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The U.S. Needs More Rigorous and Selective Teacher Colleges

New York Times
March 3, 2015

By Amanda Ripley

The first time Heikki Vuorinen applied to teacher-training college, he was rejected. The same thing happened the second time around. Finally, after spending years gaining experience as a substitute teacher, Vuorinen got accepted at one of the elite universities that trains teachers in Finland, which may have the world’s healthiest and most equitable school system. He was a touch sheepish about this record, but not mortified. Rejection stories are common in Finland, almost a point of pride for teachers.

Would Vuorinen have been just as good a teacher if he’d been accepted on the first try? Perhaps. But his story is not just about him. It is about the value his country places on teaching. If teaching is one of the most intellectually and emotionally challenging professions in the modern world, then it makes sense to act like it is — from the beginning. All of Vuorinen’s students (and their parents) knew how hard he had worked to become a teacher, and that awareness shaped how they viewed the teacher, the school and the pursuit of learning.

Of all the lessons from other countries, this is the one the United States has been most reluctant to embrace: To elevate the teaching profession, start with the education colleges. Make them rigorous and selective, and make sure everyone else knows it.

Once you’ve done that, miraculous things begin to happen. People start to trust teachers more. Politicians give teachers more autonomy — and even more pay.

American policy makers and university deans usually reject this model for two reasons. First, they claim that more rigorous teacher-training programs will lead to teacher shortages. But many districts currently have teacher surpluses, especially among elementary teachers. Secondly, they worry that more selective programs will lead to more homogenous teaching forces. But here again, it depends. Teach for America is our nation’s most selective teacher preparation program — and also one of the most diverse. That’s because Teach for America’s leaders have prioritized diversity and worked hard over time to recruit minority candidates (something many deans in U.S. colleges have not done). And selectivity does not need to be a blunt instrument. Finland’s education colleges do not just select based on test scores; they preference candidates who have spent time in a classroom (usually as an aid), proving their commitment and gaining experience. That is smart selectivity.

Back in Finland, I asked Vuorinen if he had any advice for the U.S. “You should start to select your teachers more carefully and motivate them more,” he said. “One motivation is money. Respect is another. Punishing is never a good way to deal with schools.”