Disappointed in Teaching (II) – Doctors vs. Teachers

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.

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2 responses to “Disappointed in Teaching (II) – Doctors vs. Teachers

  1. So in the Fall, I taught in a German “Pädagogische Hochschule”—a teaching university—for two months. In their system (although it is slowly evolving) the decision is made at the end of grade 4 which of the three high-school paths you’re heading for. Only one of these, the Gymnasium, heads towards the top universities. At the end of the Gymnasium, the big exam, the Abitur, labels you with a score that determines your university options. And when you enter university, you’ve chosen your profession. The undergrads where I taught were on track to become teachers. No hanging around til the end of your sophomore year, waiting to declare a major.

    My initial reaction was to be horrified: you get your life determined at the end of fourth grade? Your choice of careers hangs on one exam? Even the Germans are edging away from the rigidity of the system. But one has to admit, on reflection, that it has its merits, especially compared with the sense of entitlement that we see, that everyone should go to the best college they can afford. Did I mention that the preservice students in my university paid no tuition? Apparently the state feels that if you can get into the university in their system, you should not have to pay.

    As long as we provide access to good instruction, and everyone has a shot at the Abitur, would it be any worse than what we do?

  2. Tim, my feeling is that there is nothing wrong with tracking as long as at some points we allow tracks to cross. For example, to the best of my knowledge, in the German system there is an appeal process, but only about 5% of students succeed in transferring to a higher level school. The other component is that the Realschule, i.e. the non-Gymnasium route. leads to highly desirable and respected vocational careers. These careers combine practical instructions with further schooling at technical colleges. The fact that these vocational careers are rigorous and THEREFORE respected and well paid, makes a big difference between what they have in Germany and what we have here.

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