Finland Can Teach Betsy DeVos a Thing or Two About Valuing Teachers and School Choice That’s Real

Lessons in educational options from a highly ranked nation

Joensuu, FINLAND — Things are not going well in Pessi Pollanen’s physics class at the University of Eastern Finland’s elite teacher-training lab school. Halfway through a high school lesson on the complex subject of string theory, students game on their laptops and text on their phones. Heikki Saari is a teacher trainer and 40-year education veteran observing the bright, 23-year-old teacher in training. Saari’s feedback: Slow down. Let speech, drawings, graphics and models flow “so the students can truly learn.” Pollanen, a candidate for the master’s degree in education that’s a teaching requirement here, soaks it all in, saying Saari is “one of the top-tier physics teachers in Finland. He’s got a lot to offer me when it comes to improving my teaching.” 

On Monday, Pollanen teaches the next lesson at an ideal pace, checks if students absorb the material, switches tools seamlessly, makes eye contact and smiles. Spellbound students take notes. To Saari’s praise later, Pollanen confesses, “It’s a very complicated challenge for me, I have to strike a balance between having a good classroom atmosphere and being scientific, making sense and being empathetic. I’m happy the students could connect to this lesson.”

Another lesson: Networks of top schools, teachers and training programs can produce many educational choices.

Donald Trump is promoting “school choice” as he vows to improve the American education system. To achieve this vision, he should start by putting his incoming Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos on a plane to world education superpower Finland to see what school choice means in its most powerful form — the choice from among numerous, great, neighborhood schools anywhere in the country.

Just ranked by the World Economic Forum as the No. 1 primary school system globally Finland shows us, that true educational choice means holding politicians accountable to provide families the choice between safe, well-resourced, high-quality local schools, especially in high-poverty areas, schools run by teachers trained at the highest levels of professionalism and supported by a national culture of teacher and school collaboration and respect for families and teachers.

We need to make the teaching profession respected enough to attract and retain the most highly qualified, motivated and passionate young people like Pollanen and many of the teachers already in America’s schools.

Related: Is Estonia the new Finland?

The classroom scene in Finland is strikingly different from prevailing atmosphere reported in many classrooms in America, the U.K. and elsewhere, where teachers are routinely under-trained, micro-managed, surveilled, data-shamed, punished, overworked, disrespected and stressed to the breaking point by politicians, bureaucrats and non-educators.

The University of Eastern Finland’s elite, publicly run teacher school is one of eight in the nation, which comes in at the top of World Economic Forum and other school rankings. It resembles a NASA astronaut training facility in the research, rigor and resources it devotes to selecting, hands-on-training and preparing teachers, based on the science and practice of the teaching profession. Teacher in training  Pollanen and others like him have got the “right stuff,” having survived a grueling admissions process —­ the acceptance rate is about 10 percent. If he completes his training, Pollanen will enter the most respected profession in this nation – he will be a classroom teacher.

We must not base our entire system of education on the staggeringly expensive, relentless standardized testing of children by faceless data collectors – make test design, administration and evaluation the job of the real experts – the classroom teachers who know our children best.

Do the top rankings of its primary schools by the World Economic Forum mean Finland’s schools are perfect? Hardly. Schools here face stresses common in the world over: increasing social inequality and poverty, the integration of immigrants, over-digitalization, students feeling being bored or disengaged from school, and in Finland’s case, a slipping of the recent performance by its 15 year-olds in international benchmark tests. A high-ranking education official recently quipped, “In Finland, self-criticism is a national sport.”

Is Finland different than the United States? Certainly, although its size and overall demographics are surprisingly similar to those of nearly two-thirds of American states, where education policy is largely managed. Can the United States learn something from successful school systems like those of Finland and does the world have much to learn from the successes and failures of American schools? Absolutely. We should all be collaborating together globally and deeply, sharing best practices and inspirations for the benefit of all our children.

For example, Finland has discovered a crucial secret of education: Instead of flooding classrooms with graduates of unaccredited “alternative certifications” or six-week summer training courses as we do in the United States, teaching should be treated much more seriously, like an actual profession that’s critical to our nation’s future. Teaching requires rigorous, graduate-level training in both research and classroom practice.

It is a fantasy to believe, as the newly enacted federal Every Student Succeeds Act proposes, that we can improve our schools by requiring America’s teacher training universities to be evaluated by the standardized test scores of the children who are taught by their graduates. No high-performing school system does things this way.

American medical schools are not evaluated by the cholesterol counts or blood pressure readings of the patients treated by its graduating doctors. American military academies like West Point and Annapolis are not funded and penalized on the basis of the combat casualties sustained, territory secured or bullets fired by its graduating officer classes. Yet this is what we are doing in American education.

President-elect Trump and his incoming Education Secretary ought to think about ways to build a new American education system.

Like medicine, education should be a research-driven, clinical profession that attracts our smartest young minds and trains them to a highly professional standard, then treats them as respected authorities in their field.

To think we can improve our schools without this crucial foundation is a pipe dream.

[This story was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education.]

William Doyle

William Doyle is a Scholar-in-Residence at the University of Eastern Finland, a 2015-2016 Fulbright Scholar and a 2017 Rockefeller Foundation Resident Fellow. His third-grader son has attended Finnish schools.