Join us in Seattle on June 26-29 for the NCEE Leaders Retreat. Learn more here.

Pasi Sahlberg, Director General of CIMO at the Finnish Ministry of Education and Culture; Vivien Stewart, Senior Advisor for Education at the Asia Society; and Lee Sing Kong, Director of the National Institute of Education in Singapore

On March 9, 2012, Vivien Stewart, Senior Advisor for Education at the Asia Society, conducted a roundtable discussion on teacher quality issues with Lee Sing Kong, Director of the National Institute of Education in Singapore and Pasi Sahlberg, Director General of the National Centre for International Mobility and Cooperation (CIMO) at the Finnish Ministry of Education and Culture. All participants are members of the CIEB Advisory Board. The conversation focused on teacher education, professional development, evaluation, career ladders, and more.

Stewart: The issue of teacher quality is central to high quality education systems. Since Singapore and Finland are seen as having very high quality education systems that are producing high quality teachers, and since the two of you have been centrally involved in these developments, I want to talk to you today about the key reasons for your systems’ success and how other countries might learn from you both.

There are some general descriptions of how Singapore and Finland have developed high quality teachers in a number of publications.  What I want to try and do today is to get underneath those descriptions a bit.  So I guess the first question is where to begin in developing a high quality teaching force?  What do you do first, or do you do everything at once? Are there certain barriers and ways to overcome those barriers?

Sahlberg: I think one of the things that certainly everybody believes is that teachers need to have a high quality higher education experience; an academic and research based education in the universities that is competitive to degrees and academic programs available if they chose law or medicine or engineering. But this is not enough because if we don’t have, at the same time, a profession and working conditions comparable with other high quality professions, young people won’t choose to become teachers.

For example, Sweden and Finland have a very different situation in terms of selecting young people for teacher training.  In Sweden’s education schools, there is one applicant for every position – there is no competition, anybody who wants to can go there. At the same time, the education systems are very similar.  So there has to be something in the teachers’ working conditions in the two countries that is playing a major role here. In Sweden, school choice, privatizing education, testing and increased bureaucracy in the schools are often mentioned as things that prevent teaching from being the kind of profession where teachers can exercise what they have been trained to do.  So what I’m saying here is, we need to think about having good, high quality education and training procedures, and at the same time we need to make sure that the teaching in the school and within the school system is something where teachers can exercise this professionalism and that teachers are not blamed and shamed for the things that they are not actually responsible for.

Lee: I totally agree with Pasi, but in Singapore the situation is slightly different from Finland, from the angle of respect for the teaching profession.  Personally, I believe that in Finland, teachers are very well respected, and so you immediately are able to draw the best into teaching and then of course you provide them with the training, and by providing the best conditions in the school you help also to retain them and give them the satisfaction of what being a professional teacher is all about.  But in Singapore, we addressed a slightly different situation.

In 1991, if I had six vacancies for teaching, I only had five applications, and at that time, the respect for the teaching profession was not really high.  As an outcome, the best candidates did not necessarily want to go into teaching.  So we made a shift in the mid-90s, looking at three things in order to help the teaching profession evolve. The first was putting in place conditions that really raise the prestige and respect for the teaching profession. Then step two was providing whoever entered the teaching profession with the best training – in other words, not only giving them a good foundation of knowledge, but building in them a professionalism that allowed them to look upon themselves as professionals in the pursuit of preparing the future of the nation. Third, we worked on retaining them. In order to do this, the working conditions of teachers must be well looked after. Over the years we noticed that other demands slowly creep onto the teacher’s portfolio. They may have to do certain administrative work, they may have to do certain extracurricular activities and a lot of this puts a heavy toll on the teacher.  So what do we do?  I think the Minister of Education in Singapore, very wisely, began to look at ways of how to avoid these extracurricular demands on the teacher so that they ease their workload and then again concentrate on the core business of educating and mentoring the children.

I believe that it is through this series of measures that the prestige of teaching has been raised, and a conducive environment for employee retention has been established.  From the mid-90s to now, the quality of the Singapore teaching force slowly progressed and evolved to what it is today.  But it does take time to really evolve the quality teaching force.

