What the best* performing education systems are doing – focusing on teacher quality and training

* the criteria for best relates to student results in testing such as PISA and other benchmark testing in literacy and numeracy

When I visited some Scandinavian schools in 2012, I had the opportunity to talk with teachers and observe their classrooms. One of the great riddles of the time was “why were the Finnish schools performing so effectively?”. Two of the few metrics available to education are: effectiveness measured by student results and teacher quality measured by student performance. It seemed one part of the answer in the high-performing education systems, such as Finland, was teacher quality – the best and the brightest taught in schools. In Australia, a common answer given to the question “how does a system secure high quality teachers” was reward them with a substantial salary. However, this response seemed incomplete. For example, after talking with many Scandinavian teachers about their salaries and after doing a quick calculation, it turned out the Finnish teacher is paid something similar to the Australian teacher. There had to be more than just the monetary incentive and the intrinsic motivators that are evident in much of the research on teacher satisfaction – motivators such as, knowing what you do matters and helping young people achieve their goals or a personal passion for a subject area.

What I did notice was an emphasis in the Scandinavian schools on giving teachers time to prepare specific programmes and working directly with other professionals on designing curriculum for their classes. It seemed most of the professional development time was given to working on the teaching at hand, developing one another’s skills and flexible timetabling that gave more opportunities for working one-on-one with students or lesson preparation.

Ripley’s book, The Smartest Kids in the World, makes a similar observation and adds insight into teacher training. In Finland, all teacher preparation courses/colleges are selective and set a very high standard for entry. The thinking behind this approach is to recruit only the best and brightest of each generation to enter the schools. Therefore, the emphasis upon quality teaching begins with competing for the opportunity to train as a teacher. Finland has made the judgement that it takes substantial intellectual ability and demonstrated skill to be a teacher, and has structured their selection and training programme accordingly. A current report by the Australian Institute for Teaching and School Leadership (AITSL) found the path into teaching was varied and of those who entered with an ATAR (or equivalent) only 28% had an ATAR 81 and above. This would suggest we are not selecting only high achievers as Finland is doing. Turning graduates into highly skilled and accomplished classroom teachers and school leaders is completed during the training stage and not after a number of years in the profession. An amazing outworking of this shift to being highly selective about who and how many train to be a teacher (this approach started in the 1970s) and an ongoing emphasis upon high standards of practice amongst teachers, has meant the government has been able to reduce the top-down control of education. Much of the work within schools is now entrusted to the teachers and the curriculum is not mandated. As a result, school leaders and teachers can “generally design a more creative system than any centralised authority ever could” (p.151). The community is also aware how accomplished the teaching profession is as a result of this shift. A recent national study (2013) in Finland found teachers had the highest satisfaction rating of any other professional group. The satisfaction was a result of significant professional autonomy and the belief in their ability to influence children’s lives.

Teachers’ workspaces look the same the world over. Here is one in Finland and another in Denmark

Teachers’ workspaces look the same the world over. Here is one in Finland and another in Denmark


In Denmark, there were a number of pedagogues (cover your eyes, David Gillespie, for I know you loath edu-speak) in the schools I visited. These social educators worked alongside the core instructional teachers, but I was a little confused by what exactly a pedagogue did and where they fitted into the construction of curriculum. It turns out these professionals are quite unique to Denmark, so I could be forgiven for being somewhat ignorant of their role in students’ education. The pedagogue’s work encompasses children’s educational needs, as well as their social and emotional development and physical wellbeing. They focus on creating learning experiences that develop the child’s ability to work with others and build personal skills that equip them for learning. These professionals worked alongside the curriculum teacher and the class aides as a resource teacher, creating a teaching team that worked together to construct the class programme.

A pedagogue prepares afternoon in classroom kitchen with the children participating in the after school programme.

A pedagogue prepares afternoon in classroom kitchen with the children participating in the after school programme.

Teacher and children do homework the kitchen classroom.

Teacher and children do homework the kitchen classroom.

