International. "We knew we had good readers, but maths and science, that was a surprise to us."

The possible reasons for the Finnish success are many and complex, and it seems unlikely that the United States as a whole could or would ever embrace the deep changes that make possible Finland's success. But, a single state could embrace some of the Finnish components. One of those is teacher education.

"Stated quite plainly, without excellent teachers and a modern teacher education system, Finland's current international educational achievement would have been impossible," writes Pasi Sahlberg in his book, Finnish Lessons (Teachers College Press, 2011).

Finland's teacher education scheme is the result of the nation's overhaul of its entire system, a process that began in the 1970s and proceeded uninhibited in spite of political changes. "We are lucky that our parties are thinking very much the same way about education," Pahkin said.

What has resulted is a skilled teacher workforce that is consistently rated one of the most admired professions in Finland, ahead of medical doctors, architects, and lawyers. Being a teacher even seems to improve your marriage options: In a recent national opinion survey, Finns were asked to choose five professions that would be preferred for a partner or spouse, and 35% included teacher among the top five preferred professions for the ideal spouse.

Becoming a teacher in Finland is as competitive as getting into an Ivy League school, and Finland offers no other route into the profession. So, there is no Teach for Finland. To teach in Finland requires a five-year master's degree in education. Admission to a teacher preparation program includes a national entrance exam and a personal interview. Only one of every 10 applicants is accepted into a teacher preparation program in Finland; competition to become a primary school teacher is even tougher, with 1,789 applicants for only 120 spots, for example, at the University of Helsinki in 2011-12. Only eight universities offer teacher preparation programs in Finland, which allows the country to ensure consistency from program to program. Contrast that with Minnesota which has about the same population as Finland (5.2 million) but about 30 colleges that offer teacher preparation programs.

Sahlberg speculates that the Finns can attract the top quintile of all high school graduates to teaching because the rigors of the master's degree, which includes a thesis with substantial scholarly requirements, makes the program challenging enough to appeal to the top students.

A bonus is that earning a master's degree costs the student nothing since Finland funds education from preschool through graduate school.

Preparation differs depending on which grades teachers want to teach. Primary school teachers major in education and minor in various content areas; secondary school teachers major in their content area (math, chemistry, English, etc.) and minor in education.

Regardless of which level they'll teach, future teachers study theory in class and quickly practice applying what they've learned in designated field schools. Teachers at the field schools must have had university coursework in supervising student teachers. By graduation, a student has done at least 120 supervised teaching lessons, all in conjunction with a supervising teacher.

This depth of preparation is essential because, when teachers are hired, they're expected to hit the ground running. "When you get your first job, nobody ever enters your classroom to see how you're doing. There is no tutor, no mentor. You just start working," said Heidi Krzywacki, a professor of teacher education at the University of Helsinki.

For all their effort, Finnish teachers are not highly paid. But they are highly respected and treated far more like professionals than American teachers. Finnish teachers are on their feet in front of students for fewer hours every week, teaching only three to four hours per day. The rest of their work time is spent in preparation, working with colleagues, marking papers, and doing other duties assigned by their heads. Unless they have to teach a class, they are not required to be at the school.

Just as Americans had lessons to learn from Germany and Japan, now it's time to consider Finland's success and determine what we could learn from that tiny nation. In the words of Leo Pahkin, "Money is not the secret of good results. The secret lies somewhere else."

This post originally appeared on Education Week's Transforming Learning blog. Reposted with permission from Editorial Projects in Education.

Views expressed are strictly those of the author and do not reflect the endorsement of the Learning First Alliance or any of its members.

Image by Janne Karaste/.janneok [GFDL or CC-BY-SA-3.0], via Wikimedia Commons

Although I believe it is

Although I believe it is crucial that we raise the achievement level for those wishing to become educators and place a higher value on those teachers who have been proven to be effective (effective meaning helping struggling students to achieve beyond their means, not helping above average students to do ok), I would caution the ongoing move to replicate Finland's system. The mere difference in population sizes should be cause for concern. According to the article, Finland has been reworking their education system since the 70's - and they are a country of 5 million people. What does that number become when you're talking about 311 billion people?? Finland is also comprised of persons with a Finnish background of almost 94%. Another 5% are Swedish - quite different than the US melting pot. Lastly, the burden of poverty and the inequity of funding are the most challenging factors in the US education system and little is being done to assist with either factor.

Also, with every profession listed; doctor, lawyer, architect, a higher salary, at least in the US, is cause for higher respect and a belief that you're better at your job. When it comes to education, you still want the best and brightest to be drawn to the field, but you want to pay them less and assume the "respect" they will be given will be its own reward. As they say, you can't have your cake and eat it too!

Education in the United

Education in the United States is run at the state level. There are plenty of states in the US with populations comparable to or smaller than that of Finland. Therefore the argument that Finland's education system cannot possibly work in the US because of the difference in national population size is a furphy.

I agree. And what is the

I agree. And what is the alternative, to keep doing what we're doing--because that has worked out so well(sigh)--I would also like to point out that Finland is quite a bit more diverse than what many in America assumes.

Anon, The difference in


The difference in population doesn't have as big an effect as you would imagine. If you look at Finland's neighbor Norway, they have a primary education system that is very similar to ours in the United States. Norway is about the same size as Finland and %96 of it's population is of Norwegian decent. However Norway ranks very similarly to us on global scales. If Population and ethnic unity had as much an impact as you imply then Shouldn't Norway rank much higher than us as well? Depending on the geographical location in Finland there are schools where the percent of students who do not natively speak Finnish or Swedish reaches up to %50. If having ethnic homogeneity was a factor in providing an above adequate education then theses schools would not hold to the standards set by schools with primarily Finnish students, this is not the case.

Reevaluating our education system so that it provides equal opportunity to all students is the first step toward reducing poverty in the US. In order to decrease the gap between the upper middle class and the poverty class we need to educate everyone equally and provide equal opportunities for higher education. Once you bridge the gap between social classes there becomes less room for discrimination in general. The funding for education reform is there, it is simply being used in the wrong way (http://www.foreignaffairs.com/articles/139113/jal-mehta/why-american-edu...).

You could argue that the amount of respect given to an individual directly correlates with the amount an individual is paid. Although you could make a strong argument against that with individuals such as those who work in the adult film industry, or with those who work in research for that matter. However another possible explanation for where our respect comes from could be directly traced to the amount of preparation one had to go through in order to reach his or her position, regardless of salary. Accomplished lawyers have to graduate with an undergraduate degree, go on to law school, pass the bar, and spend time becoming accomplished in their field before they can become a partner at a law firm. Doctors have to major in the medical sciences before getting into pre med and going on to residency in order to practice in their fields. The minimum requirement for teachers in America is an associates degree in some states and the quality of training varies greatly because there is no true national standard for educating educators.

The article states that

The article states that future teachers "study theory in class...." What theory, specifically do they study. Whose pedagogical approches are stressed? Infornmation of this type would revealing..


I believe that one of the

I believe that one of the reasons why it's so hard to qualify as a teacher in Finland is because education is free. Through competitiveness in education, comes a natural progression in high requirements for teacher positions. Thus you could say that Finland is a good example of a healthy social system.

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Anne O'Brien
Deputy Director
Learning First Alliance