Monday, May 28, 2018
Education

It's too easy to become a teacher. Make it harder.

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.

Comments
Sparks fly among Hillsborough School Board members as private messages are leaked

Sparks fly among Hillsborough School Board members as private messages are leaked

TAMPA — Somebody got into Hillsborough County School Board member Melissa Snively’s Facebook account, copied her messages and gave them to a newspaper publisher who is a friend of her rivals on the board.The posts discussed politics and power struggl...
Published: 05/25/18
Eckerd College student who fell before graduation has died

Eckerd College student who fell before graduation has died

ST. PETERSBURG — An Eckerd College student who was critically injured last weekend during an accidental fall on campus shortly before she was to graduate died today, the school announced.Rebecca Ryan "Becca" Lavin-Burgher would have graduated with a ...
Published: 05/24/18
Updated: 05/25/18
A school resource officer allegedly told a gay student she would go to hell. Now he’s going away.

A school resource officer allegedly told a gay student she would go to hell. Now he’s going away.

The stares and whispers started on the first day of school more than two years ago, when Liv Funk and Hailey Smith silently declared their relationship in the halls of North Bend High School by holding hands.They knew coming out would be hard in the ...
Published: 05/24/18
What is a college’s responsibility to parents when a student is suicidal?

What is a college’s responsibility to parents when a student is suicidal?

CLINTON, N.Y. — In the days after her son Graham hanged himself in his dormitory room at Hamilton College, Gina Burton went about settling his affairs in a blur of efficiency, her grief tinged with a nagging sense that something did not add up.She fi...
Published: 05/24/18
Hillsborough teachers hope to get some, but not all of their raise money

Hillsborough teachers hope to get some, but not all of their raise money

TAMPA — Teachers in Hillsborough County came closer on Wednesday to reaching an agreement with the school district that would give them most, but not all of the pay they expected this past year.The deal, if it happens, will end a year-long conflict t...
Published: 05/23/18
Ridgewood High faithful recall ‘Pride of Pasco’ as school forges a new path

Ridgewood High faithful recall ‘Pride of Pasco’ as school forges a new path

NEW PORT RICHEY — The line snaked through the hallways and into the cafeteria, as the Ridgewood High faithful waited for their chance to secure a piece of the school’s 40-year history.They came by the hundreds — current and former students, staff and...
Published: 05/23/18
Words of wisdom from Class of 2018 on how school shootings have transformed them

Words of wisdom from Class of 2018 on how school shootings have transformed them

TAMPA — The pain of the Parkland shootings Feb. 14 was fresh on the minds of Hillsborough County’s graduating seniors when about 300 of them received an assignment. Write a 250-word essay on how decades of school shootings have touched y...
Published: 05/23/18
Company in charge of Hillsborough substitute teachers weighs in on problem cases

Company in charge of Hillsborough substitute teachers weighs in on problem cases

TAMPA — The company hired by the Hillsborough County School District to fill more than 170,000 substitute teaching shifts every year is defending its record, saying it works to get to the bottom of allegations against employees, treat them fairly and...
Published: 05/22/18
Updated: 05/25/18
Sheriff: Weeki Wachee High student posted fake school shooting threat

Sheriff: Weeki Wachee High student posted fake school shooting threat

WEEKI WACHEE — A 16-year-old was arrested Tuesday on allegations that she created a fake social media post threatening to shoot students at Weeki Wachee High School, according to the Hernando County Sheriff’s Office.Deputies said the 16-year-old told...
Published: 05/22/18
Hillsborough school district, teachers move closer to pay deal

Hillsborough school district, teachers move closer to pay deal

TAMPA — The Hillsborough County School District and its teachers’ union moved closer to resolving their salary dispute during Monday’s negotiating session — but stopped short of reaching an agreement.The teachers, who have spent this school year work...
Published: 05/21/18
Updated: 05/22/18