"Teacher Quality" Conference Focuses on Trust

Helsinki Conference 2009

A four-day conference on "Teacher Quality" co-sponsored by the Pearson Foundation and the Council of Chief State School Officers focused on how Finland has achieved superb results in education through placing a great amount of trust in its teachers. The conference, held Sept. 22-25, heard from education officials from Finland and around the globe, including India, Zimbabwe and Singapore.

Recalling a visit to a primary school on the conference's second day, Steve Payne, Superintendent of Schools in West Virginia, said he was impressed by a teacher who said: "I like this. I have a principal who doesn't breathe down my neck. He trusts me." Mr. Payne said he would go back home "with the thought of the joy that this teacher gets through that trust."

Yet delegates also debated how to find the right balance between accountability and trust. "What is the tipping point between freedom and accountability?" asked Patricia Wright, Superintendent of Public Instruction at Virginia's Department of Education. "I believe in accountability, but if we've got highly qualified teachers we need to trust them to do what they were hired to do."

Finland ranks consistently at the top of international tests such as PISA (Program for International Student Assessment), which is conducted by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development. Conference-goers went home with the realization that this was no accident, but instead reflected a fierce – and continuing – commitment to educational excellence.

"Education is not just the classroom, but the building up of whole values," said Magdalena Mok, Professor at the Hong Kong Institute of Education. "Education is in the heart of everyone in Finland." Susan Badger, Chief Executive Officer of Pearson's Teacher Education and Development business, added that what Finland practices in education extends to other areas of society as well. "All the best companies have a culture of continuous improvement," she said.

Roger Sampson, President of the Education Commission of the States, commented how the best-performing countries such as Finland continually strive for improvement. "There is no 'we've finally arrived.' You never arrive. And that's why they continue to be high-performing," he said.

Several delegates expressed admiration for Finland's practice of hiring teachers with master's degrees in their area of expertise, and the generally high level of qualifications required of teachers. "As a lawyer I can't appear before the bar unless I'm fully qualified," said David Coltart, Zimbabwe's Minister of Education, adding that he wouldn't dream of sending his children to a doctor who wasn't fully qualified.

Finland's success in building a world-beating education system has been a matter of "decades and not centuries," and the same holds true for South Korea and several other countries that rank high in international comparisons, said Andreas Schleicher, head of the Indicators and Analysis Division of the OECD's Education Directorate, which recently released its annual "Education at a Glance" report.

Even more "dramatic" than Finland's top ranking, he added, is the fact that there's only 4% variance between Finland's schools, so parents "know they will get good results regardless of the school."

Mr. Schleicher also detailed how different types of jobs have fared in OECD countries over the past few decades. While there have declines in "routine manual" and "non-routine manual" jobs, the steepest decline since 1990 has been in "routine cognitive" jobs – skills that can be described to a computer or a worker in a lower-cost country, so these sorts of jobs have been most at risk in richer countries. The types of jobs that have seen an increase in numbers are "non-routine analytical" and "non-routine interactive" occupations

Helsinki Conference 2009Other highlights of the conference included a visit to Nokia headquarters in Espoo, just outside downtown Helsinki, where delegates saw demonstrations of some of Nokia's latest devices and programs. One such program, Nokia Education Delivery, provides videos and other instructional material through handsets, and from there onto larger viewing devices, to developing areas of the world including Tanzania, Chile and the Philippines. A teacher might set a timer to download the video into a handset the night before, when phone rates are lower, and then show it the next day.

The conference got underway with an address by Henna Virkkunen, Finland's Minister of Education, who explained how her country has made teaching a prestigious profession.

"Teachers are valued by the society and teaching is valued by the society," she said. There are many more applicants than places available in Finland's 11 teacher-training universities, where teachers study five or six years for a master's degree. They are carefully screened for aptitude for teaching, so the dropout rate is very low. Salaries are "fair" though not particularly high, explained one of the minister's officials, but teachers get job satisfaction through career progression, good working conditions and the fact that they are trusted by education administrators and given plenty of leeway to make decisions.

The Helsinki conference was the second one co-sponsored by the Pearson Foundation and the CCSSO. The first, held in 2008 in Singapore, focused on mathematics and science education. One of the delegates in Helsinki was Siew Hoong Wong, Director of Schools at Singapore's Ministry of Education.

When people sign up for formal teacher training in Singapore, they're treated from the start as paid professionals and not unpaid trainees, and "that has been working really well for us," he said. All teacher trainees are given full pay as a "serving officer" while they are in training, and after they begin teaching they get rewarded with performance-based pay. "We tell teachers: 'When you join us, you can grow with us professionally,'" he said, because the country wants teachers to "look forward to a rewarding profession for 30 or 40 years without getting jaded." As part of that, teachers for the past two years have received a three-month sabbatical after finishing six years of teaching, a measure he described as costly but important.

Gene Wilhoit, Executive Director of the CCSSO, ended the conference by saying that the U.S. has "a long way to go" in education, but that the four days in Helsinki will help provide a roadmap. "These are the important conversations in this world," he said. "We need more of these conversations as we move ahead."

There will be more. The next annual conference sponsored by the Pearson Foundation and CCSSO will be held in June 2010 in London.