Is the U.S. Doing Teacher Reform All Wrong? Lessons from Finland and Shanghai

cross-posted at the Washington Post

There is good reason for education reform efforts to focus on teaching. We know that although about two-thirds of the achievement gap can be explained by family poverty, teachers are among the most important in-school factors that affect student learning, with some teachers being  better than others  at helping children progress. We also know that most teachers are given cursory and unhelpful evaluations (if they are evaluated at all) and that tenure makes it difficult to remove bad teachers from the classroom.

To address these problems, many American education reformers spent the past decade demanding that districts and states get tough with teachers and provide them with more prescriptive advice on how to improve their practice. The political results are the new state laws written in response to the Obama administration’s Race to the Top grant program, some of which base up to 51 percent of a teacher’s evaluation on student test-score data.

But what if the United States is doing teacher reform all wrong?

That’s the suggestion of a new report from the National Center on Education and the Economy, a think tank funded mostly by large corporations and their affiliated foundations. The report takes a close look at how the countries that are kicking our academic butts—Finland, China, and Canada—recruit, prepare, and evaluate teachers. What it finds are policy agendas vastly different from our own, in which prospective educators are expected to spend a long time preparing for the classroom and are then given significant autonomy in how to teach, with many fewer incentives and punishments tied to standardized tests.

Finland, for example, requires all teachers to hold a master’s degree in education and at least an undergraduate major in a subject such as math, science, or literature. Finnish teacher-education programs also include significant course work in pedagogy—exactly the sort of instruction former New York City schools chancellor Joel Klein recently called useless. All teacher candidates must write a research-based master’s dissertation on an issue in education policy or teaching practice, and will then spend a full-year as a student teacher reporting to an experienced mentor.

Shanghai takes a somewhat different approach; its teacher candidates take 90 percent of their college courses in the subject they will teach, and are expected to complete the same undergraduate programs as students who will go on to receive Ph.Ds in math or the sciences. As in Finland, however, a new teacher in Shanghai will spend the first year of his employment under the supervision of a mentor teacher, who is relieved of some of her own classroom duties in order to spend more time training the newbie.

You can see how these international examples cut against the grain of American education reform. Our approach has largely borrowed the Teach for America model. First, we attempt to bring more elite college graduates into the teaching profession by decreasing the credentialing necessary to become a teacher: no student-teaching year or education degree required, just a few weeks of summertime training are supposed to suffice. Then we expect teachers to spend much of their time preparing children for standardized tests, whose results, in turn, will be used to judge teachers’ competency.

The NCEE report makes a persuasive case that the Obama administration and its allies in the standards-and-accountability school reform movement have teaching policy exactly backward. The way to increase the prestige of the teaching profession is not to make it easier for elite people to do the job for a few years and then burn out, but to make it more challenging to earn a teaching credential, so that smart young people are attracted to the rigor of education programs. Within such a system, alternative credentialing programs for career changers could still play an important role. But alternative pathways will never have the capacity to provide the entire teacher corps.

Following this approach, Finland has been able to abolish test-score based accountability, finding that the folks who come through their challenging teacher professional development pipeline are well prepared to create their own curriculums and assessments. “It is essential for high-performing countries to trust its teachers, but it had better have teachers it can trust,” writes Marc Tucker, author of the NCEE report.

The takeaway, I think, is that teaching reform efforts should focus more heavily on rebuilding the pipeline into the profession, and less on creating complex reward and punishment systems for current teachers, most of whom oppose increased testing, and many of whom are demoralized by the direction of American education policy. For those teachers already in the classroom, the single most powerful professional development experience is not merit pay, but good, old-fashioned collaboration, working side-by-side—over the course of a full-year—with an experienced mentor.

12 thoughts on “Is the U.S. Doing Teacher Reform All Wrong? Lessons from Finland and Shanghai

  1. Sam Chaltain

    Thanks for this post, Dana. I, too, saw the NCEE report and wondered if our most influential powers-that-be will take note. A few weeks back I wrote a related piece on my own blog, titled “What Joel Klein Doesn’t Understand About Teaching . . . & What We Should Do Instead.” The recs I share are from my former organization, The Forum for Education & Democracy, but, really, they are the core recommendations that Linda Darling-Hammond has been advocating for some time, and that she based largely on a close evaluation of the countries profiled in the NCEE report. In other words, it ain’t rocket science, but it does require some actual dot-connecting, as opposed to the runaway train that is the current education reform movement.

