On Political Books

July/ August 2013 A for Effort

Other countries' schools outperform ours by following a philosophy that is—or ought to be—very American: innate talent is less important than sheer drive.

By Thomas Toch and Taylor White

Because of its commitment to transforming its teaching profession in recent decades, Finland has become something of a mecca for American reformers. One hundred percent of teacher candidates rank in the top quarter of their high school classes, and teacher training is concentrated in a few high-quality universities. Admissions standards for the education programs are high. Master’s degrees are required for all teachers, and educators make competitive, professional wages. As a result, Finland now attracts its best and brightest into public school classrooms, where it gives them wide latitude over their work.

That Finland has created such a high-performing teaching profession holds out the hope that we can make teaching much more than the pink-collar work it has been in this country. But some of Finland’s teacher reforms are going to be tougher to transfer to American public education than reformers—and Ripley—suggest. “[U.S.] education colleges should only be allowed to admit students with SAT scores in the top third of the national distribution or lose government funding and accreditation,” she suggests.

Yet it’s one thing to concentrate education programs on eight campuses in a tiny country like Finland, but quite another to transform the more than 2,000 teacher preparation programs that are spread across the U.S., especially since many generate substantial enrollment-driven revenues for their parent institutions. The Finnish national government also pays every prospective teacher’s tuition (and every other college student’s tuition), and supports them during yearlong residencies with mentor teachers, another expensive proposition.

Still, Ripley’s reporting leads her, and us, to valuable insights into today’s standards debate. She doesn’t pretend to know how to build a cultural commitment to educational rigor and the belief in the value of hard work that propels other countries to achieve it. But Ripley helps us see clearly that shifting philosophical gears—making drive rather than talent the cornerstone of our educational system—is a key to achieving our academic aspirations.

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Thomas Toch and Taylor White are, respectively, the director of the Washington office of the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching and a staff associate at Carnegie.


  • mnemos on July 22, 2013 1:38 PM:

    The first issue I would point out is that in the US this doesn't need to be a national issue. It should be easier both politically and logistically to implement at the state level - and that is the better target for the argument. If, for example, finnish style reforms are demonstrated convincingly on the state level, where the issue belongs in a country as large as the US, it will propagate to other states. If it is not fiscally acceptable on the state level, it should not be done on the federal level anyway. Is there any information about the relative performance of the different states? I would love to see a report on variation between states that doesn't fall into the trap of assuming that variation calls for federal intervention.