A new brief from NCEE explores how, in the wake of the pandemic, education systems both in the U.S. and abroad are harnessing innovation and digital technologies to deepen and accelerate learning for all students.

Twenty-seven years ago, I had the privilege of serving as staff director and report author for the Carnegie Task Force on Teaching as a Profession.  We released our report, A Nation Prepared: Teachers for the 21st Century, in the spring of 1986.  The message of the report was clear enough.  The United States had built an education system geared to the basic literacy needs of the mass-production economy of the turn of the century.  That industrial era was gone, but the education system built to serve its needs was very much alive.  The report described the economic forces that were combining to make it vital that our education system aim much, much higher, toward the kind of education required in a knowledge-based society.

The need for the kind of routinized basic skills required by most workers in a mass-production economy was dying.  The skills needed now, we said, were not routine.  We would now need “people who have a good intuitive grasp of the ways in which all kinds of physical and social systems work.  They must possess a feeling for mathematical concepts and the ways in which they can be applied to difficult problems, an ability to see patterns of meaning where others see only confusion, a cultivated creativity that leads them to new problems, new products and new services before their competitors get to them, and, in many cases, the ability to work with other people in complex organizational environments where work groups must decide for themselves how to get the job done.”

And we said that the key to accomplishing these and a number of other similar goals was simple to state and extremely difficult to accomplish.  We would have to convert teaching from a blue-collar occupation into a real profession, a profession with the same kind of status that architecture, engineering, the law and medicine have.  We spelled out how far the United States would have to go to get there.  We showed how the supply of teachers was lagging further and further behind demand, even with abysmally low standards for becoming a teacher.  A chart in the Carnegie report showed that the United States was drawing more and more of our teachers from the non-college-bound high school tracks and fewer and fewer from the high school students who were in college preparation programs.  We showed the steady decline in scores of prospective schoolteachers on the college entrance matriculation examinations.  Most devastating, we showed a dramatic decline among first year college students who were women who were interested in teaching as a career. At the same time, there was an equally dramatic increase in the numbers of women interested in going into business and the law.  The message was:  Just as the United States was about to need by far the best teachers we had ever had, we were about to get the worst.  All we had to do to get that result was nothing.

As it turns out, we did not do nothing.  We did worse than nothing.  But I am getting ahead of my story.

The Carnegie Task Force proposed that all teachers be required to major in college in the subject they would teach in school, even in elementary school, and also be required to get a masters degree in teaching to make sure that they also mastered their craft; to make teachers’ compensation competitive with compensation for the high status professions; to base our teacher education programs on the best scientific knowledge about learning that was available; to create career ladders for teachers based on their acquisition of advanced knowledge and skill; and, not least important, to provide a truly professional environment for teachers in our schools, beginning with giving them the right to decide as a faculty how best to use the resources available to the school to meet the needs of their students. We suggested starting with the creation of a National Board for Professional Teaching Standards, to establish truly professional standards for the work of teachers, and to have professional teachers set those standards.  Our little team spent the next year designing the National Board and getting it fairly launched.

I have just finished reading two books that brought all the memories of those years back in a rush: Professional Capital: Transforming Teaching in Every School, by Andy Hargreaves and Michael Fullan, and Finnish Lessons: What Can the World Learn From Educational Change in Finland?, by Pasi Sahlberg.  Hargreaves and Fullan set out to answer a very important question:  What would a true profession of teaching actually look like?  Sahlberg’s book traces the remarkable history of modern education reform in Finland, but at the heart of that story is the answer to another, no less important question:  If you happened to be in charge of the education system of an entire country, how could you plausibly put in place, over time, the kind of professional teaching corps described by Hargreaves and Fullan?