  2. Mark Palko

    Great post. As I’ve mentioned before at OE, Canada would be my first choice if we had to choose an international model but these examples are still highly instructive.

  3. Dana

    Thanks, Mark! Check out the entire NCEE report. It concludes with a discussion of how Ontario has reformed teaching in the sort of piecemeal way the NCEE believes would be realistic in American states.

  4. Joshua

    Dana, I like alot of your writing about education, but I think this post greatly mischaracterizes the professional development that Teach For America provides its corps members. After reading Dana Goldstein’s description of the report from the National Center for Education and the Economy actually leads me to conclude that the U.S. could use more TFA not less.

    I just finished my second year of Teach For America in the Mississippi Delta and am going to be teaching for a third year (if not more). TFA’s Professional development does not stop after the five week summer institute but continues throughout the CMs two year teaching commitment. Program Directors, former teachers who have demonstrated success teaching in low income schools, observe and advise CMs. Program Directors are very similar to mentors. The two PDs I had my two years with TFA provided much better feedback or support than either my district appointed mentor, who was a retired teacher, or my principal.

    This is not to say that TFA’s professional development is perfect. There are definitely places it could improve. But TFA is working to make that improvement, devoting a large amount of time and energy to improving the support it provides.

    Also TFA places many math and science majors in the classroom who otherwise would not have gone into teaching. This focus on recruiting teachers with strong math and science backgrounds is similar to what is being done in China.

    While TFA is clearly a different program of teacher recruitment and training from those in Finland and China, there are also similarities that can be found.

  5. Dana

    Hi Josh,
    Thanks so much for your comment. Of course, TFA is certainly capable of producing great teachers. The larger point I’m making is that TFA’s model — bringing a very small group of elite college grads into teaching for a limited term engagement — will not systemically improve the larger teacher corps. To do that, we will need to improve the teacher pipeline and professional development experience for all teachers, the great majority of whom will continue to come out of education programs, at least for the foreseeable future.

  6. Tim

    Unfortunately, there are teachers who should be removed, which means that there needs to be improved evaluation procedures. Placing stricter initial certification rules in place won’t get that job done.

    It is true that real evaluation, consisting of more observations and time spent by supervisors, is expensive than student testing, but it is the best way to improve the overall quality of working teachers.

  7. Michael Dunn

    Dana, I appreciate your acknowledgement that the most significant influences on academic achievement, by far, are the familial and socioeconomic factors that occur outside the classroom.

    That said, we are beating a dead horse with all this debate about “reform” (and missing the point).

    Any truly effective reform must address the growing wealth gap in our society. Demanding that teachers do more, work harder, or make do with less, not only will have only negligible benefits for children (if any), they continue to let the rest of society (particularly the wealthy) off the hook. Indeed, the entire reform debate is a deliberate distraction from the fact that public funding of education has been declining at the same time that tax rates on corporations and the wealthy have been declining.

    Furthermore, the only reason that education reform has become such a hot button topic is that billionaires (like Gates, Broad, and the Waltons) have pumped so much money into charter schools, administrator training camps, think tanks and lobbying, while numerous other rich people, like the McGraws, have purchased government giveaways, like NCLB, with their lavish support of politicians.

  8. Robert Rothman


    Excellent points. At a forum to release the NCEE report, Mari Koerner, the dean of the school of education at Arizona State, said the most important difference between other countries and the US is that other countries are much more selective in determining who gets into teacher education. Based on her experience with TFA corps members (Arizona State has a arrangement with TFA where TFA members can get a masters at the university while teaching), more able students would not put up with the kind of education most institutions provide–nor would they put up with paternalistic unions, she suggested.

    You can find more about teacher policies in high performing systems in this report: link to

  9. M.

    Shanghai’s not the way to go. I’m currently in China working as a University instructor, and they’re very unhappy with the system. From their point of view, they’re just teaching children to take tests — but not to think. In the long run, my colleagues believe that’s going to make the Chinese economy uncompetitive and fall into the middle income trap. Moreover, they know that most of the test scores are due to cheating from students, teachers, AND principles. After all, everyone wins, so why blow the whistle? (In fact, I know people who have been overruled when they tried to punish cheating students.)

    Follow Finland.

  10. matt

    This article may describe the Finnish system accurately but I don’t think it describes the Chinese system accurately at all. The Chinese system absolutely does emphasize test taking above everything else, far more than the American system.


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