Something I’ve been interested to see lately (also flagged by Kevin Carey is that “education reform” skeptics have gotten very interested in citing the success of Finnish public education. I heard a good deal about this from AFT President Randi Weingarten when I spoke to her last week. On one level it makes a great deal of sense since Finland tends not to have the kind of labor market model oriented around quantitative assessment of teacher performance that reformers have been pushing in the United States.
On a deeper level, though, what reformers are saying is that the United States of America needs better teachers and is promoting these changes in compensation/retention models in order to try and generate this outcome. And that does seem to me to be the upshot of what you see looking at Finland. They don’t do extensive test-based assessment of teacher performance, but the human capital inputs into the profession are very high quality. It’s not just that their teachers are extensively trained, but admission to the training programs is highly selective—only about 15 percent of applicants are admitted. More broadly, as an important McKinsey report released last year showed, just 23 percent of American teachers are drawn from the “top third” of college graduates. By contrast, in Finland (and Singapore and South Korea) 100 percent of teachers are from the “top third.” And while American schools in general seem to be undersupplied with excellent teachers, the problem is especially severe in high-poverty schools where only 14 percent are coming from the top third.
I think reasonable people can disagree about what approaches exactly would move the United States away from 23 percent up to something closer to 100 percent. But whatever approach you favor, if you’re talking about Finland (or South Korea or Singapore) you’re necessarily having a conversation about how to get different people into the profession than the ones who are currently there.