I think the American education policy debate is probably going to start focusing more and more on how we train and credential teachers. And yesterday, I learned about how this is done in Finland. For background, the Finnish equivalent of high-school (“upper secondary school”) teachers students who are 17, 18, and 19. So obtaining a Bachelor’s degree from a Finnish university typically only takes three years. A master’s degree takes five. To qualify as a “kindergarten teacher” you need a bachelor’s degree, but that doesn’t actually mean you teach kindergartens. Rather, you’re qualified to staff certain positions in Finland’s municipally administered daycare centers.
Primary and secondary school teachers, by contrast, need master’s degrees. But within this group, there are two different kinds of degrees. There are “class teachers” for younger kids and “subject teachers” who are mostly for older kids. A class teacher has a class of children, all of whom are basically the same age, and teachers diverse subjects. A subject teacher teaches one subject to kids of different ages. To become a class teacher, you apply to a university’s Department of the Practical Science of Education and spend five years doing a mix of classes on education theory and pedagogy (in general terms like what we do in US education schools) and “practice teaching” on actual students in actual schools. To become a subject teacher, by contrast, you first need to get into the regular department in that subject and do coursework there, and then on top of that apply to the Education Department for admission to a brief course of pedagogical instruction.
One important difference between how this works and how equivalent systems work in the United States is that the education programs are highly competitive. Only 10–20 percent of applicants are accepted, and the applicants typically come from the top half of upper secondary schools which themselves only basically the top half of Finnish primary school graduates (the rest go to vocational schools). Along the same lines, it’s generally quite common for Finns to foot-drag there way through university, since the price is actually negative (free tuition, plus a stipend, plus subsidized loans) but we’re told that teachers usually do the five year course in five years because the job market for graduates of teacher programs are strong.
It’s a bit hard to say what accounts for the strong level of interest in a teaching career in Finland. Finnish teacher compensation seems about average for the US (which is to say considerably more generous than some states, considerably less generous than others). The relative salary is higher because other professionals such as lawyers and doctors earn less in Finland than do their US equivalents. And the subjective quality of the job experience seems better in Finland since the kids have many fewer discipline issues.
But at the same time, there seems to be a somewhat circular phenomenon at work. Teaching is held in high regard not just in the abstract, but in practice as a profession a lot of people want to get into. Consequently, the teaching programs are quite selective. And the selectivity itself makes teaching prestigious since everyone knows teachers are graduates of selective programs. Which helps make going into teaching seem appealing to a lot of people. And so on and so forth in an interesting way. It seems to me that it’s easy to see how it’s socially beneficial to increase the number of talented people who want to be teachers; by contrast, it’s difficult for me to see what kind of social benefits from from increasing the number of talented people who want to be lawyers. Finland and the United States seem to be on different spots on the teacher/lawyer curve, and I don’t think it’s difficult to say which is the better spot.