There is not nearly enough space available in this column to allow me to summarize either book.  I strongly recommend that you read both, if you have not done so already.  For me, the experience was a bit like reading Robert Frost’s poem about the road not taken.  Professional Capital describes, much better than I could have done at the time I drafted the Carnegie Report, what we would find in schools run by professional teachers.  They make it clear that mastery—real mastery—of the subjects to be taught and of the craft of teaching are important, but not, by any means, all that is important.  To be a pro, they say, you also have to have an aptitude for connecting with young people and supporting them in many different ways.  You have to be able to figure out when they are not learning what they need to learn quickly and draw on a wide range of scientifically-based knowledge and intuitive skills—the kind the best doctors have—to find the right solution or combination of solutions.  Critically important, you have to be prepared to be not a lone ranger, but a very productive member of a highly skilled team, the faculty of the school, drawing on their expertise and contributing your own in a process of continuous learning in which the students benefit mightily from the combined effort of the entire faculty.  And all of them have to be as good as you are and set standards for themselves and their own contribution that are just as high as the standards you have set for yourself.  You have to make sure that you take the time to interact with that faculty in a serious way.  And, lastly, you have to be prepared to work for years—Malcolm Gladwell’s 10,000 hours— to really master your craft.  There are no shortcuts in this process if you really want to be a pro.

Finnish Lessons is the story of the thirty years it took to move the Finnish education system from average performance to the envy of the world.  The tale is very well told and utterly engrossing.  Sahlberg describes Finland as consciously taking a unique path to education excellence.  In the years after World War II, he says, few people went beyond primary education, schooling focused on rote skills and memorization and the secondary schools that were available tracked students in the way that was then common in Europe.  He describes the circumstances that led, in the early 1970s, to the creation of Finland’s signature schools, the peruskoulu, the nine-year common school that offers the same demanding curriculum to all students.  He gives a feel for the opposition to this development from politicians and business executives who were sure that only a few students could really master that curriculum and that having the same expectations for all students would inevitably drive the standards down for Finland’s best students and doom the Finnish economy.  But he shows how the Finns’ understanding of the global challenges they faced, combined with their twin commitments to very high quality and very high equity in education won the day and then led to the realization that, in order to make the peruskoulu actually work, Finland would have to have a world-class teaching force, a teaching force drawn from the same pool of students from which Finland’s architects, engineers and doctors are drawn.

Sahlberg lays out the specific steps the Finns took to make sure that they could build that kind of truly professional teaching force, policy measures that are, I’m sure, familiar to most of those who read this newsletter.  Sahlberg makes the case, as well as it is ever going to be made, for professionalizing teaching as the key to world class student performance at the national level, but he is smart enough to know that no single factor explains this kind of success, that a nation cannot succeed in such an effort unless it thinks of its task as creating an effective system with many important mutually supporting elements.  And he knows that many of those elements, in Finland, are not likely to be adopted by many other countries, especially, the Finnish commitment to the well-being of its children on many fronts, the relatively even distribution of income in that country, the long-standing very high rate of book reading in that country, the early mastery of written language by young children watching captioned TV, and much more.  Still, there is no question in Sahlberg’s mind that, if you want high achievement and high equity, you have no alternative but to work as hard as you can to produce a highly educated, fully professional teaching force, and once you have it, to trust it will do the right thing by your children.

Which brings me to the nub of the issue.  What is quite striking about both of these books is the prominent role of arch villain that is played in both by the United States.  Throughout Finnish Lessons, Sahlberg contrasts the Finnish Way with GERM, an acronym he invented that stands for Global Education Reform Movement.  It is not a term of approbation.  He contrasts the Finnish Way with an education reform movement, whose key elements are “competition and choice, standardization of teaching and learning, tightening test-based accountability, and merit-based pay for teachers.”  He makes it clear that he regards the United States as the home of this agenda, and the agenda as the antithesis of everything that the Finnish Way stands for.

