November 3, 2011
Posted by Joan V. Gallos
I live in a city whose urban school system has been in chaos since the 1970’s. On January 1, the district loses its state accreditation to no one’s surprise. The State Commissioner of Education has now asked the Kansas City Missouri School Board to resign rather than risk being removed. It’s a mess – and has been for some 40 years (and despite the best efforts of some very good people).
It’s easy to point fingers – at the Board, parents, taxpayers, the superintendent who jumped ship after a slim few years in the job (or many of his predecessors who did the same), teachers, the teachers union, teacher preparation programs, families who fled the district, and more. It’s hard to find a way out.
An interview with Finland’s Minister of Education, Henna Virkkunen, got me thinking. How could we create a city/regional/national culture that really values its schools?
We espouse public education as the foundation for an educated citizenry and strong democracy. How could we really live that?
As our public school system sinks deeper into the morass – along with those of many other urban centers — my city is launching a campaign to become the entrepreneurship capital of the nation. I can’t help but wonder, what if we decided to become the public education capital instead?
What if everyone in town – especially the best and the brightest – wanted to teach in our public schools rather than start their own business? Devoted themselves to study and preparation so as to obtain the coveted career prize of a teaching job? What would a community do to promote teaching and learning at that high level? What would have to change? Any suggestions?
Some excerpts below from the interview with Henna Virkkunen (conducted by Justin Snider, contributing editor of The Hechinger Report) to see where a different scenario for Kansas City – for your city, for our country — might take us.
It’s well-known that Finland’s teachers are an elite bunch, with only top students offered the chance to become teachers. It’s also no secret that they are well-trained. But take us inside that training for a moment — what does it look like, specifically? How does teacher training in Finland differ from teacher training in other countries?
Virkkunen: It’s a difficult question. Our teachers are really good. One of the main reasons they are so good is because the teaching profession is one of the most famous careers in Finland, so young people want to become teachers.
In Finland, we think that teachers are key for the future and it’s a very important profession — and that’s why all of the young, talented people want to become teachers. All of the teacher-training is run by universities in Finland and all students do a five-year master’s degree. Because they are studying at the university, teacher education is research-based. Students have a lot of supervised teacher-training during their studies. We have something called "training schools" — normally next to universities — where the student teaches and gets feedback from a trained supervisor.
Teachers in Finland can choose their own teaching methods and materials. They are experts of their own work and they test their own pupils. I think this is also one of the reasons why teaching is such an attractive profession in Finland because teachers are working like academic experts with their own pupils in schools.
How are teachers evaluated in Finland? How are they held accountable for student learning?
Virkkunen: Our educational society is based on trust and cooperation, so when we are doing some testing and evaluations, we don’t use it for controlling [teachers] but for development. We trust the teachers. It’s true that we are all human beings, and of course there are differences in how teachers test pupils, but if we look at the OECD evaluation — PISA, for example — the learning differences among Finnish schools and pupils are the smallest in OECD countries, so it seems that we have a very equal system of good quality.
What do you think the U.S. can and should learn from Finland when it comes to public education?
Virkkunen: An educational system has to serve the local community, and it’s very much tied to a country’s own history and society, so we can’t take one system from another country and put it somewhere else. But I think that teachers are really the key for a better educational system. It’s really important to pay attention to teacher training, in-service training and working conditions. Of course, the teachers always say we also have to pay attention to their salaries. But in Finland, it seems that the salaries are not the main reason it’s an attractive profession. Teachers aren’t very badly paid. They earn the average if you look at other academic professions.
In the U.S., it’s estimated that 50 percent of new teachers quit within five years. I suspect it’s different in Finland. Is teaching seen as a lifelong career in Finland?
Virkkunen: Teaching is a lifelong career in Finland, but right now we are doing an evaluation of why some teachers leave their jobs. The rate isn’t very high. It’s often men who leave, as they find jobs with higher salaries. We have to develop some kind of mentoring system because the new, young teachers need support. Often the feedback I hear from young teachers is that it is not easy to cooperate with parents, for example, so that is one of the areas where young teachers need support from their colleagues.
What’s something important but not widely known or well understood about public education in Finland?
Virkkunen: We teach all pupils in the same classrooms. We don’t have really good, top schools and very poor, bad schools. We are quite good at giving special support to students with learning difficulties. About 25 percent of our pupils receive some kind of special support, but in regular classrooms — often the teacher has an assistant in the classroom. We also think it is very important that there aren’t too many pupils per teacher. We don’t have legislation limiting class size, but the average class size for all grades is 21. In first and second grade, it’s 19.
We think we can have equality and good quality at the same time — that they are not opposites.
Our students spend less time in class than students in other OECD countries. We don’t think it helps students learn if they spend seven hours per day at school because they also need time for hobbies and of course they also have homework.