Pasi Sahlberg, who is currently a visiting fellow at the Harvard Graduate School of Education, but has previously been director general of the Finnish Ministry of Education in Helsinki, writes here about the importance of teacher autonomy.

He compares teachers in Finland to teachers in the U.S.

When visitors tour Finnish schools, they are struck by the autonomy of teachers.

After spending a day or sometimes two in Finnish schools, they were puzzled. Among other things they said was the following: the atmosphere in schools is informal and relaxed. Teachers have time in school to do other things than teach. And people trust each other. A common takeaway was that Finnish teachers seem to have much more professional autonomy than teachers in the United States to help students to learn and feel well.

Teachers in Finland spend fewer hours teaching each week than teachers in the U.S.

We do know that teachers’ workplaces provide very different conditions for teaching in different countries.

First, teachers in the US work longer hours (45 hours/week) than their peers in Finland (32 hours/week). They also teach more weekly, 27 hours compared to 21 hours in Finland.

This means that American teachers, on average, have much less time to do anything beyond their teaching duties (whether alone or with colleagues) than teachers in most other OECD countries.

Finnish teachers are more likely to teach jointly with other teachers than their peers in the U.S.

In Finland, teachers often say that they are professionals akin to doctors, architects and lawyers. This means, they explain, that teachers are expected to perform in their workplaces like pros: use professional judgment, creativity and autonomy individually and together with other teachers to find the best ways to help their students to learn.

In the absence of common teaching standards, Finnish teachers design their own school curricula steered by flexible national framework. Most importantly, while visiting schools, I have heard Finnish teachers say that due to absence of high-stakes standardized tests, they can teach and assess their students in schools as they think is most appropriate.

The keyword between teachers and authorities in Finland is trust. Indeed, professional autonomy requires trust, and trust makes teacher autonomy alive.

The “reformers” in the U.S. have acted on the assumption that school autonomy is necessary to improve education. But, says Sahlberg, there is no evidence that school autonomy improves student performance or that it increases teacher autonomy. To the contrary, school autonomy (e.g., charters) are often association with less teacher autonomy.

The OECD has concluded that greater teacher professional autonomy is associated with better outcomes.

Sahlberg concludes:

I don’t think that the primary problem in American education is the lack of teacher quality, or that part of the solution would be to find the best and the brightest to become teachers. The quality of an education system can exceed the quality of its teachers if teaching is seen as a team sport, not as an individual race.

And this is perhaps the most powerful lesson the US can learn from better-performing education systems: teachers need greater collective professional autonomy and more support to work with one another.