Recruitment & Retention

Top-Scoring Nations Share Strategies on Teachers

By Sean Cavanagh — June 30, 2009 3 min read
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American education officials trying to learn from the policies and practices of top-performing nations seem to have two exemplary models in Singapore and Finland.

Yet in some respects, those two nations have risen to the top in very different ways.

That was one of the lessons that emerged yesterday at what was billed as the Global Education Competitiveness Summit, which brought state officials and business leaders together here to discuss lessons from high-achieving countries that could be applied to U.S. school systems—an omnipresent theme in American education circles these days.

Two of the speakers whose nations are perched at or near the top of recent international test results offered insights on their home countries’ educational models: Low Khah Gek, the director of curriculum, planning, and development for the Singapore Ministry of Education, and Timo Lankinen, the director general of the Finnish National Board of Education.

The forum was organized by the Education Commission of the States, a Denver-based policy and research group; the International Society for Technology in Education, or ISTE, in Eugene, Ore.; and the Microsoft Corp., in Redmond, Wash.

Attendees seemed especially keen on learning how the two countries recruit and train teachers, and the speakers gave them two distinct perspectives.

In Singapore, the selection of teachers is heavily directed by the central government, specifically the Ministry of Education, and the candidates are elite: The government recruits from the top third of graduating classes, Ms. Gek said.

Teacher-candidates attend one year of preservice training, but they are also given continuous retraining throughout the school year and their careers, she added, receiving at least 100 hours of professional development annually. In addition, the Singaporean government actively works to establish career “tracks” for teachers, according to Ms. Gek. It encourages young educators to become master teachers or subject specialists, and one day, school administrators.

“We feel that is the pinnacle of education service,” Ms. Gek said of the jobs of administrators, because of their influence over instruction and the school environment.

Singapore also has a thorough system for grading and evaluating teacher performance, she told the audience, and it awards bonuses for effective instruction that can equal between one and three months’ pay.

An Elusive Formula

The Finnish approach to cultivating and retaining teachers, as described by Mr. Lankinen, is in some ways strikingly different.

Like the United States, Finland has only “very limited” performance pay for teachers, he said. A far more pressing concern, he said, is “how to maintain good working conditions in schools”; national leaders believe such conditions are essential to luring talented people into classrooms and keeping them there.

While Finland, like Singapore, has a national curriculum, Finnish teachers are given broad authority to shape lessons and use strategies they believe will help students meet standards.

At one point Mr. Lankinen was asked by an audience member about Finnish leaders’ overall impressions of the U.S. education system. He remarked that the broad American emphasis on testing, and on measuring student and school performance, was “striking” and a source of curiosity in his home country. Mr. Lankinen said American school officials routinely ask him about how his high-performing country uses high-stakes tests—only to have him explain that those exams are largely absent from the Finnish system.

Finland tests representative samples of students primarily as a way to gauge trends in school performance, and teachers routinely assess students’ progress in class, in order to improve instruction, he said.

Although he and other Finnish education leaders have had general discussions about adding high-stakes tests to the mix, that idea has not taken hold because “it’s difficult to say if it’s helping educators to do their job better,” Mr. Lankinen explained, after his presentation. Finns regard having “well-trained, educated teachers” as more essential to raising student achievement, he added.

It follows that Finnish teachers, like their Singaporean counterparts, are an elite group. All Finnish teachers must have master’s degrees, and admission to teacher education programs is highly competitive. Mr. Lankinen estimated that fewer than 15 percent of applicants are accepted.

Perhaps not surprisingly, one common feature of the Singaporean and Finnish education systems—like those of some other high-achieving nations—is the respect that their societies have for educators, and the general view of teaching as a top-tier profession.

In Finland, Mr. Lankinen said, “people dream to be teachers.”

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A version of this article appeared in the July 15, 2009 edition of Education Week

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