To the Editor:
Your article “Backers of ‘21st-Century Skills’ Take Flak” (March 4, 2009) cites Tony Wagner, a co-director of the Change Leadership Institute at the Harvard Graduate School of Education, as saying that any attempt to improve the public schools must be accompanied by major changes in teacher education. He points to Finland’s reform of its education profession as an example of what to do. Mr. Wagner is right on, and we should pay heed to the academic requirements prospective Finnish teachers must meet.
As the 2006 Program for International Student Assessment makes clear, in all the best-performing countries, teachers are drawn from the top ranks of high school and college graduates. Finland, which came in first, recruits its teachers from the top 10 percent of its college graduates. In contrast, America recruits its teachers from the bottom third of entering college students.
Not only is college hard to get into in Finland because of demanding matriculation exams, but teacher-training programs also are hard to enter. Finland has developed a new selection process involving, among other things, several subject examinations as well as tests for communication skills. Moreover, all new core-subject teachers must have a master’s degree in their academic area, as well as a master’s degree in teaching (amounting to a three-year postbaccalaureate course of studies).
If the United States could transform entry into teacher-training programs and into the education profession itself along the lines that Finland has taken, we would not have to insert so-called 21st-century skills into state content standards, distorting and diluting them in the process. These skills would be naturally developed through the content knowledge and conceptual understanding that academically able and effective teachers aim for, regardless of subject area.
Professor of Education Reform
21st Century Chair in Teacher Quality
University of Arkansas
A version of this article appeared in the March 18, 2009 edition of Education Week as In Reform, Look to Finland, Not 21st-Century Skills