He is not alone.  The United States and what Sahlberg calls the GERM, play the same roles in Professional Capital.  This will come as no surprise to readers of Fullan’s Wrong Drivers, which describes the primary elements in the GERM agenda as the worst drivers one could imagine if one’s aim is to raise national student achievement to world class levels.  In my own book, Thinking for a Living: Education and the Wealth of Nations, which I wrote with former Labor Secretary Ray Marshall, we argued that the agenda that Sahlberg christens as GERM is a direct descendant of the kind of Tayloristic thinking that dominated “modern management” in the age of mass production.  The conception of teaching in that model is the antithesis of a professional conception of teaching.  It is a blue-collar model of teaching, the very thing that the Carnegie Report declared to be the enemy of any successful plan to greatly raise student achievement in the United States.

Sahlberg, Hargreaves and Fullan are right.  In the years following the release of the Carnegie report’s call for professionalizing teaching in the United States, we did the opposite.  We doubled down on the old, Tayloristic, blue-collar model of teaching.  At the end of their book, Hargreaves and Fullan urge American policymakers to adopt the set of attitudes toward teachers that they associate with successful policies in Canada and Finland.  At the end of his book, Sahlberg once again denounces the American choices and makes the case, if not for the details of the Finnish model, for its spirit.

All of this made me think hard about why Finland was able to move toward a professional model of teaching of the kind that we had advocated in the Carnegie report and the United States did not.  After reading Sahlberg on Finland, I think I understand it.

Teaching has had a very high status in Finland for a very long time, much higher than in the United States.  The word for teacher in Finland is the same for schoolteachers as it is for university professors.  In the 1950s, at state dinners, the order of precedence for leaving the table after the dinner was the senior statesmen first and then the teachers, followed by every other class of attendees.  As Sahlberg recounts the tale, the path from a very ordinary, low attainment education system after World War II to the development of the “Finnish consensus” to move forward with the peruskoulu in the early 1970s was accompanied by a steady increase in demand for education and a steady improvement in the ability of the Finnish education system to meet that demand.  Thereafter, as Sahlberg describes it, officials did what they had to do to greatly improve the quality of the teaching force and the success of these very high quality teachers, as revealed by the startling success of Finland in the initial and subsequent administrations of the OECD-PISA assessments.  These results not only provided a justification for trust in Finland’s teachers, but also staved off the demands from some important quarters to import into Finland important elements of the GERM agenda.  At no point in this story does Sahlberg tell us that the Finnish public lost faith in its teachers or had any reason to do so.

Now let us consider what was happening in the United States in the same period.  The Carnegie report, calling for the professionalization of the American teaching force, was released in June of 1986, not long after the implementation of the new peruskoulu in Finland and just as that country was putting in place the elements of its plan to professionalize its teaching force.  But the upward trajectory of teaching and of the public’s view of teachers in Finland was matched by a downward spiral in the United States.  Finland was going from middling performance on the international stage to the top of the league tables.  The United States was going from undisputed world leader in public education to the middle of the league tables.  At the same time, the cost of American schools was skyrocketing.  Income distribution in the United States was moving from among the most equal in the industrialized world to the least equal, steadily increasing the rate of poverty.  While Finland was climbing to technological preeminence in the global economy, global American companies were being hollowed out, iconic American firms were going under and the American consumer was living off of loans from China, a developing country.  Not least important for this story, as I said at the outset, the quality of American teachers was declining by many objective measures, matched by a steep decline in the performance of American school children, relative to the performance of the leading countries, which, one by one, were surpassing the United States.

What I realized, thinking about all this, is that the environment for education policy-making was hugely influenced by the upward trend in Finland and the downward trend in the United States.  The Finns never had a reason to distrust their teachers.  The long-standing reverence for teachers made it natural for the country to call on the best of their young people to come to the aid of their country by becoming teachers when the country responded to the emergency caused by the sudden failure of their protected market in the Soviet Union and the banking crisis, and just as natural for the best of their young people to answer that call by becoming teachers.  When the peruskoulu turned out to be a success, these fine new teachers were celebrated by the citizens and became the most desired spouses by other young people forming families.  They put their heart and soul into their teaching, which produced the Finnish surprise when the 2001 PISA scores came out, and that cemented the Finnish Way of education policy.  This is a classic virtuous cycle if ever there was one.

