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The answer to better schools in America is better teachers

Published: Sunday, June 29 2014 4:55 a.m. MDT

LaRue Urquhart teaches her Spanish Class at Bingham High and is among 7 Utah teachers to achieve master teacher status through National Board Certification, which many consider on par with a doctorate.

Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News

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With baby boomers heading into retirement, a reported two million to three million K-12 teaching positions will open up in the next 10 years. This raises the question: Who should fill these positions? And how qualified should they be?

In her article “Higher Calling” for Slate.com, Amanda Ripley recommends making it "harder to become a teacher” and adopt teaching requirements like those in “educational powerhouses” Finland and Singapore.

“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,” Ripley wrote. “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.”

In Finland, licensed teachers must hold a master’s degree. Additionally, each step of their education process includes rigorous aptitude tests, and Sonja Stenfors, 23, told Slate.com it was surprisingly difficult and "really measures your motivation.”

“Measuring motivation is exactly the point,” Tim Walker, an American teacher who taught for years in Finland, explained to Chicago Public Radio. "They believe that if you're going to mold the minds of their future leaders, you need to be absolutely committed to excellence."

According to Slate.com, the push to move to a Finnish-inspired selection process comes from the complaint that some people get into teaching when they don’t know what else to do, while others take advantage of tenure positions by not doing their jobs properly.

Some argue that the call to adopt the Finnish way of education training is unreasonable for the American educational system.

Center for American Progress’ Raegen Miller and Marguerite Roza maintained, “This argument has two fatal flaws. First, the Finnish system couldn’t be more different than our domestic ‘grab bag’ of policies arising from approximately 15,000 separate school districts carrying out their responsibility to provide public education.”

Second, Roza and Miller argue, is that teachers in Finland are required to get master’s degrees that specifically improve their teaching ability: “The typical master’s degree held by a U.S. teacher and the associated skills attached pale in comparison,” Miller and Roza wrote.

This may sound like a harsh assessment of American master's programs, but a study published in the Economics of Education Review has found that master’s degrees do not make better teachers, at least not in the United States.

Still, districts do offer pay raises for teachers with advanced degrees and many teachers have responded. New York state reports 88 percent of its teachers have at least a master’s degree, according to Education Week.

But Matthew M. Chingos reported on Brookings.com that master’s degrees mean nothing and will not improve American education until advanced education degrees become as pointed as those in Finland and Singapore.

EMAIL: nshepard@deseretnews.com TWITTER: @NicoleEShepard

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