The teaching profession's chicken-and-egg problem

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A recent article in the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel highlights the immense gulf between Finnish and U.S. admission standards to teacher preparation. While the School of Education at relatively selective Marquette University accepts 63 percent of applicants, the University of Helsinki's primary teacher preparation program only lets in 6.7 percent.

Marquette's dean says he is in favor of raising the bar on entry into the profession, but notes that the political climate in Wisconsin is hardly attractive to prospective teachers.

Wisconsin may indeed be a special case because of Governor Walker's efforts to weaken collective bargaining for teachers. But over and over again we have heard variations on this theme in response to our selectivity standard for our National Review: higher-achieving college students will supposedly never choose to join the profession in large numbers as long as it is held in such low esteem.

We argue that by raising the bar of admission, you will automatically make it more prestigious in the eyes of the kind of candidates you want to join the profession.

So which comes first, prestige or selectivity?

Well, it appears that the case of Finland can do double duty. Not only does it show that selecting teacher candidates for their academic aptitude is a crucial step to improving K-12 education, it also shows that raising the bar on entry raises the profession's prestige. Finland was not always such an educational powerhouse, and its teachers still aren't better compensated than teachers in the U.S. Among the first steps Finland took in the 1970s to escape educational mediocrity was to raise the admission standards into its teacher preparation programs. Now its best and brightest clamor to enter the field.

Don't get us wrong: good teachers in this country are underpaid, and we're deeply concerned about the impact of villifying teachers for political gain. But our students can't wait for us to figure out whether the chicken of prestige or egg of selectivity comes first.

Arthur McKee