This is where my observation connects with David Gillespie’s observations of what made for better performing systems. He identified an emphasis upon colleagues developing the effectiveness of one another. Children at this school attend an after-school programme held in their own school. Gillespie argues the secret to the high performing systems of Shanghai-China, Singapore, Korea and Hong Kong lies in the emphasis upon teacher improvement and this is achieved in the main through less time in front of the class for each teacher. This approach is funded by large classes – more students for fewer hours each week per teacher (eg. a Chinese teacher spends 10-12 hours with their class), whilst in Australia we have adopted the opposite approach of employing more teachers to teach smaller classes for most of the week (on average 20 hours). However, the teachers do not go home early in the hours saved in the performing systems. These teachers spend a significant amount of time in other teachers’ classrooms and being mentored in classroom management strategies and subject-specific guidance (what we used to call teaching method at teacher’s college) according a very structured programme. Staged mentoring is provided by teachers further along in their classroom careers. It operates like a guild system within the teacher’s own school and district. Classroom observation (both of their own and others’ classes) is emphasised and feedback is specific. Typical areas observed are student information (profile of class and context), where the teacher placed most of their attention in the lesson and degree of teacher involvement. The structure is designed to keep the best teachers in the classroom, through the incentive of keeping everyone well prepared for the task of teaching and allowing expert teachers the opportunity to exercise increasing influence over the effectiveness of colleagues. I imagine there will be many who will argue against Gillespie’s conclusions but it does seem to ring true in relation to the substantial body of research that points out these countries are clearly doing something different to Australia, the USA and UK and the research that concludes educational improvement relies upon constantly improving the quality and skills of teachers placed in front of our classes. For many years now, Professor Steve Dinham (University of Melbourne) has emphasised the importance of placing a quality teacher in every classroom and more can be done to improve education by improving the effectiveness of teachers than by any other single factor. Professor John Hattie’s famous meta-analysis of over 50,000 studies on major sources of variance in student achievement concurs. After the influence of the student (50%), the teacher accounts for 30% of variance and therefore, is very powerful in the learning equation. What teachers do, know and value matters a great deal to the performance of an education system. A recently released report by the Grattan Institute (Making time for Great Learning, 2014) emphasises the same finding. Improving the effectiveness of teaching is the best way to lift school performance, and this involves focusing on what teachers do in the classroom.

A few final and perhaps controversial points to be made relate to in-service professional development, mentoring and impact of teacher registration on the type of professional development Australian teachers will choose. I would give a big tick to the recent developments in professional mentoring and Beginning Teacher programmes. The increase in teacher-to-teacher mentoring, collaborative research projects within schools and the focus on retaining new teachers is excellent. However, I would argue we need the same approach but different programmes for more experienced teachers so we can retain them mid-career and to encourage them to stay in the classroom. We also need to consider what programmes are best suited to the teacher towards the end of a longer career, programmes that do not shuffle them off to areas of low impact but instead focus on revitalisation and sophisticated ways of using the skills and knowledge they have developed over many years in the classroom.

Finally, I am concerned that the new prescriptions for professional development under the national registration scheme will prevent any opportunity of following the teacher development programmes that are in place in high performing education systems. Our registration requirements drive teachers individually towards stand-alone day courses that are invariably sourced from outside the school environment. This model makes it difficult for colleagues and schools to pursue a systematic, embedded programme of professional development as part of the registration process. Once we have pursued the mandatory hours of accredited professional development and completed the self-identified hours and completed the mandatory training in a plethora of crisis areas such as WH&S, asthma, Child Protection, anaphylaxis, there will be little time or energy for other improvement programmes. The Grattan Institute’s report argues the best teacher development a teacher can receive is to directly help them teach their students. A significant stumbling block to giving this development is the provision of time for effective professional learning programmes. The report explores a variety of possibilities for creating real time for teacher learning and many suggestions challenge age-old taboos.

As far as I am concerned, what is the take-away point? Teacher training and on-going teacher improvement that aims at being able to guarantee the best trained and the most effective teachers are working in our classrooms should be a number one priority. How we achieve it and fund it will no doubt continue to fire up many debates, reviews, proposals and research projects. As Ripley observes, we may be spending too much time trying to reverse engineer a high-performance teaching culture. It seems reasonable to reward, train and dismiss teachers based on their performance but that approach assumes poor performers will improve significantly and the worst teachers will be replaced with better ones. I am inclined to agree with Ripley’s view that we should expect our teachers to be the best and brightest of their generation and they should be of that calibre the moment they enter the undergraduate programme.


Prof. Steve Dinham, What we need to know about student achievement and quality teaching, ACER, DEECD Knox Network, 29/1/10, [http//:knoxnetwork.wikispaces.com. accessed 29/3/14]

David Gillespie, Free schools – How to get a great education for your kids without spending a fortune, MacMillan, 2014.

Dr Ben Jensen, Making time for great teaching, Grattan Institute, March 2014.

