Teachers with master's degrees

Paul Romani

Finnish vs. American Views. Which do you trust?

by Paul Romani
Finland is recognised globally as having one of the best education systems in the world. It has been at the top of the PISA tables since 2000.
The USA, on the other hand, has never once been in the top 10 in that time.
Despite Finland’s claims that part of the reason for their success is due to all of their teachers having master’s degrees, the US media has undergone a mission to discredit this so that it can justify stopping the bonuses paid to US teachers with postgraduate degrees 1, 2, 3, 4, 5.

Reasons for Finnish success

Firstly, let’s take a look at the Finnish education system. Even before PISA 2000, Finland’s education system had been the subject of extensive studies by countries all over the world.
To this day, no-one really knows exactly why Finland has done so consistently well in the PISA tables.
(On a side note: One researcher has tried to suggest that it’s because of the Finnish language! What a totally bizarre idea!! Although one’s language might affect reading results, please tell me how that explains math and science results?! How does it explain the equally good results by China and South Korea?)
However, here are some of the reasons stated by the Finnish government:

  • (1) High-quality teachers: All teachers have a five-year master’s degree and extensive teacher training. In this way, teachers are better able to connect theory with practice, and to understand their subject areas to such a high level that they have the confidence and ability to explain this clearly to students.
  • (2) Prominent teacher training schools: Because all teachers must have a master’s degree, teacher training only commences upon reaching this level of education. This is a critical difference with other countries where ordinarily teachers go through the process of a bachelor’s degree, an education degree, and a master’s degree. In other countries, there is no practical training connected with master’s degrees – it’s all theory. However, in Finland, teachers are required to learn how to apply theory in the classroom.
  • (3) Research-based master’s degrees: If that weren’t enough, master’s degrees in Finland are research-based. This means that student teachers apply the latest educational theories in the classroom, they research the effectiveness of these theories, and then write a research paper about their findings. It’s a way for them to evaluate teaching theories, as well as evaluate themselves.
  • (4) Mentors for teachers: Student teachers have expert mentors who discuss the student teacher’s initial lesson plan, watch the class, and then discuss ways to improve further classes.
  • (5) Highly-respected profession: Teaching is nearly as respected a profession as being a doctor or a lawyer.
  • (6) Autonomy: Individual school boards, schools, and teachers have tremendous autonomy over what they teach and how they teach it. This transition has occurred over a 20-year period.
  • (7) Responsibility: With this comes the added responsibility, because there’s no-one else to blame.
  • Attracts the best teachers: As a result of all of the above, teaching in Finland is extremely intellectually appealing, and thus attracts those that are seeking a profession where they can expand their knowledge and skills, and then implement them to the fullest. Their high qualifications and cabilities give teachers the ability to play a leading role in curriculum planning and assessing student performance.
  • Highly-competitive profession: Because teaching is such a desirable profession, there is huge competition to become a teacher. Only the top 10% are ever selected for employment. Therefore, schools only get the most intelligent and most motivated teachers.
  • Investment in educational research: Finland is one of the leading investors in educational research, which includes educational psychology, special education, and education policies. It also means that they closely follow what is happening with research around the world, i.e. they don’t isolate themselves.
  • Equal opportunities for students: Unlike most other countries, Finland provides equal funding, educational standards and opportunities to everyone, regardless of wealth, gender, school, or geographical location. The PISA system is not just testing for the best students, but for consistency across the entire country.
  • Support for students: A lot of emphasis is put on early detection and early intervention for when students appear to be having problems. Teachers spend 111 hours less in class than other OECD-based teachers, providing them with the extra time to work more closely with their students’ needs. Every school has a social worker, school nurse, school psychologist, ‘special teachers’ (i.e. teacher assistants), and tutors. 30% of students receive assistance either during or outside of classes. Students that need assistance are given an individual learning plan to help them catch up.
  • ‘Special Education’ is not stigmatized: About 50% of 15-year-old Fins have gone through some form of special assistance. As such, this assistance is so common that it is accepted as being normal, and is therefore not stigmatized.
  • Welfare Teams: Each week, in every school across Finland, members of the school’s team of professionals meet to discuss individual student needs and welfare. Classroom teachers will inform the other members so that they can discuss what to do, case by case.

Please watch the video below to give you a better understanding of Finland’s education system (or click here is video isn’t visible):


US Media Attack on Master’s Degrees

In November 2010, the American press (or should I say the Republican media outlets) leapt on an announcement by the US Secretary of Education, Arne Duncan, who announced that master’s degrees made no difference in improving student achievement.
How ironic that getting a bachelor’s degree is deemed fundamental to becoming a teacher, but getting a master’s degree isn’t.
The media then took this a step further by making a further assumption that this ‘debunks’ the idea that higher degrees make teachers more effective.
There have even been attempts to show that getting a master’s degree has a negative effect on education!!

