The rigor by which teachers are trained and screened before they are thrust out into their living laboratories, classrooms across America, differs quite a bit from the proceedings of countries such as Finland. In fact, the respect for early life and desire for kids to not only survive but do well begins at birth. I met a Finnish lady last week who explained that, there, every baby who is born is given a box with essentials for early life – the box itself converts to a proper bed for the child.
I cringed as I read about this topic, which I present in Part 3 of this series. It is a sensitive one. But without paying attention to it, people of all walks who care to any degree about education, children, families and the future of a country may unknowingly run the risk of playing a high stakes game that will result in disaster and embarrassment on the world stage.
All of Finland’s teacher-training colleges had similarly high standards, making them about as selective as Georgetown or the University of California, Berkeley in the United States. Today, Finland’s education programs are even more selective, on the order of MIT. It was hard to overstate the implications that cascaded from this one fact. Just one out of every twenty education schools was located at a highly selective institution in the United States. Far more than that had no admission standards at all. In other words, to educate our children, we invited anyone – no matter how poorly educated they were to give it a try. The irony was revealing, a bit like recruiting flight instructors who had never successfully landed a plane, then wondering why so many planes were crashing.
After spending years racking up college loans, teachers-to-be in the United States generally had to pass standardized tests in order to get a teaching position. But the tests were not challenging or particularly relevant to effective teaching. By then, the damage was done: Everyone assumed that the education majors were not the smartest kids in college, generally speaking , and their profession got little respect as a result.
In Finland, all education schools were selective. Getting into a teaching-training program there was a as prestigious as getting into medical school in the United States. The rigor started in the beginning, where it belonged, not years into a teacher’s career with complex evaluation schemes designed to weed out the worst performers, and destined to demoralize everyone else. (p.85).
Like I said, I cringed. This matter stands out to me in this book as important for people to know about. It is alarming. The argument here is to the point, and from where I stand, it’s not a pretty situation.
Looping back to the quandary of math education, if you were to ask math educators themselves in the United States, overall, they don’t stand up well compared to their peers.
Nationwide, people studying to become math teachers in the United States did not have to actually know that much math compared to teachers in education superpowers. The deficit was particularly alarming among middle-school math teachers. When researchers tested thousands of aspiring teachers in sixteen countries, they found that future middle-school math teachers in the United States knew about as much math as their peers in Thailand and Oman. They had nowhere near the math competence of teachers-in-training in Taiwan, Singapore, or Poland. So it was not surprising that those same teachers’ students would perform just as unimpressively later on. You could not teach what you did not know. (p.94).
Why the disparity?
Because teacher colleges selected only the top applicants in Finland and other educational superpowers, those schools could spend less time doing catch-up instruction and more time on rigorous, hands-on training; because teachers entered the classroom with rigorous training and a solid education, they were less likely than American teachers to quit in frustration. This model of preparation and stability made it possible to give teachers larger class sizes and pay them decently, since the turnover costs were much lower than in other countries. And, since they had all this training and support, they had the tools to help kids learn, year after year, and to finally pass a truly demanding graduation test at the end of high school. (p.95).
Perhaps the issue at hand is that the teaching culture is at odds with the attempts for reform. The beginnings, in fact, might well be where reforms ought to start : with the education of the teachers sent out to the front lines.
…the reforms sweeping across the United States had the equation backwards. We were trying to reverse engineer a high-performance teaching culture through dazzlingly complex performance evaluations and value-added data analysis. It made sense to reward, train, and dismiss more teachers based on their performance, but that approach assumed that the worst teachers would be replaced with much better ones, and that the mediocre teachers would improve enough to give students the kind of education they deserved. However, there was not much evidence that either scenario was happening in reality. (p.96).
A revolution in recruitment and training could change the entire profession in a short period of time. (p.97).
Making the profession of a teacher more prestigious might actually increase the popularity of teaching, as it has done with fields such as medicine.
If you missed the first two installments in this series, click below for links!