I don’t agree with everything in Time’s take on Finland’s education policy successes but I think this correctly grasps the most important thing:
In 2008, the latest year for which figures are available, 1,258 undergrads applied for training to become elementary-school teachers. Only 123, or 9.8%, were accepted into the five-year teaching program. That’s typical. There’s another thing: in Finland, every teacher is required to have a master’s degree. (The Finns call this a master’s in kasvatus, which is the same word they use for a mother bringing up her child.) Annual salaries range from about $40,000 to $60,000, and teachers work 190 days a year.
“It’s very expensive to educate all of our teachers in five-year programs, but it helps make our teachers highly respected and appreciated,” says Jari Lavonen, head of the department of teacher education at the University of Helsinki.
I don’t think there’s a ton of evidence that the existence of a five-year program, per se, is doing much work here. Many American teachers have master’s degrees and there’s very little evidence that they do any better than our BA-wielding teachers. The key point as far as I can tell is simply that these programs are very selective. Lots of people want to be teachers, so it’s hard to get into the programs, so getting into the program makes you seem prestigious, which makes applying to be a teacher desirable, etc., etc., etc. It’s a self-sustaining cycle. Teach For America has some of this quality where people apply because it’s prestigious and it’s prestigious because it’s selective and it’s selective because a lot of people apply, and one’s generally hears that this can’t be scaled up. But in Finland it more or less is.