Potential Reasons for Master’s Degrees Not Improving American Education

Commonsense alone would suggest that being much more knowledgeable can only be a good thing. It is scary to think that some Americans could actually believe these reports! It would be terrifying if it led to changes in public policy!!
Nevertheless, there have to be reasons why better qualified teachers might not produce better classroom results:

  • Quality of master’s degrees: It is possible that the quality of master’s degrees in the US isn’t as high as that in Finland. For one thing, Finland puts great emphasis on research-based degrees. This is very different from obtaining a master’s degree based purely on studying theory. Also, it takes a minimum of 5 years to get a master’s degree there. There are no 1-year courses like you can find in North America.
  • Teacher training sequence: Compare this – bachelor’s degree, education degree, master’s degree (USA) vs. bachelor’s degree, master’s degree, education training (Finland). This difference, again, is critical, because it means that American teachers are not taught how to implement master’s-level theory.
  • Motive for getting a master’s: It’s conceivable, though doubtful, that some US teachers get their master’s degree for financial reasons. In Finland it’s a necessity. Even after getting a master’s degree in Finland, you have a 90% chance of not even getting a job! So, there’s little if any financial motive.
  • Quality of teachers: The only argument that the US media has put forward that makes any sense is that a bad teacher with a master’s degree is still a bad teacher. Yes, of course. Finland’s system is much more competitive than America’s, and therefore they only have great teachers. In the US, teachers can be great, mediocre, or outright awful. So, sure, this argument makes perfect sense. But, whose fault is this: the teachers’ or the employers of teachers? In which case, who cares whether or not these teachers have master’s degrees if they should never have been employed in the first place?!
  • The odd one out: Unlike in Finland, where every one of your peers also has a master’s degree, in America you are an exception. This makes it harder to collaborate with other teachers who don’t have one. There is the lack of willingness to listen to and discuss academic theory, and there is the potential accompanying jealousy and insecurity. Knowledge is only power when it is utilized. Therefore, a teacher with knowledge is only effective in a collaborative, supportive academic environment.
  • Autonomy: It’s already been thrown in my face by American teachers (on a 21st century forum that I contribute to) that the USA has strict government regulations and control over education: teachers lack autonomy; they have little say in the curriculum or the method in implementing it; there is huge pressure to teach for tests; they spend much more time in class, and little in student support; and they lack much of the support given to Finnish teachers.


Teacher’s are not respected

All professions receive more money upon acquiring a master’s degree. This difference in pay is about 10-20% for all professions.
Nevertheless, you don’t see media reports trying to disparage extra pay given to doctors, lawyers or scientists. Why is that?
Perhaps it’s because teaching isn’t respected as much as it is in Finland. Perhaps teaching isn’t respected very much at all. This makes it easy to attack teachers and the teaching profession.
Ironically, few in the conservative media really seem to care about the quality of education. Instead, they seem set on finding reasons to save money by not paying teachers more money for having a master’s degree. They revel in the opportunity to save $8.6 billion by taking away extra pay for teachers.
What kind of attitude does this suggest? Respect for teaching? I don’t think so. To expect teachers to pay for master’s degrees but not reward them or even compensate them for this is incredible.
What sense is there that in an academic profession that academic achievements are not appreciated?!
As has happened since at least the 1950s, jobs have become increasingly McDonaldized. This attempt to simplify and routinize people’s jobs has allowed business owners to justify paying employees less money – after all, “anyone can do it!” they say, and increase their own profits.
In North America, this has happened in Early Childhood Education, where ECE educators are seen as ‘glorified babysitters’, and are only paid about $10-$15 per hour. As a result, ECE work attracts immigrants rather than native speakers. They are not required even to have a bachelor’s degree, let alone a master’s degree. Yet, while education for this age-group is arguably the most important of any stage of education, it is the most unappreciated. More irony.
Also, it has happened in ESL (English as a Second Language), where most ESL instructors are seen as ‘transitional workers’ not professionals. You need a university degree, but you’re not considered a real teacher. ESL teachers have little if any say in curriculums or the operations of the schools – academic decisions are business decisions made by CEOs. ESL instructors are certainly not rewarded for having a master’s degree. As such, their pay has decreased to $20, and the job increasingly attracts lower and lower standards of teachers. Most ESL schools close the moment unions are formed to prevent pay increases in the profession.
Is this stance towards master’s degrees just an attempt to McDonalize public school teachers? With budget cuts at the forefront of the news and the economy, it becomes increasingly harder to dispute this notion. Hey, we could just say that a good teacher is just someone that ‘cares about the students’, then we could employ just about anyone and pay them peanuts.


There is no singular reason for Finland’s success. It is a combination – to a greater or lesser extent – of all of the factors mentioned previously. Certainly it helps that teaching is a highly respected profession, and thus attracts elite intellectuals.
The fact that master’s degrees have apparently not led to improvements in the United States can not be put down to a singular reason either. When you compare the Finnish and American education systems, there are clear distinctions between them. There are many areas that the US system needs to address which would not only affect the effectiveness of teachers with master’s degrees, but also the effectiveness of the entire American education process.
In my opinion, though, one of the key problems is that US teachers with master’s degrees are not taught how to apply what they have learned at this higher level. Again, this is not the fault of the teachers, but of the education system.