Public school teachers in Brazil, Indonesia or Peru have stable jobs, enjoy high level of legal protection, and are part of teacher unions that shield them politically. Public school teachers in Finland also have stable jobs and are rarely fired. They are represented by a powerful teacher union, which is very influential among other stakeholders in policy discussions. Why do student learning outcomes among these countries vary dramatically?
1. Teachers’ prestige, selection and training
In Finland, teachers are highly valued. The teaching career is prestigious, demanding, and reserved for the most talented and hard-working. Only one fifth of all applicants to primary teacher education programs in Finnish universities are admitted. Admission depends not only on high academic achievements, but on interest and passion to become a teacher. This is very different to what happens in most middle-income countries (and some high-income countries, including the United States), where getting admitted to Faculties of Education is easy. Sometimes, even ensured.
For those admitted into education faculties, the Finns invest heavily in pre-service teacher education. Since the teaching profession requires a master’s degree in education, it takes approximately five years of university studies to become a qualified teacher. Primary school teachers oversee most of the subjects for their grade. Therefore, those becoming teachers for this age group major in educational sciences and choose two or three minors which can be school subjects (e.g. mathematics, history, music, literature, drama, English, Finnish, etc.) but other alternatives such as philosophy or sociology etc. are also available. While in training, they learn a combination of theoretical studies of educational sciences and pedagogy, combined with practical studies of all school subjects. In addition, there are various practicums which begin during the first semester of studies and are carried out both in the university teacher training schools and in regular schools.
Secondary school teachers oversee specific subjects for each grade. To become experts in the topics they teach, as well as pedagogical professionals, they study their respective school subject for about five to six years and must complete a year-long practical training combined with pedagogy and studies of educational sciences. For both primary and secondary teachers, each practicum has a specific theme, and those being trained to become teachers work daily with a mentor teacher (who supervises the practicum and teaches a class or subject in a regular school) and a university teacher educator (who is a tutor teacher).
You can become a qualified teacher in Finland and be ready to oversee a classroom, all by yourself, only after several years of study and numerous hours of classroom hands-on practice. In many middle-income countries, a recent graduate can be thrown into a classroom without much, or any, real classroom experience.
Once Finnish teachers are hired and in classrooms, they are given a lot of responsibility. With such a high quality human capital, school management can be performed differently. The country does not have classroom inspectors or supervisors. In its place, principals act as pedagogical leaders and provide teachers with trust and steering, instead of control. Teachers are encouraged to work in close collaboration with their peers, constantly mentoring and tutoring each other. The aim of this ongoing initiative is to provide the support needed to make sure that the best pedagogical practices are implemented in every classroom.
Although Finnish teachers must follow the national core curriculum (which is student-centered and provides the overall framework and learning objectives), they have autonomy when it comes to its implementation. Students in Finland study various subjects with structured courses, but in addition, teachers coordinate projects so that the same subject is seen through different disciplines. Students don’t get a lot of homework and spend less time at school compared to their peers in other OECD countries. However, time is used effectively, with regular breaks after 45 or 90 minutes when students usually go outside.
With great teachers and immense trust, every student (including those with diverse educational needs) can receive quality education at their nearby school, across the country. Even if parents are free to select a school for their child, most prefer the school closest to their home. Teachers are respected. Their autonomy is paired with great responsibility. They, and society, know that the future of children lies in their hands.
Is this degree of autonomy feasible or desirable in all contexts? No. It is efficient and conducive to high levels of achievement only under certain conditions: when selection of teachers is meritocratic and demanding (not when politics play a role in the selection or deployment of teachers), when a lot of effort is required to become a teacher (not when education is not an attractive profession for students with high potential), and when career advancement depends on professional development and accomplishments (not just years on the job). Teacher reforms in many countries require yet to put those conditions in place.