Teachers In Finland: National Heroes
As Superintendent of Schools for West Virginia and president of the Council of Chief State School Officers, Dr. Steven Paine periodically visited countries with high-performing public school systems. In 2009, he went to Finland. He was dazzled by what he saw.
“My biggest take-away was the emphasis they put on the profession of teaching,” he said. “They treat teachers with dignity and respect; teachers are national heroes. Also, parents and kids understand the value of education. They completely get it, that well-educated kids become productive citizens.”
Sounds simple enough. Isn’t that the way it is in all western countries?
Not judging by scores in reading, math and science that comprise the annual rankings of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development’s Program for International Student Assessment (PISA). In the most recent assessment, for 2009, Finland was second (to Shanghai) in science, third (to Shanghai and South Korea) in reading and sixth (to Shanghai, Singapore, Hong Kong, South Korea and Taiwan) in math.
The U.S. was 23rd in science, tied for 15th in reading and tied for 32nd in math.
Paine, now vice president of Strategic Planning and Business Development for McGraw Hill Education, has not climbed upon a soapbox to argue that the U.S. should adopt the Finnish way of educating. Not that it could.
But he does marvel at the esteemed role teachers play in Finnish society. He also wonders why the U.S. couldn’t use a little more of that, even with the vast demographic, ethnic and political differences between Finland, a homogeneous parliamentary republic of 5.4 million, and the United States, a polyglot of 300 million and what seems like 300 million opinions on how to reform public education.
“Finland places a different value on teachers,” he said. “It’s the profession that attracts the best and the brightest. And it’s not for the compensation. It’s because of the respect for teachers that people have, and the flexibility teachers have in teaching.”
In Finland, he added, teachers spend as much time working with colleagues and parents and taking part in professional development as they do during the school day instructing kids.
Of course, all public education issues are complicated in the United States, where debate never ends over the appropriate decision-making roles for the federal government, state governments, local school boards and teacher unions. All that, in a country where success is measured and financial support is determined by annual testing in reading and math (No Child Left Behind) and state competition to improve the quality of early-learning programs (Race to the Top).
Finland doesn’t use such metrics, and that’s something else Paine said the U.S. education leaders should contemplate. With wider latitude in how they conduct class work, teachers in Finland are more apt to use project-based instruction, which is a way of conveying facts within a practical application.
As superintendent of schools in West Virginia, Paine headed an effort to revamp public education –Global21 – with a new focus on professional development for teachers and using new tools of communication for the ways students best absorb information. Part of the effort was using project-based instruction.
Recalling an assignment that required one class to apply math and geometry skills in measuring the size of a parking lot to create more spaces, Paine said students years later would remember that day more than when they learned the multiplication table.
“In Finland, they do a lot more inquiry-based instruction, which requires critical thinking all the way through it,” he said. “These are learning activities that simulate life experiences. They’re closely associated with issues they will encounter as young adults.”
Any of this exportable to the United States?
In time, maybe, said Paine, but it all starts with a society that values teachers and policy-makers who can resolve the long-standing challenges that keep the United States far behind countries who have created more effective public education.
In a recent report that Paine wrote with Andreas Schleicher, the PISA director of OECD’s Program for International Student Assessment (PISA), Paine recalled his trip to Finland and said he asked one young teacher in Finland, “What made you want to be a teacher?”
His answer was: “It is the most honorable of all professions; it is a patriotic, national calling to be a teacher.”