Stewart: I think both Singapore and Finland are seen as having strong and thoughtful teacher preparation programs, whereas I think in the majority of countries there is a lot of criticism and dissatisfaction with the nature of teacher preparation programs; their relevance, their rigor.  So, if you had to pick three things about the Finnish and the Singaporean teacher preparation programs that you feel are the most important in producing effective teachers, what would you emphasize?

Sahlberg: I think the first characteristic of the Finnish teacher education system, where the program normally takes about five years, is that from day one, students are guided and encouraged to develop their pedagogical thinking.  In other words, there is a focus on thinking about why they teach and how they teach and what it takes to be a teacher. I think the second strong element of the Finnish way of educating teachers, including primary school teachers, is the way we combine theory and practice.  This is done by having teacher training schools attached to universities, and the practical training is very closely integrated into the normal teacher training program.  This combination of theory and practice is a typical and often-mentioned strong point of Finnish teacher education. The third feature, and this comes very close to the nature of teaching and working as a teacher in Finland, is the idea of creativity as part of the work of all teachers here.  I think Finnish teacher education is systematically trying to encourage teachers to be creative educators, rather than educating them towards only one way of teaching.  This is of course relevant because the way our schools operate, teachers have a great degree of autonomy and teachers are rewarded not according to their level of educating people to the standard, but by how they are able to find new ways of teaching and alternative ways of arranging work in the classrooms and schools, and that’s why this creative, open minded aspect of growing as a teacher is a very normal and typical part of teacher education in Finland.

Stewart: If I may add a fourth, I think one of the things that is striking about Finnish primary schools is the way teachers deal with children when they are behind. Teachers seem to have a very extensive repertoire of ways of thinking about and dealing with that, in addition to then having teachers who have even more training helping them. Is that something that all primary teachers get that prepares those teachers to deal with the whole range of students in the classroom?

Sahlberg: Yes, exactly.  Particularly in our primary schools, but in all schools really, we have tried to create a situation where all the teachers have the responsibility of making sure that everybody will have equal opportunities to be successful and no child is left behind in our school system.  This means that in teacher education everybody has to gain the knowledge and understanding and skills related to special education so that they can understand and diagnose and deal with the issues, both psychological and social, in the classroom.

Stewart: And one final question  are all the institutions that train teachers in Finland seen as being of comparably high quality?  In the US and in other countries, there are widely varying standards and perceptions of the quality of teacher training institutions.

Sahlberg: It really doesn’t make any difference which university or school of education you go to in Finland. The Ministry of Education in Finland oversees universities, teacher education departments and teacher licensing.  No matter where you graduate from, you are always a qualified teacher.  The teacher education curriculum in all of our universities is pretty much the same.  The teacher education programs have the same requirements and the same academic rigor throughout the country.

Stewart: Singapore only has one teacher training institution, the National Institute of Education.

Lee: I think in Singapore, if you ask me for the three most important parts of teacher education, they are encapsulated in the model of teacher education that we have developed based on values, skills and knowledge.  The values that we inculcate in our student teachers are that as a teacher, the heart of the work is learning.  The learning in class can come in various forms, have various profiles, but we know that every child can learn.  Some may be fast learners, some may be slow, but it’s just a matter of a different approach to help the slower learners do well.

That is the first set of values. The second set of values is teacher professionalism.  In initial teacher preparation programs, we have a limited amount of time and we cannot equip the teacher with all the professional knowledge and practice that he or she needs.  Upon graduating, a beginning teacher must continue to learn and to evolve through professional development to upgrade their skills, upgrade their knowledge, and improve their professionalism as a teacher. We always have described this like a carpenter with a toolbox.  When you first go to the tool shop you bring an empty box, then you fill it up with all the different tools.  When you encounter a particular job, you take out the right tool. Likewise, we equip the teachers with the repertoire of pedagogical tools so that when he or she encounters a group of students with a certain learning profile, he takes the right tool to address that learner.

And the third key area is knowledge.  Domain knowledge of the discipline that they teach is critical, because as the literature and research have highlighted, those teachers with good subject knowledge can adopt the right tools to truly engage and enthuse the students.

So these are three key areas of importance that we look at in initial teacher preparation, but they must also evolve because teacher education programs must be able to equip teachers and prepare them to be relevant to the current landscape. If the teacher is not relevant to the learners that they are dealing with, be it in terms of the knowledge they teach or be it in terms of the tools that they use, then I think the impact of that teacher’s teaching will be minimal.

