Back and forth we go in America's exhausting tug-of-war over schools — local versus federal control, union versus management, us versus them.
But something else is happening, too. Something that hasn't made many headlines but has the potential to finally revolutionize education in ways these nasty feuds never will.
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. All of which could transform the quality of teaching in America and the way the rest of us think about school and learning.
Over the past two years, according to a report out Tuesday 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, which once had one of the nation's lowest entry-bars for teachers, is leading the way. By 2020, the state will require its education colleges to admit classes of students with a mean SAT, ACT or GRE score in the top one-third of the national range, which would put Rhode Island in line with education superpowers like Finland and 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. Instead of trying to reverse engineer the teaching profession through complicated evaluations leading to divisive firings, these changes aspire to reboot it from the beginning.
To understand why this movement matters, it helps to talk 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 and fair education systems.
In Finland, Stenfors had to work 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.
By the time the year ended, she had begun the application process for the University of Turku's elementary education program. Like all of Finland's teacher-training colleges, the university accepted only about 10 percent of applicants for elementary education in 2010, 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 part matters even more), this selectivity sends a message to everyone in the country that education is important — and that teaching is damn hard to do. Instead of just repeating these claims over and over like Americans, the Finns act like they mean it.
That message has cascading benefits. 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. Without those signals, teachers suffer deep cuts that go beyond salary.
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 less dreary conversational territory.
"I was very proud when I said it," Stenfors says. "But they were not so excited." In a blog post she wrote from Kansas City, Missouri, Stenfors reported her finding home: "Here it's not cool to study to be a teacher," she wrote in Finnish. "They perceive a person who is studying to be a teacher as a little dumber. … Could you imagine (being) ashamed when telling people you are studying to be a teacher?"
Without realizing it, she'd grown accustomed to people finding her studies impressive in Finland. There, studying to be a teacher was equivalent to studying to be a lawyer or a doctor. Even though teachers still earned less than those professionals, prestige served as its own kind of compensation — one that changed the way she thought of her work and herself.
Finnish teachers have more freedom and time to collaborate and innovate without the burden of top-down accountability policies common to low-trust systems. Parents and politicians in Finland do not pity teachers or treat them like charity cases the way so many do in the United States. They treat them like grown-up professionals with a very hard job to do.
No one gets respect by demanding it. 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" and a senior fellow at the Emerson Collective.
© 2014 Slate