Amanda Ripley, The Smartest Kids in the World and how they got that way, Simon & Schuster, New York, 2013.

Mind the Gap musing – Do we all believe in the equation [school + university = a good job]?

Regularly commentators and researchers return to the discussion of the influence a student’s socio-economic status has on their achievement levels at school and future earning capacity. A recent article for The Conversation, by Kevin Donnelly (Senior Research Fellow – ACU) once again raised the topic by focusing on challenges to the assumption that social inequity has the greatest impact on a student’s level of achievement at school (see: 7 March 2014, The Conversation, Social class affects school achievement less than you think). Donnelly concludes his piece by saying, “Instead of accepting what can be a self-fulfilling prophecy, believing that with a rigorous curriculum, motivated and talented teachers, sound school leadership and strong parental engagement, it is possible to raise standards for all students across a range of backgrounds.” What is probably more interesting than the article itself is the conversation it generated through the postings. The comments highlighted the extraordinary challenge of identifying the most significant influences on a student’s performance at school. A thought has been running through my head for a while now.


Lunch at a Helsinki school

Communal lunchtime in a school in Helsinki – freshly cooked each day, set menu with only two healthy options, milk or water to drink and fruit for dessert.

A number of years ago I commenced work in a school that had a SES index lower than my previous school. There were also many other differences, such experience of the staff, size of the school, location and so on. According to the debate, the SES index should have either a significant impact or little impact in comparison to other factors on the levels of achievement of these students. Over the years I began to notice there were aspects of this debate that were usually absent, and perhaps it was in these areas that I would find a better indicator of which aspect of a student socio-economic context had the most impact on students’ achievement. Perhaps these areas are researched, perhaps data and observations about these aspects are available but nonetheless they do not seem to be widely reported.

Firstly, are we capturing a definition of “real” economic wealth through the emphasis on the SES index and therefore, are we actually exploring a very narrow understanding of how people generate resources and the role school education plays in this process. In numerous conversations with parents and students, I am observing a trend that indicates making an income by any route so long as it delivers sufficient funds to provide the target lifestyle is the educational priority of some students and families. In their experience, not all routes to adulthood and the workplace involve the assumptions that contemporary Australian educational policies make. In my school community, I have been observing this is a less acknowledged influence on engagement with education and schools. Another observation I could make is that research does not seem to capture the extent of real resources behind individuals. For example, in a local electorate the rate of non-mortgaged, home ownership is high despite less than average incomes and lower than average university qualifications. The SES index does not fully account for individual resources within the cohort or community. An index such as this averages the community and is reliant on the information supplied by individuals through the census. These indexes cannot capture information about the wider network of support and resources these students access.

Middle school in Finland

Middle school in Helsinki – Despite a high SES index, this school did not pour vast amounts of money into physical resources and yet student levels of achievement are high – what does that tell us?

As educators, we talk career and qualifications and work opportunities and life-long learning and achievement but often I pause to wonder if this is the same for my students. Is lifestyle a driving force in choices behind education and work for some of our students? Current statistics reporting trends in job and career change, casualisation of the workforce, increased use of contracts in a wider range of industries, emerging trends in preference for mobility and taking time off to travel (the gap year that occurs anytime from Year 11 to post-university) or ‘try something new” amongst the under 30’s suggest something different is driving the choices and pathways of this generation.

Senior school in Finland

Senior school in Finland – The classrooms I visited looked very much like the ones we have, so it cannot be just the environment and resources.


For a number of years, I have been reading a range of research articles, scholarly books, literature reviews and commentaries in the area of improving student achievement. The consensus seems to be: the high-performing education systems in countries like Korea and Finland are doing some things different to us; students in these countries have a different attitude or approach to education and the importance of teacher quality is supported by more than rhetoric or monetary incentives. In many of the books that have reached the wider community through the best-seller list, such as Amanda Ripley’s The Smartest Kids in the World, a conclusion that students have to believe their school education matters and is part of their long-term planning is evident. Students need to personally build what schooling offers into their lives. As an exchange student in Ripley’s book discovered when she asked classmates in Finland what made them work hard in school, the question confused the students because they were puzzled why you would ask such a question in the first place. However, it seemed that at the heart of it all was a widespread respect for the basic premise of school. The question we need to ask may not be what are they doing well or different but what have we stopped doing? When did we some students and families stop believing in the equation that school + university* = a good job? In the next posting I will consider the arguments for focusing on teacher quality as something we can do to make a significant impact upon student performance.

* includes all post-school formal training and qualifications