Stewart: I know that the National Institute of Education has recently undergone a review of its teacher education program within the last couple of years.  What was the impetus to that revision?  What were the things that you felt needed to change?

Lee: There are quite a few things that have undergone this review, including the curriculum, planning and implementation.  First, we looked at the value system and found that values needed to go beyond being learner-centered and teacher-centered, but also include the idea of a professional community where teachers understand that there is value in engaging the community as a whole and sharing with one another best practices and experiences, so that the whole profession can grow.

In terms of the curriculum, there were a few changes.  The first change was to provide a better coherence and interconnection of the modules that the student teachers engage in.  Every teacher education program has a set of modules and activities.  We have brought greater coherence by developing a map of the whole program so that when the teacher looks at the whole program structure and the activities and the theories behind them, they are able to see a bigger picture of how they all relate to each other.

The third change is exactly what Pasi spoke about, the improved relationship between theory and practice. We strengthened the partnership between the National Institute of Education and the schools in order to prepare the next generation of teachers.  We engage senior teachers to mentor student teachers, and throughout the process, we have added varied interactions between the experienced teachers and the student teachers, in terms of skills, practice and theory, all of which tie in with the program map in terms of the understanding of how modules relate to activities.  The student teachers are able to understand that when they do something in the classroom, they are translating a particular theory into practice and they also understand which practices they are strong in and which they are weak in and they then work with their mentors to improve those practices.

The next change is the introduction of the e-portfolio.  This is a tool that we use to encourage very strong reflection on the part of the student teacher.  Student teachers sit down with their mentor teacher to discuss the strengths and weaknesses of the lesson that they taught, and then the student teacher has the opportunity to reflect on that feedback and channel their reflections in the e-portfolio, which contains a track record of the practices, the experiences, the discussions and the reflections of the student teacher.  The student teachers then use the information from the e-portfolio to identify areas of improvement and work with professors at the university or their school-based mentors.

We have had very positive feedback from our student teachers who are using this new e-portfolio program.

Stewart: Pasi, you said that working conditions was the second part of the answer to how to have a high quality teaching profession.  The term working conditions means different things to different people; sometimes it’s sort of a code word for salaries, and for other people it means additional time for professional development or for others, a leadership role in the school.  When you talk about professional working conditions in Finnish schools, what are the key elements?

Sahlberg: It’s a very important question, Vivien.  In the Finnish context, when we’re speaking about professional working conditions or respectful working conditions, we of course include all of the things that you said, but I would say that three things come before others.

One of them is that we have paid a particularly close attention in Finland to the fact that teachers have a considerable amount of authority and power to determine the actual curriculum that they use.  In other words, teachers need to be able to make decisions regarding not only the methods of teaching, but also the content, the sequencing and the entire arrangement of their own teaching.

Then the second one, of course, is the actual execution of these teaching plans in class by teachers so that they have both autonomy and also professional responsibility for their work as part of the collective community of teachers in their own schools and in the wider community.  I think teachers in Finland feel that they are doing something together and that they really have control over what they do.  Control is not coming from any authority, or principal, or the ministry or government.  Teachers have control over their own teaching.

Then the third element of this professional working condition issue is being able to decide about assessment and evaluation in their work.  There are naturally two elements here.  One is student assessment – reporting and assessing how well their own students are learning in the school and reporting this to parents.  Then, being part of a professional community that evaluates the work of the school and again collectively, together with the principal, deciding how this will be reported.

People should not think that that there is total freedom in Finland to do all these things.  I think we have been quite successful in designing, over the last 30 years, national frameworks for the curriculum, evaluation and monitoring policies that enable teachers to use their knowledge and skills and there are not really too many complaints or arguments regarding this situation.  I think Finland has also been rather lucky in the sense that this whole process has created a situation where there is a great deal of trust within the education community and the society as a whole; meaning that there is confidence in public education.

Stewart: The level of trust in Finland is very striking, and so for people coming from countries that have a different cultural milieu, it’s hard to imagine.  It seems very attractive but it’s kind of hard to imagine how to get to a place where there is that level of trust in the profession.  Do you have any thoughts about that?