But the opposite happened in the United States.  The seeds were sown just after World War II, with the passage of the GI Bill.  Young soldiers, who would never otherwise have gone to college, did so.  Many went on to graduate schools.  In their 40s in the 1970s, many had more education and a better education than the women who taught their children.  Whereas before the war, teachers were respected because they had more education than the parents of the students they taught, after the war that became less and less true, and because it was less and less true, they were progressively less respected, especially in the middle class suburbs where the burgeoning class of professionals and managers lived.  In the 1970s, teachers’ salaries slipped badly relative to those of people in other college-educated occupations and, in the view of some influential Americans, teachers were on the “wrong” side of the civil rights issues.  Teachers, feeling that their backs were to the wall, joined the American Federation of Teachers if they were in the cities, or the newly unionized National Education Association if they were in the suburbs.  The unions they joined were not like the European unions, which included professionals and were invited to partner with business owners in setting important national policies.  They were conceived in the old Tayloristic American model, actually reinforcing the grip of the blue-collar model of teaching in the United States.  Then other countries began to outperform the United States, an enormous blow to national pride, and the cost of education went up without student achievement following, leaving many Americans with the impression that the teachers had taken the money and simply put it in their pockets, rather than to improve student performance.  Few Americans realized that, as American’s real wages were declining, full time homemakers were going into the workplace and were no longer at home when their children came home, an increasing number of families had only one parent, and the number of children in poverty was swiftly rising.  Much less did they stop to realize the significance of these trends for the work of teachers in our schools.

The cumulative effect of these developments in the United States was to alienate ordinary Americans from their teachers.  While Finnish teachers were being credited with improving student achievement, American teachers were being blamed for letting it decline. While Finnish teachers were celebrated for producing high achievement at modest cost, American teachers were scorned for increasing the cost of schools dramatically while doing nothing to improve student performance.  While Finnish teachers were doing whatever needed to be done to improve the performance of their students, American teachers were perceived to be working to the union rule and unwilling to police the poor performers in their own ranks.  The more American teachers were blamed for the poor performance and rising costs of American schools, the more they relied on their unions as their sole source of support and the more the unions were attacked, the greater their bunker mentality.  I have absolutely no doubt but that you and I—any of us—would have behaved in exactly the same way in the same circumstances.  But it produced a perfect vicious cycle.

This turn of events produced the current politics of American education.  Admired American governors started to take on the teachers and their unions and to demand that the educators take some responsibility for the poor performance of American students and become accountable for their own performance.  The Clinton administration was the turning point.  “Third Way” politicians like Clinton (and Blair in England) were not about to base their education policies on trust in teachers.  There was no constituency for trust of teachers in the United States, either among Democrats or Republicans.  Both parties were looking for ways to fix education but neither party could figure out how to do it by rebuilding the system from the inside.  Key figures in both parties perceived the education system to have been captured by the professional educators.  The forces created by the downward spiral I have described were so powerful and the respect for professional educators so depleted that key figures in both parties were trying not to fix the system but to blow it up.  The Democrats would not go for vouchers and the Republicans could not get enough support for vouchers from the public to put them into play, so the two parties settled on charters as the bipartisan strategy for fixing the schools.

It will do no good to tell American policymakers that they need to change their attitudes on these matters.  Their attitudes reflect the attitudes of the public at large.  What happened in the United States and England, I believe, was not an accident and not the result of stupidity.  It was the result of a downward spiral that Finland never experienced, and the jaundiced view formed by the American public about public educators that came from their bitter disappointment in their educators and the educators’ unions.  There is no doubt in my mind that the course that the United States is now on will lead to ever poorer performance.  All the evidence, from every quarter, points to that outcome.  I believe, however, that we will have to wait for GERM to burn itself out before we change course.  There is still time for the United States to adopt the agenda we put forward in the Carnegie report, the agenda the Finns came up with on their own.  I remain hopeful that Winston Churchill’s famous dictum that “Americans always do the right thing…after they have exhausted all the alternatives” will be prophetic in this case.