Tag Archives: Teacher Preparation

Finland and a Pandemic Taught Me That It’s High Time We Start Trusting Teachers

Photo courtesy of Allison Shelley/The Verbatim Agency for EDUimages

For years, Finland has been known for having one of the best education systems in the world. Much of this attention has stemmed from Finnish students’ high performance on the Program for International Student Assessment (PISA). In the most recent PISA, conducted in 2018, Finland ranked sixth in reading, seventh in science, and 16th in math worldwide. The United States ranked 14th, 19th, and 38th, respectively, spurring yet another discussion about what Finland is doing right.                                                              

In 2016, when I decided I wanted to study education, Finland was an easy choice. A product of the U.S. public education system, it was hard for me to fathom a country where children didn’t start formal schooling until age 7, had little to no homework, and didn’t sit through yearly standardized tests. Finland was intriguing and I needed to find out what the buzz was about.

I spent five years as a student in the Department of Education at the University of Jyväskylä, Finland’s first teacher training college. I gained firsthand access to Finnish teachers and students, and quickly realized that the Finnish education system had earned its hype. I immediately noticed many of the things that I had read on the “top 10” global education lists such as well-resourced schools, nutritious (and appetizing) school lunches, and students who worked hard but played even harder. But the one thing that stuck out to me more than anything, was hearing people from all parts of the country say, “In Finland, we trust our teachers.” I didn’t realize that such a simple and straightforward statement could be so impactful. But as a former teacher, it was. 

Teachers in Finland are viewed as trusted professionals. Much of this trust has its origins in rigorous, highly selective teacher training programs. These programs use a high-quality teacher training model in which practical skills are taught alongside research skills. Teachers graduate from the program with a master’s degree and deep understanding of research-based pedagogical practices. Once teachers enter the classroom, they’re given autonomy to teach and assess the outlined Finnish curriculum as they see fit. Without the pressure of standardized assessments, teachers have even greater pedagogical freedom and can focus on inclusion, equity, and the diverse needs of learners. This freedom comes with great responsibility, but Finnish school leaders and teachers take this responsibility in stride with a shared goal to do whatever it takes to support and educate the nation’s youth. 

In stark contrast, it took a global pandemic for many in the U.S. to realize that teachers deserve a greater degree of recognition and respect. For decades, teachers across the U.S. have been fighting for greater pay and better working conditions. Unlike Finland, the U.S. places an ever-increasing emphasis on standardized testing, which puts pressure on schools and teachers, limits curricular flexibility, and exacerbates inequities. As schools prepare to reopen this fall, many teachers are contemplating whether they want to return to the classroom after one of the most challenging chapters of their careers. 

My experience in the Finnish education system made me not only realize how little we trust teachers in the U.S., but how that trust deficit impacts student learning and a healthy education sector as a whole. What should the U.S. do differently? 

  • First, we must do more to prepare teachers for the job through greater investments in redesigning teacher training programs and in continuous professional development. This should include not only pedagogical and practical training, but also training in research methods so that teachers are able to think analytically and critically consume innovative developments in the field. 
  • Second, teachers deserve to be given back the autonomy that factors such as high-stakes testing strip away. While autonomy is not a one-size-fits-all solution, teachers with demonstrated high performance should be allowed greater decision-making power particularly in terms of learning materials and student assessment. Teacher autonomy has been linked to greater job satisfaction, and would give teachers the flexibility to cater to the diverse needs of students in their classrooms and create greater equity and inclusion. Giving teachers this flexibility and responsibility would allow them to feel like the trusted professionals they are. 
  • Third, it’s important that school leaders emphasize building a culture of trust in their schools. Teachers should be viewed as credible experts. Giving teachers this credit and trusting them more would allow them space to feel safe and thrive in their careers.

For more than a year, we’ve been dependent on our teachers to guide our children through a pandemic. Isn’t it high time we start trusting them? 

Priyanka Patel is completing a project internship at Bellwether Education Partners this summer focused on evaluation. She has taught third and fourth grade in India and is currently pursuing a doctorate in education at the University of Jyväskylä, Finland.

“Making Sure Every Student is Seen and Heard:” A Q&A with Executive Director/Principal Ayanna Gore

Ayanna Gore is the Executive Director/Principal of Summit Sierra High School in Seattle, Washington. We interviewed her as part of our Promise in the Time of Quarantine: Exploring Schools Responses to COVID-19 case studies, released today. Unlike many schools that hoped to open their doors for hybrid schooling this year, Summit Sierra made the early decision to open fully virtually. I spoke with Ayanna about what they learned from virtual school last year and how they’re improving upon it now.

When did you know you would be fully virtual and how did that shape planning for this school year?

By the third week of June, we shared with our families that we were planning for a fully virtual online experience. If things changed (due to a vaccine or the governor’s recommendation to reopen), we would set up workstations where families could come in and get in-person support, while learning still occurred virtually. But we committed to a 100% virtual model for consistency.