Sahlberg: Oh yes, because this is one of the most often asked questions when people come to Finland from other countries.  I always warn people that you have to look at the whole country and the society.  The culture in Finland is very much built on the same idea of trust; it’s not only education where we have a lot of trust, but it’s the entire society where we typically have a very wide degree of trust among people.   This is because of many things.  For example, we are fairly equal in terms of wealth.  There is a fairly low level of crime and that of course increases the level of trust within the society.

At the same time, I also believe that there are many things that can be done to enhance trust within an education system because when I started to teach about 25 years ago, we had all sorts of centrally issued regulations, directives and orders and were forced to behave in a certain way.  So, we have been handing over the decision power including curriculum planning, textbook selection, student assessment and special education, and many other things, to teachers at schools, which has gradually also increased and strengthened the feeling of trust in many ways in our society.

Lee: If I may make a comment here, trust will need time to develop, and trust between the teacher and the parents or between society and the teaching profession must be built up based on mutual respect.  That’s why I think this respect can grow when we begin to celebrate the goodness of teachers.  If the society continues to bash teachers for failing to do this or failing to do that, and pushes all the responsibility onto the shoulders of teachers, I think that will continue to depress the image of the teaching profession.  When the teaching profession continues to decline, the trust between the society and the profession, or the parents and the teachers will also decline.  Do you agree, Pasi?

Sahlberg: I totally agree with what you said.

Stewart: Coming to the issue of teacher working conditions in Singapore, it’s obviously somewhat different from Finland.  I think one of the striking things, looking at Singapore from the outside, is the career ladders for teachers and increasing salary levels when teachers add additional skills as a way to keep people motivated, improving their work, and keeping them in the profession.  I was wondering if you could talk a little about that.  I’d be interested in what the criteria are for promotion, who develops them, who decides and on what basis?

Lee: I think in Singapore the teaching profession, like all other professions, is dealing with a very young generation of new teachers.  In fact, in Singapore the median age of teachers is only 33 years old.  The baby boomers have retired and therefore there is a big group of young teachers coming in, and they are a very different generation of people. Younger generation teachers, like in other professions, expect recognition and strong encouragement.  After two or three years in the profession, they expect at least to be recognized in terms of a promotion.  So that’s why in Singapore, the Ministry of Education has developed three tracks for teachers: the leadership track, the teaching track and a specialist track.  We have also included many intermediate steps as compared to in the past so there are more opportunities for young teachers to be promoted.  So that will help in terms of retaining teachers in the profession.

Now, how do we evaluate teachers?  The Ministry of Education has developed a framework and called it EPMS, the Enhanced Performance Management System.  Within this management system framework, we lay out very transparent criteria for teachers at each stage of their career: what kind of competencies we expect and what level of responsibility we impose at each level related to attitude, a teacher’s perspective on teaching, how they manage student learning and their values including believing every child can learn.  We have defined these criteria for beginning teachers through professional teachers.  Every year, when the principal and the vice-principal as well as the head of the teacher’s department come together to appraise the teacher, the teacher’s own feedback is also taken into consideration.  For example, if a teacher says, “Look, I fell somewhat short in this area of this competency and I would like to go for professional development,” the principal will be able to see the value that this teacher places on improving their professional practice and skills.  So a lot of these criteria are captured within the EPMS framework which is very transparent for the teachers and done by a group, not by one individual so there is a greater chance that the evaluation results and promotion decisions will be accepted.

One very clear part of the framework is that we do not assess teachers based on student achievement in the classroom. We don’t do that.  We look at teachers from a professional development angle in terms of competency, acquisition of knowledge and skills, practice and professionalism.

Stewart: Do you use student achievement at all?

Lee: If it is included at all it will be as a passing comment; that your professionalism perhaps could be further looked at simply because currently your group of students are not improving as expected.  One good thing, or rather a controversial thing, is that we stream students into various streams so therefore the expectation of how the student performs in each of the classrooms is clear.  Let’s say a teacher teaches students that are less academically inclined, and the student performance is not good.  You can look at other factors as contributing to why the students are not learning rather than just place the total responsibility on the teacher.

Stewart: Pasi, how is teacher evaluation thought about in Finland?

