Education Opinion

The Idea That We Can Have Many Good Teachers Is Implausible

By Walt Gardner — September 25, 2015 2 min read
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Nearly everyone agrees that teachers are the most important in-school factor in student achievement. But hardly anyone agrees on how to turn out highly qualified teachers. Whenever the subject arises, the usual model cited is Finland because of the undeniable quality of its public schools (“Our Public Schools Need Real Accountability,” The Wall Street Journal, Sep. 18). Yet I doubt that the U.S. can ever come close to Finland in its approach.

I say that because I don’t believe teacher quality and quantity can exist simultaneously. Finland is a tiny country of 5.2 million that needs far fewer teachers than the U.S. with a population of more than 300 million. As a result, it can afford to be ultra selective in who becomes a teacher (“Q: What makes Finnish teachers so special? A: It’s not brains,” The Guardian, Mar. 31). For example, there are 48.2 million students in 98,000 public schools in the U.S. who are taught by 3.2 million teachers. This compares with 1.3 million students in 3,200 schools in Finland who are taught by 42,800 teachers.

Because of the relatively small number of teachers needed, Finland uses a two-step screening process to determine who is admitted to the eight universities offering teacher training. All applicants first take a national written exam. Those who excel then take the university’s specific aptitude test. The result is that only one of every 10 applicants is accepted.

This is a far cry from how teacher preparation is conducted in the U.S. in its 1,400 colleges of education. Standards differ widely from state to state. Quality not surprisingly also varies dramatically. Moreover, there are now hundreds of alternative certification paths. I support closing down programs that are little more than diploma mills. But it’s important to remember that the U.S. needs so many more teachers than Finland. If we adopted Finland’s approach, there would be only a trickle of highly qualified teachers.

Critics of my view say that I subscribe to what is known as a scarcity mentality. It means that excellence is possible by only a relatively few in any group. Notice the operative word “relatively.” If a group is small enough, the chances of everyone in the group being excellent are far greater than if a group is large. For example, the number of physicians in this country is small compared with the number of teachers. As a result, the likelihood of all doctors being excellent is greater than the likelihood of all teachers being excellent. Yet we know full well that not all doctors are excellent. Why would the situation be any different with teachers?

I certainly hope that teacher quality can be improved. But I believe there will always be a wide distribution in ability because of the sheer numbers involved, whether we like it or not.

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The opinions expressed in Walt Gardner’s Reality Check are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.