Incoherent in Translation? Why We Can Learn from—but Not Copy—Finland’s and Singapore’s Teacher Accountability Approaches

View from above of a student in graduation cap holding a diploma

When translating, context matters. In Singapore, calling someone an ang moh does not necessarily mean that they have red hair, as in the literal meaning of the Hokkien term. Rather, ang moh can denote any white person, regardless of hair colour. In Finland, Joulupukki is not (or, at least, no longer) the “Christmas goat” but rather Santa Claus. In both cases, the direct translation would be incoherent if taken out of context.

Context is no less important when translating education policies and principles across contexts. The accountability structures in Finland’s and Singapore’s celebrated school systems are often regarded as sources of “best practices.” However, many of the practices that enable this success only make sense in the context of their wider educational systems. Specifically, my forthcoming PhD research comparing teacher accountability in these two systems has found that:

  1. Finland’s and Singapore’s approaches to teacher accountability are internally coherent, but very different from each other.
  2. Each approach is coherent with other aspects of system-level educational management in their respective context.
  3. Each approach is also coherent with local norms and beliefs about education.
  4. Directly translating some elements of either approach to the other context would likely be incoherent, and unproductive.

Put differently, Finland’s and Singapore’s approaches to teacher accountability are neither interchangeable nor directly exportable. These two approaches have little in common besides high expectations, strong teacher training, and—crucially—coherence with the rest of the education system. Understanding the importance of such coherence can help policymakers elsewhere to design teacher accountability practices that are coherent with their respective systems, rather than trying to import “best practices” that may prove incoherent out of context.

1. Comparing and contrasting teacher accountability in Finland and Singapore

Headlines such as “Scotland eyes Singapore in ‘radical’ overhaul of teaching career paths” and “Highly trained, respected and free: why Finland’s teachers are different” have become so common that they rarely feel like real news. Practices like Singapore’s competitive teacher career ladders and Finland’s high levels of teacher autonomy have come to be seen as conventional wisdom in global education.

But we have yet to see any education system that has concurrently and successfully adopted both of these distinctive approaches. I believe this is due in large part to the fact that Finland’s and Singapore’s respective approaches to teacher accountability are internally coherent—but in disparate ways.

Table 1 lays out elements of teacher accountability that are experienced by teachers in Singapore and Finland, structured according to the RISE accountability framework. The observations in the table come from field interviews that I conducted with Singaporean secondary school teachers and Finnish lower secondary school teachers in 2018.

Looking first at Singapore, the city state’s approach to teacher accountability is not only intricately detailed, but also carefully aligned across elements. Singapore’s Enhanced Performance Management System (EPMS) centres on a set of performance standards that are tiered to match the teacher career ladder. EPMS standards include expectations for student outcomes, organisational contributions, and professional development. Every year, teachers are benchmarked against these performance standards­ through a formal appraisal process. Each teacher is also benchmarked against any colleagues in the school at the same rung of the career ladder. The resulting performance grades are linked to a substantial rewards and penalties, both professional and pecuniary.

Finland’s approach to teacher accountability is much looser, but no less coherent. When I asked Finnish interview participants what the ministry expected of them, by far the most common answer was “to follow the curriculum.” (In contrast, many Singaporean participants started listing various teaching and non-teaching responsibilities.) Finnish education authorities and school leaders generally assume that all teachers are willing and able to meet this broad expectation.

Given this assumption, Finnish teachers face neither formal appraisal nor performance-based rewards. In most schools, the principal does have annual developmental discussions with teachers, but these focus on teacher well-being and personal development, rather than performance targets—and none of the interview participants felt that these discussions served an accountability function. Teachers can be fired for extreme misconduct. For more prosaic lapses in responsibility, school leaders assume that students or their parents will complain if a teacher is failing to deliver the curriculum, and such complaints are addressed ad hoc.

Table 1: Elements of the management accountability relationship between ministries and schools (principals, P) and teachers (agents, A) in Singapore and Finland

 

Singapore

Finland

Delegation

Specification of what P wants from A

  • Teachers are expected to meet detailed performance standards in several areas, both teaching and non-teaching.
  • Performance standards vary by career track and career ladder level.
  • Teachers are expected to deliver national curricular objectives for their subject(s).