Sahlberg: Most of the teacher evaluations that we do in Finland are done at the school level by the school principal and teachers themselves, so we don’t really have too much discussion about formal teacher evaluation in the country.  It’s very much decentralized within the system to the level of the school and it’s a very important part of every principal’s work.  When principals are prepared to work as the leaders of the schools, this is an important part of their training and responsibilities at the moment.

Stewart: But it’s up to them how they design it?  There isn’t a standard template that they use?

Sahlberg: No, we don’t have standards for teacher behavior or teacher evaluation, so it’s up to each and every principal.  I think the closest to a standard that we have is that we encourage every principal to have regular development conversations with their staff, where they go through how the teachers are working and where the areas of further development may be and what they find difficult and so on, but principals may do this in very different ways. It always includes classroom observations as well, so the principals are expected to go and see what’s going on in the classroom so that they can really talk about what’s going on in teachers’ work, but this is not the kind of a standardized form of evaluation as it is in many other places.  Since we don’t have the data on student achievement that could be used at the level of individual teachers, we’re not really even talking about that when evaluating teachers.

Stewart: Let me ask you each one final question.  Looking to the future in Finland and Singapore, what do you see as the key challenges to maintaining a high quality teaching profession?

Sahlberg: This is a critical question for Finland.  For the last 20 years, we have been able to attract the most motivated and talented young people into teaching.  We don’t really need much improvement in this situation because this is as good as the situation can get in terms of teachers in general, but I think many, if not most, of the challenges are coming from the changing nature of Finnish society.  We are now, for the first time, hearing quite worrying signals, particularly from young teachers, that many of them find it difficult to manage classrooms where diversity is becoming more and more visible, not only because of the increasing immigration, but also because of increased levels of child poverty, although they are still very low compared to other countries.  We have more single or no parent pupils in our school system.  It’s really changing the whole nature of working as a teacher, where the education and upbringing of children is becoming more central to the teachers’ work, rather than just teaching knowledge and skills as it used to be.  So this is something that we are really thinking about; how do we alter the teacher education program so that we have more time for classroom management to make sure that the young teachers can do what they want to do.  On the other hand, if we are able to maintain these professional working conditions that are really attractive at the moment for many young people, I think we will be able to still maintain teaching as a popular profession, but we need to be alert to this and not to rely on the past.

The financial issues in Finland are another challenge for the entire system of education and it’s immediately reflecting on teachers. We have several municipalities that are running the schools with serious public funding challenges, which means the class sizes tend to increase and resources in these schools are decreasing.  So, there are many things that are changing the situation very quickly and there are some dark clouds, so to speak, here in Finland.  But I’m still optimistic, but we need to continue to work hard.

Stewart: And Sing Kong, what do you see as the challenges to maintaining Singapore’s high quality teaching profession?

Lee:  There are actually four very prominent key challenges I think Singapore has to address in the future.  I think number one, like what Pasi said, is the growing diversity of students in the classroom; not just from different cultural and religious backgrounds, but also a range of students from different socio-economic backgrounds.  So these are issues teachers must confront and they’re not even issues that I think a professional teacher is able to manage.  Therefore, we have to constantly provide different kinds of support to teachers. We’re still deliberating and still debating as to how to give teachers the kind of support that will enable them to manage more diverse classrooms in the future.  That’s the first challenge.  The second challenge is literally the fast-changing demands of the 21st century landscape, especially what employers want and how we can prepare our students to face the future.  There is so much uncertainty about the future.  We have to really plan not just from the point of view of the teaching profession, but also the curriculum.  The third is that parents are much more educated than in the past.  It is a very different thing to work with parents who are less educated than with parents who are well-educated.  They question the professionalism of the teacher at times and such questioning can put pressure on the teacher.  So how do we address the issues of some irrational and unreasonable parents?  How do we work with parents to really mitigate these issues of putting pressure on the teachers and to create a greater partnership?  The fourth challenge, like what Pasi said, is competition for resources.  When industries continue to evolve and grow, I think it is a continual challenge to really upgrade or improve and evolve the teaching profession to be on par with the others, so that we can continue to attract the better ones into the profession, and retain them. I think this challenge is real and somewhat a competition for resources.  It’s going to also aggravate the problem of retention.

Stewart: Thank you both very much for your time.  It was a really good discussion that others can learn quite a lot from on the issue of teacher quality.