In a handful of statehouses and universities across the country, a few farsighted Americans are finally pursuing what the world's smartest countries have found to be the most efficient education reform ever tried. They are making it harder to become a teacher.
Ever so slowly, these legislators and educators are beginning to treat the preparation of teachers the way we treat the training of surgeons and pilots — rendering it dramatically more selective, practical and rigorous. Over the past two years, according to a report from the National Council on Teacher Quality, 33 states have passed meaningful new oversight laws or regulations to elevate teacher education in ways that are much harder for universities to game or ignore.
Rhode Island is leading the way. The state has already agreed to require its education colleges to admit classes of students with a mean SAT, ACT or GRE score in the top one-half of the national distribution by 2016. By 2020, the average score must be in the top one-third of the national range, which would put Rhode Island in line with education superpowers like Singapore.
Unlike the brawls we've been having over charter schools and testing, these changes go to the heart of our problem — an undertrained educator force that lacks the respect and skills it needs to do a very hard 21st-century job. (In one large survey, nearly two in three teachers reported that schools of education do not prepare teachers for the realities of the classroom.)
To understand why this movement matters so much, I talked to a future teacher who has experienced life with — and without — this reform. Sonja Stenfors, 23, is a teacher-in-training from Finland, one of the world's most effective education systems.
In Finland, Stenfors had to work very hard to get into her teacher-training program. After high school, like many aspiring teachers, she spent a year as a classroom aide to help boost her odds of getting accepted. The experience of working with 12 boys with severe behavioral problems almost did her in. "It was so hard," she told me, "I worried I could not do it."
By the time the year ended, she had begun the application process for the University of Turku's elementary education program. After submitting her scores from the Finnish equivalent of the SAT, she read a dense book on education published solely for education-school applicants. Several weeks later, she took a two-hour test on what she had read. The content of the book was beside the point, Stenfors says. "I think it really measures your motivation."
After she passed the test, Stenfors sat down for an in-person interview with two education professors. They described a real-world classroom scenario involving disengaged students and asked how she would respond. They probed her experience in the classroom. Stenfors went home worried, unsure how she'd done.
A month later, she got her letter. Like all of Finland's teacher-training colleges, the university accepted only about 10 percent of applicants for elementary education, and Stenfors was one of them. "I was so happy and excited. I called everybody," she remembers.
By accepting so few applicants, Finnish teacher colleges accomplish two goals — one practical, one spiritual: First, the policy ensures that teachers-to-be like Stenfors are more likely to have the education, experience and drive to do their jobs well. Second (and this matters even more), this selectivity sends a message to everyone that education is important — and that teaching is challenging. Instead of just repeating these claims over and over like Americans, the Finns act like they mean it.
If taxpayers, politicians, parents and — especially — kids know that teaching is a master profession, they begin to trust teachers more over time. Teachers receive more autonomy in the classroom, more recognition on the street and sometimes even more pay.
This school year, after three years of studying in her Finnish university, Stenfors came to America to study abroad at the University of Missouri-Kansas City. Right away, Stenfors noticed a subtle but powerful distinction. It happened whenever she met someone new in America. "Every time I told them I am studying to be a teacher, people said, 'Oh, that's interesting.' '' They nodded politely and moved to other topics.
In a blog post from Kansas City, Stenfors wrote: "Here it's not cool to study to be a teacher. They perceive a person who is studying to be a teacher as a little dumber."
Why did the Finns respect teachers more? Well, one reason was straightforward: Education college was hard in Finland, and it wasn't usually very hard in America. Respect flowed accordingly. The University of Missouri-Kansas City admits two-thirds of those who apply. To enter the education program, there is no minimum SAT or ACT score. Students have to have a B average, sit for an interview and pass an online test of basic academic skills.
Once enrolled, Stenfors' American peers had to do just two semesters of student teaching — compared to her four semesters in Finland. They had a lot of multiple-choice quizzes (a first for Stenfors). Unlike her Finnish professors, her American instructors encouraged discussion, which Stenfors admired. But overall, the university offered less rigorous, hands-on classroom coaching from experienced teachers — the most important kind of teacher preparation.
The lesson for America is obvious: Teachers and their colleges must earn the prestige they need by being the same kind of relentless intellectual achievers they're asking America's children to be.
Amanda Ripley is the author of The Smartest Kids in the World — and How They Got That Way.