In its edition of February 2nd 2013, The Economist has a special report: “The Nordic countries.” The magazine praises a number of features of the “Nordic model”, among which is their educational system. With respect to Finland, “one of the world’s most successful educational systems (as measured by the PISA tests)”, the article says:
“…the Finns have also dispensed with many of the shibboleths of the educational left. At age 16 they rigorously divide children up between academic and vocational streams… Finland’s success depends neither on accountability (the right-wing panacea) nor on resources (the left-wing one) but on two things that are ignored in the wider educational debate: trust and stability. The government has found it possible to attract high-quality people into a relatively low-paid profession provided they are treated with respect. Teachers are free to design their own curriculums and develop their own tests.”
Indeed, in Finland, teachers are as respected as doctors are and as a result, teaching is a very competitive profession – it is difficult to become a teacher. The Finnish model achieved what the medical profession achieved in the US. It is often forgotten that the medical profession in the US did not always enjoy the prestige it enjoyed in last century. After 1910, as a result of the Flexner report, medical education became significantly more rigorous, and as a consequence entry into medical schools much more selective. The byproducts of this process were prestige, respect and monetary rewards.
I argue that teacher selectivity is probably the single most important reason why teaching is not very respected in the US (“those who can do, those who can’t, teach”), why teaching is not a highly paid profession and why teachers are attacked and made to go through quasi market-driven “value-added” evaluations.
There is some evidence that in Finland, teachers come from the top third (or even top 10%) of the college graduation class, while in the US they come from the bottom half or even the bottom third of the graduating class. (Shanker Blog). There are disputes as to how the “bottom” is measured – SAT, class standing, GPA – but the basic fact remains that teaching in the US does not attract the best and the brightest.
There are many possible reasons for this. The Flexner report mentioned above advocated that medical education be based on scientific principles, with all that it implies – rigor, testable hypothesis, reproducible results, etc. This is not the case in education. Educational science is close to being an oxymoron. Random trials of educational theories are rare in the literature. Fashionable theories rule education. Even when couched in science terms such as “brain based education”, when one digs only a little bit deeper, one realizes that there is no serious scientific, testable hypothesis and data to justify these theories.
What is more, education in the US has veered off from rigor in teaching in an effort towards achieving social equality. It would be anathema to most teachers to have a system that, as the Finnish system does and as many other systems in Europe and Asia also do, “rigorously divide children up between academic and vocational streams” as a results of exams and grades.
No, too many of our teachers (and parents and administrators) believe that everybody should go to college. This state of mind leads to teachers who give passing grades to students who do not deserve them and as a result to our high rate of remedial education. When 30 – 40% of our students entering community colleges need remedial math or remedial English (or both), I would suggest that the blame can be apportioned equally between the students who do not study and the teachers who pass them.
I would argue that rigor begets rigor. A rigorous, selective program for those who desire to enter the teaching profession, would lead to rigor in teaching and to high school graduates who have earned and truly deserve their diplomas.