Finance

Resources that P provides to A

  • Base salary depends on the teacher’s level on the career ladder.
  • Annual performance bonuses can exceed three months’ salary for top-performing teachers.
  • National salary scale is based on lesson hours, other responsibilities, and years of service.
  • Some teachers receive token salary supplements for other tasks, at the principal’s or municipality’s discretion.

Support

P helps A to perform

  • Pre-service: teachers complete a diploma, post-graduate diploma, or bachelor’s in education.
  • In-service: teachers are expected to complete professional development programmes in order to progress along the career ladder.
  • Pre-service: teachers complete master’s level training.
  • In-service: teachers are supported by in-school special education teachers. Teachers can participate professional development programmes, subject to principal/municipal approval.

Information

P collects information on performance of A

  • Every teacher has three annual work reviews with their line manager (a higher-ranked teacher or school leader), focusing on performance standards and targets.
  • Line managers also conduct lesson observations and book checks.
  • No formal lesson observation or teacher evaluation.
  • Background assumption: students or parents will contact the principal if a teacher is not teaching as they should.

Motivation

How A’s well-being is contingent on performance

 

  • Line managers allocate annual performance grades.
  • Better performance grades lead to larger annual bonuses and faster promotions.
  • Poorer performance grades lead to additional monitoring, developmental action, and, if sustained, firing.
  • Complaints from parents can lead to discussions and/or lesson observations to address the issue.
  • Not delivering agreed lesson hours can lead to a written warning.
  • Egregious misconduct (e.g. drunkenness in school) can lead to firing.

Source: author’s field interviews with Singaporean and Finnish teachers

To summarise, Singapore’s and Finland’s respective approaches to teacher accountability are both internally coherent and strikingly different. Singapore’s approach entails detailed standards, regular monitoring, and competitive consequences for teacher performance, all of which are aligned across multiple outcomes. Finland’s light-touch approach centres on broad curricular expectations and broadly shared professional norms.

2. Coherence between teacher accountability and other aspects of management

Besides being coherent across different elements of the accountability relationship, Finland’s and Singapore’s approaches to teacher accountability are also coherent with other aspects of system-level educational management. These aspects provide the enabling conditions for each teacher accountability approach.

Finland’s laissez faire approach to in-service teacher accountability is enabled in part by rigorous pre-service quality control. Admission processes for teacher education courses evaluate candidates not only for their academic aptitude, but also for their commitment to the profession. These carefully selected candidates then undergo comprehensive training and socialisation during their pre-service qualifications.

A second enabling condition is that the education ministry has developed informational systems to monitor collective teacher quality, without impinging on individual teacher autonomy. Rather than depending only on school system’s main standardised test­­—the matriculation exam taken by university-bound upper secondary students—the government also monitors curricular learning outcomes through sample-based assessments that track system-level outcomes but have no stakes for individual students, teachers, and schools.

In Singapore, the EPMS accountability approach would fail if it lacked sufficient resources for monitoring individual teachers’ performance. Much of this monitoring capacity comes from school leaders and middle managers, and is safeguarded by the EPMS itself: performance standards for managers include the expectation that they appraise and develop their colleagues.

The EPMS is a high-stakes system, in which teachers compete with colleagues for bonuses and promotions. Accordingly, another enabling condition is that the EPMS will only motivate teachers as intended if they believe the system to be fair. To maintain this perception of fairness, annual performance grades are determined not by individual line managers, but by a panel of managers. Ministry-appointed moderators attend some ranking panel meetings to promote cross-school consistency in performance grades. Finally, teachers who are unhappy about their performance grades have indirect recourse via the centrally administered school climate survey.

3. Coherence with local educational norms

Another crucial point is that each of these teacher accountability approaches is also coherent with local norms and beliefs about what education is and should be.

To illustrate briefly, when I asked one Singaporean participant whether Singapore’s teacher accountability approach made it easier or harder to be a good teacher, he said that he had ‘many reservations’ about EPMS implementation, but added that:

It’s good to have some expectations set in stone for me to base myself against, and to know what exactly you can potentially reach. […] We always tell students, “You must aim for something high. You cannot aim for just mediocrity.” So, I guess, in the spirit of what we do, it’s just putting into practice what we preach.