This meant reshaping our entire new-student and all-student orientation. And for onboarding new faculty, we connected with them a little earlier than we normally do. We had conversations about things like computer/Zoom fatigue, so we built in natural breaks for a schedule that still meets our academic goals. 

It’s about community and making sure every student is seen and heard. That’s how we started our new student orientation. We flipped it from the traditional “here is your schedule, these are your teachers.” We started with every student hearing from our leadership team on our mission and our individual journeys and stories. New and returning students all got interviewed and had time to share their journey and their story. 

Can you share more details of that orientation? Continue reading

5 Recommendations to Make “Learning Pods” More Equitable

Born out of desperation, families across the country are looking outside the school system for safe educational options for their children this fall, often partnering with other families to privately finance small-group learning. These “learning pods,” also referred to as “pandemic pods,” have fomented concerns about equity, since only a fraction of Americans can afford to pay a teacher out-of-pocket. 

But “learning pods” need not be inequitable. With the right blend of volunteerism, leadership, and innovation, learning pods can be a tool for increasing equity while traditional school campuses remain closed to students.

Here’s how:

Ask community spaces to donate meeting facilities

The requirements of social distancing demand more space if all students are to get a full education. Meanwhile, there are churches, temples, community centers, office buildings, and storefronts across the country currently sitting empty, as large gatherings are discouraged, adults work from home, and retailers close up shop. Many of those entities would probably be willing to donate their space to small learning communities at no cost, or in exchange for financial relief on their rent or mortgage payments. 

Expand the pool of potential teachers to enable lower student-teacher ratios

Student-to-teacher ratios are lower today than they were 30 or 40 years ago, but still higher than the number of students we might want to share a learning pod in order to minimize public health risks. According to the National Center for Education Statistics, the average number of students per teacher in 2017 was 16. Including the total number of instructional staff brings that ratio down significantly to 11.7. Add in teachers who have retired or left the profession, substitute teachers, students studying to become teachers, Americorps volunteers, and others and there may just be enough to create learning pods of 10 students or fewer. This could create the conditions for personalized instruction on a scale that’s often been dreamed of but never fully realized.

Continue reading

Early Childhood Educators Face a Complex Path to the Classroom

FYI: We launched a new early childhood newsletter — sign up at http://bit.ly/BellwetherECE

As early childhood leaders and state policymakers focus on the importance of early childhood education, there’s growing recognition that ensuring quality early learning for all children will require growing the supply of well-prepared early childhood teachers. For K-12 teachers, the pathway to the classroom is fairly simple: most teachers earn a bachelor’s degree and acquire a license to teach in their state. For early childhood educators, the route is far more complex. Early learning is provided in a handful of different settings — including state pre-K, district pre-K, Head Start, and community child care — each of which have their own credential requirements of teachers.

At Bellwether, we are proud to partner with early childhood programs, higher education institutions, state and local leaders, advocates, and philanthropic funders to cultivate the early childhood workforce. Through that work we have observed the wide variation that exists in early childhood workforce pathways, both within and across geographies. The graphic below illustrates the typical pathways — and four main entry points — that exist in many states and communities:

graphic illustrating various pathways to an early childhood teaching career

Let’s start at the bottom of the visual and work our way up: Continue reading

New State Policies Enable Teacher Residences: A Q&A with Tamara Azar of the National Center for Teacher Residencies

As my colleagues and I have shown over and over again, teacher residencies, which closely tie teacher preparation coursework with a year-long (frequently longer) classroom experience, are a promising way to prepare a strong and diverse cohort of new teachers. And recent progress in state and federal policy — including additional flexibility from ESSA on how states use Title I, II, and III and IDEA money for teacher professional development — is making it easier for states to implement the teacher residency model.

The National Center for Teacher Residencies (NCTR)*, an organization that provides strategic guidance to its national network of teacher residency programs, is at the center of advocacy for high-performing residency programs. Their programs have a strong track record of working in partnership with high-need schools and districts: 97% of graduates from NCTR network programs teach in Title I schools, which primarily serve kids from low-income backgrounds and kids of color.

I spoke with Tamara Azar, NCTR’s Chief External Relations Officer, about the progress of state policies and the future of teacher residency programs.

This conversation has been lightly edited for clarity and length.

What state policy approaches enable teacher residency programs to proliferate?

We’ve seen at least four different approaches. The first uses policy as the initial driver. I would put Louisiana, West Virginia, and South Dakota in this group. Louisiana launched the Believe and Prepare pilot with a small amount of funding and focused on changing policy first. West Virginia has written policy requiring teacher preparation programs to offer a teacher residency pathway, and given institutions of higher education (IHEs) the flexibility to identify what works within their systems to accomplish this goal. Continue reading