The Secret to Finland’s Teachers Is That It’s Easy to Decide to Become One

I’m not a big fan of drawing sweeping lessons from education systems in other countries — I’m partial to the Rick Hess school of “they’re just too damn different” — but there was something about Finnish teachers in this weekend’s NYT op-ed on testing that’s worth highlighting. If you’ve been living under a rock for the last 10 years, the standard trope is that other countries not only have better teacher training, they have higher standards that ensure only the best of the best end up in classrooms. Or as the NYT op-ed summarizes:

Perhaps most important, they set a high bar for entry into the teaching profession and make sure that the institutions that train teachers do it exceedingly well.

But then in the very next paragraph, there’s this:

In Finland, for example, teacher preparation programs are highly competitive and extremely challenging. (The programs are free to students and come with a living stipend.)

When it’s hard to become a teacher because the bar is so high, that’s a good thing. But when it’s hard to become a teacher because choosing to do so is a difficult decision, that’s a bad thing. In Finland preparation programs are not only free, they pay you money. That makes the decision to become a teacher relatively easy. Even if you’re so talented you have good offers to work at a bank or sell software, teaching is still an attractive option.

In the U.S. that’s not necessarily the case. People interested in becoming a teacher not only have the cost of graduate school tuition, they have the opportunity cost of not being able to earn money for a year. For talented young people who have other options these costs make is difficult to decide to be a teacher. A 22-year-old needs to be quite sure about something in order give up $50,000 (this assumes a functioning economy and $30k in salary + $20k in tuition ). The result is that unlike the Finnish teacher prep system, which is built to filter for people who will be great teachers, the American teacher prep system is built to filter for people who really want to be teachers. Any discussion of the differences in the U.S. and Finnish teaching force should take this into account. It’s not merely some vague notion of “prestige” or a lack of standardized testing that attracts better candidates to Finnish teaching jobs, the immediate financial prospects of training to be a teacher are also much more promising.

In fact, the lone U.S. initiative to replicate Finland’s success in recruiting top talent happens to be similar to the Finnish system from a financial standpoint. What initiative is that? Teach For America, of course. Just like Finnish students who are preparing to be teachers, first year TFA teachers end up with positive cash flow. There are a variety of things that attract people to TFA, but the you can’t ignore the fact that it eases the standard financial burdens associated with becoming a teacher.

None of this is to say that the U.S. should drop everything and focus on moving to a no-cost training system. At this point I think it’s best to stay the course and focus on improving training and professional development rather than launch harebrained schemes to get ivy leaguers to become teachers. But the reason I bring this up is to show that a higher bar often creates a lower ceiling. If you want to make becoming a teacher so financially and academically rigorous that you weed out all the weak candidates, you’re also going to make teaching less attractive to the strongest candidates. Finland is able to have a high bar and a high ceiling by using subsidies to eliminate the financial rigor and keep the academic rigor. Unfortunately, not only is that politically unfeasible in the U.S. (hooray for idiotic austerity!), it seems we’re closer to the opposite arrangement. Teacher prep programs have a big financial cost while their academic reputations are more akin to a rubber stamp. Has any non-teacher ever heard of somebody failing out of a teacher prep program?

The broader point is that improving the pool of teaching candidates is complicated, and many people who see it as a priority tend to have unserious proposals. For example, a legitimate budget-neutral solution would be to raise top salaries but lower average salaries by creating a more varied performance-based pay scale, then use the savings to make teacher prep programs free and with stipends. The improved financial arrangement as well as a chance to be a paid like a teaching superstar would attract a larger proportion of elite graduates. Of course this proposal is the opposite of what teachers want, but that’s as it should be. With the exception of across-the-board raises, incumbents and potential entrants generally value different things. So for all the talk of the need for it to be easier to choose to become a teacher, people generally aren’t willing to sacrifice anything to make it happen. It would seem that in this respect, nobody wants to be like Finland.

One Response to The Secret to Finland’s Teachers Is That It’s Easy to Decide to Become One

  1. bernie1815 says:

    I am not sure I follow the logic here. Since the vast majority of US would be teachers attend State Schools at the moment, the cost is not great – in Massachusetts good students go tuition free. I would also like to see the actual funding that Finnish education majors actually receive. In addition, in the US graduate school costs tend to be directly or indirectly subsidized through taxes, tuition reimbursement and/or salary increases. So I am not sure where we all end up. Certainly the current salary levels are not conducive to attracting academically accomplished students who have forked out upwards of $125K for a private college education.

    TFA is a different discussion. I have been stunned at the animosity towards these new teachers by some of their long time colleagues. Perhaps it is a subject for another post.

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