To use Dan Honig and Lant Pritchett’s terminology from a recent RISE working paper, the standardised accounting metrics of Singapore’s EPMS are coherent with this teacher’s narrative account of the teaching profession.

Similarly, one Finnish participant observed that the combination of autonomy and responsibility accorded to teachers in the classrooms also applied to other educational actors in their respective domains—students included:

It goes through the hierarchy. The Ministry of Education trusts the [National Agency for Education] to develop the curriculum based on certain things they’ve laid out. […] And then they trust the municipalities to come up with the local curricula. And those municipalities trust the schools to come up with school-based curricula. And then the school administration trusts that the teachers will do something useful with the school curricula in the way that they deem best, using the books, materials, and methods they find best. And then I, as a teacher, trust that when I tell my students to do something, they will do it. […] It’s not going to get any better if I’m breathing down their necks all the time.

It is worth noting that these conceptions of how education should operate are themselves coherent with other aspects of sociocultural context in Finland and Singapore, such as teachers’ implicit understandings of how motivation works (as I argue in my PhD thesis) as well as societal beliefs about which educational actors should be entrusted with the authority to ensure high-quality classroom instruction (as I argue in a forthcoming book chapter).

Coherence notwithstanding, these teacher accountability approaches are not perfect. Singaporean interview participants criticised the EPMS paperwork burden and competitive pressures. Some Finnish participants said they would like more opportunities for professional learning and more formative feedback on their teaching practice. But each system is demonstrably effective in its context.

4. Internally coherent, but mutually unintelligible

The importance of the coherence underlying Finland’s and Singapore’s approaches to teacher accountability suggest a need for caution when translating any of their practices to other contexts. As argued in a prior RISE Insight and by other scholars, it would be folly to directly transplant practices without considering the contextual factors that enable the efficacy of these practices.

When I asked interview participants what would happen if, hypothetically, their country adopted the other country’s teacher accountability approach, they were uniformly pessimistic. For example, one Singaporean participant thought that her colleagues would dislike Finland’s lack of structured performance standards:

Singaporean teachers are very typical civil servants, and they like to have their various KPIs [key performance indicators] and know that if they meet them, they might get rewarded. […] So if you let them go just like that, they might feel like, “Why is there no structure? This is so disorganised. Everything is a mess.”

In turn, a Finnish participant said that he appreciated Singapore’s structured approach to identifying teachers’ strengths and weaknesses, but added that:

We are so independent here. And we like that independence in our classrooms so much, that even the bonuses would not make this system a good thing. […] And we are so equal, among teachers. […] We do not want to give others the possibility of rushing higher.

It is also worth noting some operational aspects of these two approaches are fundamentally incompatible. For example, Finland’s and Singapore’s teacher accountability approaches choose opposite points in the trade-offs between how much autonomy teachers have and how many desired outcomes the system can specify (as noted in point #1), and between information availability and monitoring costs (as in point #2).

In short, Finland’s and Singapore’s respective approaches to teacher accountability are internally coherent—but mutually unintelligible. Attempts to directly translate either approach to other contexts may get garbled along the way. Perhaps the broader lesson from Finland’s and Singapore’s teacher accountability approaches is that the “best practice” is not teacher career ladders or removing formal appraisal. Rather, the best practice is ensuring that the elements of teacher accountability are coherent with each other, coherent with the contexts in which they are embedded, and coherent for learning.

 

 

 

 

Yue-Yi Hwa is a Research Fellow for the RISE Programme at the Blavatnik School of Government, focusing on teachers and management. She recently submitted her PhD thesis in education at the University of Cambridge. Her thesis looks at the relationship between teacher accountability policy and sociocultural context across countries, using secondary survey data on education and culture alongside interviews with teachers in Finland and Singapore. Previously, Yue-Yi taught secondary school English for two years through Teach For Malaysia, and was a research fellow for the Penang Institute in Kuala Lumpur. She has also conducted research for the World Bank’s MENA education team. She holds a master’s degree in comparative government from the University of Oxford.

 

RISE blog posts reflect the views of the authors and do not necessarily represent the views of the organisation or our funders.