Sunday, December 5, 2010

Improving US education by learning from other countries

One of the top performing countries in the worldwide PISA test (Program for International Student Assessment) is Finnland (while the USA ranked 24th out of 29 tested countries). What is Finnland doing right?
In the 1950s, Finnland was considered a rural backwater. Through the 1970s and ’80s, Finland’s economy depended on trade with its neighbor, the Soviet Union. But the collapse of the U.S.S.R. in 1991 opened up trade to other parts of the world for Russia — Finland had lost its captive market. A crisis ensued. Unemployment in Finland shot up to nearly 20 percent. The nation’s leaders convened in emergency meetings to brainstorm ways to reinvent themselves. As a small country covered in snow for half the year, Finland does not enjoy the luxury of easily accessible natural resources.
Eventually, the leaders concluded that the country’s most valuable resource was its own people. After all, it’s a creative population: The country boasts more musical composers and orchestras per capita than anywhere else in the world. The leaders decided to build an economy based on knowledge, which required providing its citizens with the finest public education anywhere.
The plan was effective. Today, it is not easy to become a teacher in Finnland. Only 1 in 10 applicants get the job, which affords the position a certain cachet. In keeping with the country’s creative past, all students take performing and creative arts until they graduate high school. With an eye toward the country’s economic future, students are also exposed to a rigorous math and science curriculum.
On a policy level, the standards and expectations are clear but broad: Local educators enjoy a good deal of professional flexibility. The details of the curricula are decided not by the government but the local teachers themselves, who hammer it out together in a culture of trust and cooperation. The teachers feel like they are a part of something large and important. 
Moreover, there is no standardized testing. Every year a random sample of students is assessed but only to decipher how well any given school is performing. This discourages instructors from “teaching to the test,” because they don’t know who will be tested.
Critics point out that small, homogenous countries like Finnland can’t be compared to large, diverse nations such as the United States. However, there other other examples of how successful school reforms can be that focus on strengthening teacher autonomy and support, for example a London suburb with a high number of immigrants (See link to the article at the bottom of the post). As in Finnland, it took the combination of strong leadership and direct involvement of teachers in the reforms (and not just top-down). 

Teachers need high quality pre-service education and sustained in-service support. An example for a successful in-service mentoring program is the Chicago New Teacher Center. Every new teacher in the schools serving the roughest areas of the city receives a coach for two years. The coach provides feedback, which is expected to be non-threatening because the coaches are employed by the nonprofit New Teacher Center, not the school district.
In my view, teachers should have similar rigorous selection, intense education, and high payment as medical doctors. We put trust in medical doctors' professional judgement while teachers (in the US) are often only at the receiving end of a long chain-of-command. For example, some US school districts introduced "pacing guides" that force each teacher to cover material according to a strict hour-by-hour guideline. The public should have a teacher corps it can trust in making its own professional judgements (instead of becoming a "teaching robot"). Teachers should have the professional freedom to have ownership of their urgent mission. Becoming a teacher should be a profession college students aspire to. Programs such as CalTeach at UC Berkeley and Uteach at UT Austin that aim to introduce undergraduate college students to teaching as a carrer are a promising start.

Teachers need to be well trained, carefully selected, and supported once on the job. Improving teacher quality comes at a high cost. For example, a new Californian public high school teachers makes only around $40'000/year. Such a low salary does not attract the most qualified people in the field. Becoming a good teacher takes high quality theoretical and practical pre-service education, on-the-job mentoring for new teachers, and continued professional development. As always, it is a question of money: Where does the money come from to pay teachers competitive salaries, to pay mentors and teaching assistants, to pay for continuos professional development, and  to pay for in-depth teacher evaluation?
It may take many years for a teacher to develop high proficiency. Schools need to find the right balance between giving teachers the time and support to improve to a certain level and replacing teachers that fail to do so. So far, there is no quick, cheap, and reliable way to measure teacher quality. Education research and foundations (such as the Gates Foundation) are currently working on developing methods to evaluate teacher quality and ways to provide support for teachers. 

The education system is a highly complex system that cannot be "fixed" (I prefer "improved") by changing only one element. Creating a corps of highly qualified teachers is an important step, but only one of many elements to consider (such as the difference of the socio-economic backgrounds of students on the persisting achievement gap.)

What Are American Schools Doing Right? | Smart Journalism. Real Solutions. Miller-McCune.


  1. Beat!

    I enjoyed this. If you ever have the time, I'd greatly enjoy telling you about the S. Korean educational system.


  2. The South Korean education system is also at the very top of the PISA studies. I am very interested to learn more about their ideas.