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Lessons from most successful schools abroad

Education trends from other nations are gaining cachet as political and educational leaders strive to bring American schools in line with the demands of the 21st-century global economy.

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The only subjects of study more popular than teaching are law and medicine, says Elisa Heimovaara, an international liaison in the Department of Teacher Education at the university. In fact, the profession has been popular for so long here that it's difficult to explain why. One reason, Ms. Heimovaara says, is that "it has been for many a person [a way] to climb the social ladder ... and improve one's economic situation."

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It's difficult, however, for teaching programs to attract enough men: They make up just 1 out of 5 applicants. It's also hard to enlist people to teach math.

Ms. Haverinen chose teaching after observing her mother in the profession. "I like to be around kids and young people, and I really like German," she says.

This is the second year she's observing and teaching a range of subjects at several schools, including the Vaajakumpu school in the lake-district town of Jyväskylä. She was nervous initially, but that's faded as more-experienced teachers at the schools have shown her how to plan lessons.

The most challenging part so far, she says, is that "you cannot always teach in the same way; you have to see how the group is." That's why she's glad her training includes both theory and practice.

"We have to research our own teaching. It's really useful for us," she says, taking a break from supervising students who are working on German exercises at the Vaajakumpu school. She and a classmate, for instance, are researching oral communication and observing each other teach as part of the project.

Once students become teachers, they are expected "to update their skills and be curious about life and various subjects, so they are lifelong learners," says Heimovaara of the university.

In classrooms near Helsinki

The Länsimäki School in Vantaa, just outside Helsinki, is a good place to see the supportive environment in which Finnish teachers work, the skills they bring to the job, and the challenges they face.

Among the 700 students here in Grades 1 to 9 (generally ages 7 to 15), discipline problems are rare, says principal Tapio Lahtero. Teacher turnover is rare as well, with just three or four new hires necessary last summer. (Nationally, 5.7 percent of primary teachers leave the profession within three years – much lower than in the US.)

The school's curriculum was last revised in 2006, with teachers fully participating and receiving extra pay for the time spent. Each school details a curriculum in line with a national framework.

The national board does not administer high-stakes accountability tests. Rather, it samples students' skills periodically and gives feedback to schools (not the public) so they can see how they compare with the national average.

Teachers in Finland and a number of other high-performing countries are more involved than American teachers with creating curriculum and measuring whether students are really learning it. And this in turn develops the teachers' own understanding and effectiveness, says Ms. Darling-Hammond, who has researched teaching internationally.

In the US, states set standards, and school boards and administrators control much of the curriculum. For evaluating students, "We rely heavily on external tests, which come in brown paper wrappers ... and a machine scores them. Teachers don't really engage with that system," Darling-Hammond says.